Long ago, on a cruise that delivered me to a remote atoll somewhere in the South Pacific, I stumbled upon a group of fishermen. None spoke English. Several spoke French, and - though my French is rickety - I was eager to converse with locals. Eventually, the subject of our conversation shifted to my travels and my joy in discovering new people and places.
"Have you traveled?" I asked one of the fishermen.
"No," he replied, smiling as he surveyed his quintessential South Pacific paradise of a home, "What for?" Having found contentment at home, he knew no reason to roam.
When I ask friends why they travel, they rattle off familiar rationales and agendas: "I just like to hit the road and see what happens"; "I can't wait to shop"; "All I want to do is kick back and relax"; "I hear the ruins there are magnificent." Whether journeys are perceived as cultural or commercial, educational or entertaining, made up of days on the run or days to rest, the trip invariably teaches us about who we are, what we believe, and what we enjoy.
Travel is as much about who we are as it is about where we are. Once there, we cannot help observing ourselves as we're observed by others. In Nairobi's City Market, for instance, I was drawn to a young teenager whose incandescent smile competed for attention with the gorgeous fresh-cut flowers she was selling. She was eager to test her commendable English, and we found ourselves talking, in turn, about California ("You know Hollywood?" she exploded with disbelief), the local cuisine, and the gracefulness of Kenya's giraffes.
Then it was time for me to go, and I extended my hand in friendship and farewell. She then picked two red roses from her stock and placed them in my hand. It was a gesture both touching and tender. I reached into my knapsack and handed her a current paperback bestseller I'd recently finished.
"Practice your English," I smiled. This simple exchange lingers.
Travel is theater: It invites us to extend our boundaries and "play" new roles. Is that you singing fado, tasting eel, donning a caftan, riding a donkey, boarding a helicopter, eyeing a kilt?
At home, you probably adhere to a set routine centered on family, home, and work. Yet, once upon a time in Marrakech, you followed a guide you'd scarcely known for 10 minutes through a labyrinth of alleyways, in a dark souk, where you hoped to find the carpet of your dreams.
In Australia's Great Barrier Reef, an energetic Aussie (is there any other kind?) once convinced me that snorkeling in this ethereal liquid wonderland was "a must." A skittish diver, I donned the snorkeling gear, submerged, and followed my guide. Behold - I proceeded to "meet" coral. A giant green wrasse swam alongside me, a self-appointed tour guide, while a band of trumpetfish preened as if to toot their own horns. Magical. Also memorable.
Some countries connect with us while others may not; our personalities inform each journey. For me, Egypt was mystical, romantic, often chaotic, vibrant, spiritual, dramatic, and enduring. Years after my last visit, I still vividly recall camel rides around the sphinx, bargaining at the Khan-al-Khalili bazaar, walking - with wonderment - through the Temple of Luxor, taking tea with a charming jeweler who cajoled me into buying a cartouche, and sailing down the Nile - a river whose vista still manages to masquerade as timeless.
Travel involves a degree of uncertainty and challenge. Newspaper headlines may tell of terrorist threats. Airport security, a given for contemporary travel, may signal necessary searches and inevitable long lines. We then venture into lands perhaps best known for aggressiveness - in terms of both their merchants and the seasoning of its food - as well as questionable drinking water, spontaneous labor strikes (likely to jostle travel plans), and weather that vacillates between sultry and subarctic. And did I mention we may have packed all the wrong clothes and forgotten trusted toiletries? Travel, if we allow it, can help us overcome squeamishness and shyness; travel may reshape our standards and realign priorities. Travel surprises.
A gregarious innkeeper in Mexico once filled me with rich sagas of her Mayan ancestors, helping me to forget that the inn's air conditioning was mechanically challenged. Our tour guide in Sicily was given to questionable statistical hyperbole, yet his anecdotal history lessons (and restaurant recommendations) were flawless.
Ultimately, travel encourages us to include the world - replete with turmoil or terrorism, conflicts and celebrations - in our thinking. Bali, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Jerusalem resonate not only with past and present events, but also in the memory of personal visits. We know them. We remember.
This millennium will doubtless offer its share of travel temptations. Who knows? You might rocket to Mars or relax in Moorea. Wherever we go, we will probably return with lighter wallets and heavier photo albums.
If we are willing to learn it, one of travel's major lessons may well be that the world is smaller than we imagined - and some hearts may be larger.