"This mountain has to end sometime," sighs my friend Karen in frustration as we stop to rest on our climb of Mount Ulia near San Sebastián, Spain. Every time we think we have reached the 780-foot peak and are on our way down, we encounter another steep climb. We follow the jagged, high-cliff path along the coastline and the scenery is spectacular. The Bay of Biscay stretches into the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye can see, and we are at flight level with the sea gulls. As we eventually reach the peak, we gaze in awe at the expansive view of the sea. We imagine a time long ago when spotters watched for migratory whales passing off the Basque coast and would send fire signals to let the whalers know whales were spotted. Later, this peak became a military stronghold with hidden corridors and military facilities, ever ready to warn of an attack from the sea. We continue our hike on the rugged path, now mostly downhill, crossing gentle streams and entering a lush forest where giant hydrangeas and ferns have found a home. We discover medieval aqueducts that once supplied fresh water to San Sebastián, now crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the forest. After we make the final descent on steep, eroded steps, we reward ourselves with lunch at a dockside restaurant in a quaint, one-street fishing village. Why do I travel? To endure and overcome obstacles, knowing that it may be a steep climb but to keep climbing, always mindful of how far I've come. (July 2019)
"Keep 'er between the ditches," cautions Paul to a fellow driver as they part at the end of a friendly conversation. Paul Daly is our Irish driver, guide, and friend for two weeks as we traverse the villages and back roads of mystical Ireland. We are entertained daily by the quantity of his charming Irish expressions, but this is one of my favorites. My mind immediately conjures up the literal meaning -- avoid the ditches off the sides and keep your vehicle safely on the road; but also the metaphoric meaning -- avoid temptations, focus on the righteous path, don't stray.
"If we say it, then we're doing it," my friend Diana proclaims at lunch one day in the teachers' staff room. We have been talking about walking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, since our trip to Spain two years earlier. Now we are retiring after almost 30 years of teaching together. We agree that walking 100 miles of an ancient pilgrimage road in Spain is the perfect way to reflect on our lives as we celebrate our accomplishments. We begin planning. We set September dates, make flight reservations, set a 12 to 15-mile per day goal, make reservations at country cottages, and arrange for luggage transfers to each destination. We are excited and proud as we let family and friends know about our adventure. They are all duly impressed. We prepare by walking long distances in our hometown with backpacks and walking sticks. However, as we get closer to the date, we both become more and more apprehensive. It seemed like such a great idea six months earlier when we were ensconced in our daily routines. "What have we gotten ourselves into?" we ask each other. "Do we really want to do this?" The answer is "No." But if we cancel, we fail before we even start, and worse, we'd have to tell our friends and family. Our friends plan a going away party for us at a local restaurant to cheer us on. There's no staying home now.
"It's all theater!" Mario dramatically proclaims as he expertly guides us through the magnificence of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. The grandeur of the art and architecture is truly breathtaking, leaving one to wonder why this extravagant spectacle was created. To use Mario's analogy, the Vatican of the Renaissance was the stage. All the symbols, poetry, art, and architecture of the age were used to awe the audience with the glory of their papal patron in exorbitant pageantry. Centuries earlier, the emperors of the far-flung Roman Empire perfected this "pageantry of power" in order to awe, subdue, and unite its citizens. Spectacular theatrical displays exhorted the expansion and celebration of Roman power and achievement to spectators throughout the Empire. The Church continued this Roman concept of "rule by pageant" with sumptuous regal displays: gold embroidered white robes and papal crowns, a throne carried shoulder high with a dozen bearers, a golden ring kissed by lesser mortals on bended knee, elaborate rituals combining elements of ancient Roman paganism and medieval Christianity. It is, after all, theater. Why do I travel? To better understand the connection between past and present, and to marvel at the incredible theater of human accomplishment. (April 2011)
"Are you alone?" I'm walking up the stairs to the second floor of the National Museum in Nairobi. The young Kenyan girl is the second in her school group to ask me this question. "Yes," I answer suspiciously, wondering why she wants to know. She proclaims that she will keep me company. I am alone In Kenya having arrived a day earlier than my friends. For me, to be alone by choice is a luxury, but for a Kenyan, I soon learn, visitors traveling alone are viewed with compassion and every attempt should be made to befriend them.
"No more monkeys, Daddy, no more monkeys!" Our naturalist guide, Marco, quotes his children when asked if he takes them on nature walks through the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, near their family home. As we trek through the misty forest, we spot white-faced monkeys, poisonous coral snakes, fragile butterflies, and an astonishing number of birds, all which Marco can name and call. We are hypnotized by small ants carrying 20 times their weight in leaves to the "city" they have built on the cloud forest floor. We are in awe of the cascade of orchids, epiphytes, mosses, ferns, and brilliantly colored flowers at every turn. The monkeys catch our attention as they jump from tree to tree high above us. Their chatter becomes louder and more frequent. Suddenly, pieces of bark and other "matter" rain down. The monkeys are purposely throwing things at us! They want us to leave. Maybe this is what Marco's children mean when they say, "No more monkeys!" But we are fascinated and reluctant to leave. Why do I travel? To see the diverse forest through the eyes of those who live there. (March 2008)
"Everytime I see this, I get emotional," the elderly woman says as she grabs my arm, only to look up, with tears in her eyes, and not see the face she expected. In a dark room in the National Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, watching a large-screen vision of Martin Luther King's speech to the nation, I am a lone white person among a large group of African Americans. After a brief moment of uncertainty and loosening her hold, she sees the empathy in my eyes and regrasps my arm. We speak quietly. She, a retired Black teacher from Birmingham who had been a participant in history, and me, a White teacher from the suburbs of California who had come of age in the 60's, connect for a brief time in this very human experience. At that moment, we both understand Dr. King's message that undeserved suffering may not be fair, but it can be redemptive. Why do I travel? To gain a better understanding of the history and experiences that shape the different cultures in our own country. (July 2007)
"No es seguro aqui. Le esperaré," states the Guatemalan taxi driver as he drops me off in the center of Guatemala City. "This is my last day in Guatemala and I want to spend the afternoon visiting the historic sights," I reply in Spanish. "I will be safe. You don't need to wait for me." He insists on returning in two hours to our drop-off spot and he does. I want to explore the old colonial center of Guatemala City: the Cathedral, the Palace, the Eternal Flame, and the engraved names of the "Disappeared", those lost during Guatemala's 30-year civil war. I am sad to find the "Eternal" Flame in front of the Palace is extinguished and the plaque nearby honoring the "Heroes of Peace" is covered with feces. But I find the stones surrounding the Cathedral with the names of thousands of the Disappeared engraved on clean, white marble. Why do I travel? To honor the memories of heroes and innocents.. (July 2004)
"¡Esos no son mis hijos!!" the Guatemalan mother calls out to me grinning widely. While relaxing in the central plaza of a small, peaceful village in Guatemala, I admire a mother and her four young children. They are doing the family laundry in the open-air pila, a communal wash basin at the edge of the plaza, laughing and chatting among themselves as they work. I very much want to take their picture, but approach cautiously. Speaking Spanish haltingly, I first compliment the mother on her beautiful and helpful children. Then I ask if I can take a picture of them with my camera. The mother smiles and asks her children. The four eagerly agree . . . for a price. They name their fee, and as I am getting the money out of my bag, four children surround me with hands outstretched. I proceed to pay them. Immediately, I hear a commotion from the pila. Looking up, I see four squealing children and their grinning mother yelling, "Those are not my children!" At this, the other children run away laughing with money in hand. But a deal is a deal, so I pay the young entrepreneurs to pose for my photo as I join in their laughter. As I part, I hear the mother and her children still laughing and chatting among themselves as they resume their work, now with something new to laugh and talk about...me! Why do I travel? To share laughter and good humor with others wherever I am in the world. (July 2004)
"Would you like to join us?" the couple asks me, after I walk past them a second time on a warm summer evening on the patio of an Italian country villa. Staying at an agriturismo, a working vineyard near Assisi, I am wide awake and absorbing every detail of the beautiful countryside of Umbria. Observing the couple playing a board game together, I want to talk to them, but I am hesitant to speak having no idea of their nationality. But my new friends, who are Dutch and know at least three languages, speak to me in English as they watch me walk by once again. Somehow they know I am an American. We begin a conversation that will last for many years. For the next three evenings, we meet at the same time and place and enjoy each other's company immensely. When we part, we agree to keep in touch and we do. Over the years, we have traveled to each other's homes and met each other's families. Why do I travel? To share conversation, perspectives, and lives with friends from another country. (June 2003)
"Everyone must remain in their seats. If anyone gets up, we will divert the aircraft to another airport." The voice of the American Airlines pilot comes over the loudspeaker as we approach Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. A profound silence settles over all the passengers as everyone remembers . . . For a brief moment, I see what they saw and imagine what they must have felt. We fly over the Potomac and in the distance, is the Capitol, standing tall and bright as the dome reflects the afternoon sun. Why do I travel? To better understand events, past and present, and what effect we are are having on the future of the world. (July 2002)
"Do you have any news from home?" We ask this question as we sit on the hillside terrace of a small inn above a fishing village in southern Portugal. While my friend and I relax on the terrace overlooking the vast blue-green sea, more weary American travelers arrive and we invite them to share our snack of bread, meat, cheese, and wine. Having arrived early in the day, we are the unofficial greeters. Each new guest, upon hearing American voices, asks the same question, "Do you have any news from home?" We are all strangers, but not. We come from California, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, and New York, but we share the same "home". We have all been traveling the back roads and grand cities of Europe for many weeks and on this day, by coincidence (or providence), only Americans have booked rooms in this house converted to a hotel. Or, is it now a hotel converted to our house?
"The flight to Manta is cancelled. The next flight is in two days," the Spanish speaking voice announces rapidly over the intercom. Sitting in the small airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, my friend and I look at each other with the same "Oh, no, what do we do now?" expression. Our flight from the United States had gone so smoothly, but now we are in Ecuador. Suppressing panic, we retrieve our eight large suitcases from behind the ticket counter and recruit a young man to help us get to the bus station so we can continue our journey. With the aid of our companion, we successfully navigate the chaos of a third world bus terminal, significantly larger and more crowded than the airport. After riding for hours on a local bus, we arrive at our destination and are met by our friends. Why do I travel? To deliver medical and school supplies to a remote, impoverished village in Ecuador. (July 1999)