I’ve been abroad for more than a year now, and in that time I’ve seen and done amazing things, things even my dreams would have fallen short of. In some ways the world is not so very different, regardless of which square foot of space you are regarding it from. We get up in the morning, we find a way to make money, we feed ourselves. Hopefully, we laugh and love and revel in the midst of doing what’s necessary (though these things are necessary also). But there are lessons to be learned by leaving one’s home and the people that give that word meaning. Travel is the most effective teacher I’ve ever known. It is both the ruler rapping knuckles and the reward of having your good work acknowledged as such. It is being named Prom Queen and getting your period without knowing it in P.E. I have learned many things in the last year — of the strength of bonds between people, of the importance of openness and tolerance, of fear, of how following dirt roads in the dark of night sometimes leads to paradise, and of the power of that moment in which your whole being is screaming at you, fight or flight!?, and you choose to fight, thus learning simultaneously the extent of your vulnerability and the transcendence of your strength. But just as in the macrocosm that is life, in the microcosm of travel the lesson is never ending.
People who know me see many things. I like to think that what they see is generally positive, but I am not so near-sighted that I could even for a moment convince myself that that is all they see. More than once, people who I wouldn’t have thought knew me very well have said something to me that shows just how useless it is to try to hide our weaknesses. It is not an insult, not a criticism, this thing they say, but rather an observation, and it is one I know to be true: I keep people at a distance.
I consider myself an open person. I try my hardest not to judge people on their beliefs (though I will judge them by their actions); at the very least I try to understand before I allow myself to form a judgment. But I spent so long as a child and a young adult hardening myself that it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that now, at 27, there aren’t a labyrinth’s worth of road-blocks, dead ends, and trapdoors I have erected on the path that leads to my heart. In some ways I am the story of Jason and the Minotaur flipped on its head. I, or at least the truest, most open part of me, has for years stood in the middle, trembling at the sound of cloven hooves on stone.
When I set off for South America last year, I made goals for myself, some of which are evident in my first post on this blog. But there was one that I did not write about, because it was evidence of what I see as my biggest weakness. The goal was simply this, to consciously and lovingly attempt to knock down the self-created barriers to my heart, from the inside out. The patriarchy tells women that the right man will make them whole, will heal their hurts. This is beautiful and saccharine-sweet, but it is a lie. If anything, the right person or people might be able to create a detour and circumvent our barriers, but this does not assuage our fears or heal our wounds. Only we can do that. And so I set out into the world in order to find my vulnerability.
I think I did, but I think it’s true name is strength.
I found physical vulnerability in my trek to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia as well as in the attempted muggings in Bogotá (for some of that harrowing tale, click here). In these cases, I looked within myself and found strength I didn’t know I had. But it wasn’t only physical strength that helped me overcome these two very different challenges. I have a wonderful, capable body, but behind that is a level of determination, of will, that is more beautiful, and more lasting, than even my physical self.
In the end (and I am far from the end, but at least up until this point), it was this same determination, that same iron will, which allowed me to begin to be emotionally vulnerable as well. With my head on my lover’s chest, I whispered him a poem I had memorized, which like a needle served to pierce the marble veneer encasing my heart, allowing him to see me in a slightly deeper sense. Even with an end date already near at the beginning, I allowed myself to feel, to be emotionally challenged, to have layers of protection and heart-padding stripped away, until I stood before him, more clearly myself than I have virtually ever been. I have a long way to go, and I know that I will never wear my heart on my sleeve (as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I like people and I like them to like me, but I wear my heart where God put it, on the inside.”) but for me, this is a major accomplishment, one which would have been nigh on impossible without the already heightened level of vulnerability that travel, but especially solo travel, brings.
Even with this achievement, however, the lessons that travel, that living abroad has planned for me are without end. Living, traveling, experiencing… it is all wonderful, the good and the bad. Sometimes we try to hold on to the good so tightly that we fail to see that it withers and becomes wraith-like in our embrace. As a traveler, you constantly meet new people. You find best friends from countries you’ve never been to, guides in unexpected places, and, with a little luck and a lot of openness, even love. Sometimes these things have infinitesimal lives within our own incredibly brief lives, a candlelight compared to a roaring bonfire. (“…It cannot last the night/ but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/ it gives a lovely light.”) To travel is to acknowledge that everything is fleeting. You say goodbye, sometimes promising to meet again, but most likely you never will (although of course there are many exceptions). This brings me to my latest travel lesson…
If you are a successful traveler, you will not only learn to make room in your heart for new people, places, and experiences, unthinkingly filing them into the amaranthine vaults of memory, but you will also learn one of the hardest lessons of all… that in order to keep those good things beautiful and free (while always maintaining in your heart the possibility that one day they will come once again into your life), you must be able to let them go.