Travel Confessions

“People pack their bags and leave their brains at home.”  So says my mother referring to anyone who leaves the house for more than a day.  Walk into an airport, direct your attention to the travelers swirling around and see the veracity of mom’s words.  When we travel, and this includes you, we do peculiar things.

We step off moving walkways then abruptly stop to make an adjustment or confer with someone.  We have no sense of the chaos we just created.  Behind us, people collide with one another as the walkway continues to advance and our bodies block the narrow exit.   We leave passports in bathrooms and electronic components at home.  We behave as if we are the only ones trying to get somewhere.  We treat those most interested in getting us to our destination as if words are of no consequence.  We walk rapidly on slippery floors making changes to investment portfolios, providing last-minute and unwanted advice to work colleagues, all while managing travel documents and the need to pee.  Some adventurous types do all this while also herding children and strollers.  I personally stay far away from these types because Cheerios make the flooring all the more treacherous.

I have had occasion to travel (by some standards an extensive amount and by other standards a paltry amount) and not only is mom right … there are no exceptions to the rule.   What differentiates one traveler from another is how the lack of a brain will eventually manifest in one’s actions.  Are you the loud talker on the phone or skyping with your new lover under the mistaken belief you are holding a private conversation?  Are you doing “Crazy Ivans” (see Red October) and confusing those in your wake while seeking your terminal?  Or are you part of a group meandering four abreast towards your terminal blocking the way for others to pass?  I don’t care how experienced you think you are, when you travel you will inevitably prove you have forgotten your brain at home and aggravate others.

The good news is that our brains eventually catch up to our bodies.   As to my own failings while on the go, there are many.  I will share a select few in hopes of encouraging you to pack your bags and go somewhere.  Traveling is important because it serves another great truth:  this world will become a whole lot better as more of us get to know it better.

I typically pack too many socks and not enough shirts.  I can find “Arrivals”, but not “Departures” on most airport directional signage.  “It’s bigger than ‘Arrivals” Catherine!”, my mother once yelled in frustration as we drove to an airport.  I often fail to plan buffer time for transit time through customs.  I don’t research entry requirements before leaving my home country.  It is a rare occurrence for me to contemplate possible changes in electrical outlet configurations.   I may act as if I can but I can’t read my vaccination card.  Time changes confuse me, as do currency conversions and finding communication solutions while traveling internationally.  With respect to keeping in touch, my preferred solution is to inform family and friends, “They don’t have Internet or phone service there.”

People think I am a good traveler but the truth is that I work with an organization that specializes in efficiently moving people.   Doctors Without Borders has an entire staff devoted to arranging visas, travel itineraries and airport pickups and drop-offs.   They ensure that wherever I go, a logistician is in place who knows how to keep my iPod charged and exercise ball fully inflated.  If you do not have the luxury of traveling with such an organization, then do what I do when traveling without a net:  I only travel with people who are smarter than I am.

My knowledge of geography is really quite bad.  I was sixteen before it dawned on me that Washington D.C. and the State of Washington are two separate places.  We really should be more specific on this point in our educational system.  I share this not because it puffs up my ego but rather to say, “Don’t worry about where you might be in the world, your family will explain it to you later.  Do however pay attention to those around you.”

I was once on a plane that had a scheduled stop no one had told me about.  When the plane landed I happily thought, “Well that wasn’t nearly as long as I thought it would be.”  As I stood up to gather my things, my seatmate asked, “What do you do in Lubumbashi?”  I paused before asking, “What country is that in?”  He waved his hand at the window he was sitting next to and said, “The DRC.”  I leaned over to look and saw that armed guards had circled the plane.  “Where are you going?” I asked.   “Nairobi” he said with a knowing smile on his face.  “I think I’ll follow you there.” I said.  Then sat down and went back to sleep.

I could go on and on but in the interest of my ego and your time, I would much rather conclude with just a few words of hard-earned wisdom.  Like many, I too deeply mourn for the lost age when travel was fun.  I recall a particularly fun flight in the era when detectors did not sound the alarm when carry-on luggage contained a bottle of gin and a baggie of limes.  Woefully, those days are long gone but fear not, for fun can still be found while traveling if you can do the following:

Travel with the ability to be flexible and a great sense of humor.   Nothing will go according to plan and know that this alone does not signify the end of the world.  It is merely an opportunity to learn more about the human race.

Befriend customer-weary airport personnel.  It costs you nothing to be kind and they might be kind right back.

Create space for magic.    Magic transpires when you let go of what you think should happen.  When you invite others in, open your heart, and trust your instincts.

And, for those moments when you just can’t find the fun, take some deep breaths, then lose yourself in a good book.

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