Whenever I have questions that need to be answered or am looking for new skills, I pack up my little car Beatrice and trundle south on Hwy 1 to Esalen in Big Sur. I find it a sort of one stop shop. Need advice on a career change? Check. Want to learn about medicinal plants? Check. Music, art, or dance? Check. Gestalt? Check. Plus, it has the side benefit of being located in one of my favorite settings in the world, Big Sur, the ragged edge of the world, where the hot springs bubble, the fog plays cat and mouse with the sun, the coastal mountains explode out of the sea to scratch the sky, and hundreds of feet below, the ocean pounds fruitlessly, foaming at the mouth. This week’s workshop was called the Journey and the Journal-on the art of travel writing led by authors Pico Iyer and Janet Fitch. I hoped to meet like-minded people and improve my writing skills.
The very first day, the simple became profound when someone asked Pico and Janet why they travel. Pico mused, “We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” This led me to consider why I travel. Here are some of the reasons why.
I don’t know for sure what happens when we die. No one does. So, as far as I know, we only have one go at this life and I want to carpe diem, to suck the marrow out of life, to smell, explore, touch, and experience as much of it as possible since I might not have another opportunity. I feel very passionately about this.
Second, I, like others in the class, am averse to ruts. I love experiencing new things, even if they aren’t always pleasant. Janet mentioned that, “As a writer, you need to be stimulated, not comfortable. Being comfortable is like wearing soft clothes that make you go to sleep.” I think most people prefer to live like they are wearing soft clothes. I do not. I like wearing soft clothes when it’s bedtime, but other than that, I prefer to be stimulated. I want to know I’m alive, even if it’s a bit scary or hot or difficult, or bitter. If you open a carton of rancid milk and pull back in disgust, I’m the person who wants to smell it too.
And lastly, when you go someplace new, you get to be somebody new. Friends and family see you through their lens and the lens of your past. They’ve already decided who you are, even if it’s false. When you go to another place, you get to reveal who you are to people afresh, without the baggage of the past. You get to be the truest you. On the flip side, Janet made me really stop and consider when she said, “You come with our own baggage, even if your hands are free.” True, true.
A memory bubbled to the surface. I don’t remember where I was, but possibly Nepal. I was walking down a street in a busy city and there was a building being torn down. It was a poor country and there where no machines so it was all being done by hand. A group of men swung sledge hammers, another group of men would dart in and grab the chunks of stone and cement and fling them in a pile, back out-of-the-way. A group of women dressed in long skirts and scarves, took these craggy chunks and loaded them into woven baskets, about hip high. They would heave the baskets and twist their bodies so that the baskets which must have weighed 100 pounds landed on their backs. They then placed the one strap across their foreheads and, bent double, staggered out to the street where a truck was waiting to be loaded with the rubble. I couldn’t believe this was considered women’s work. It looked impossibly physical and must have required brute strength. As I approached, a woman, about my age, twisted out of her basket and dumped its contents. She stood to straighten and noticed me. We locked eyes and froze, staring at one another. I believe we were asking the same questions. “My God. Look at that woman. That’s her life! What would that be like? What if I were her?”
When I returned from my years living in Panama, serving in the Peace Corps, a friend of my parents’ said, “Well. It sure must feel good to get back to the real world.” That still strikes me as so peculiar. The real world? Most people in the world, live like the poor farmers I worked with in the campo in Panama, not like us here in the US. I would guess 95% of the world’s population is like the woman carrying rubble. It would be an impossible dream to be the holder of a U.S. passport, to be able to save enough money to buy a plane ticket. I can forgo a few nice bottles of wine, a dinner here and there, and save enough money to spend a week on retreat pondering life. This is an unimaginable luxury for almost the whole entire world. It will never, ever happen. My life is some sort of grown up version of Disneyland, not the real world.
After a day of sitting and stretching my mind, I needed to stretch my legs. Beatrice and I turned further south in search of a small adventure, perhaps a trail head where I could take a hike and she could park in the shade. When I saw this, I knew it was a sign.
A hike and a quest for Holy Granola? Count me in. I turned off the highway and the little road pitched up. And up. And up. Beatrice whined and then settled into a low growl as we commenced our quest. Two miles up, above the clouds and fog, I found the perfect pull out with a bit of shade for Beatrice and a trail head for me.
I set out on the “Fence Loop” water in hand, dry leaves and gravel crunching underfoot. I climbed and smiled at the quail who reminded me first of circus ponies flying a proud feather on top of their heads, and suddenly the clowns playing the Chinese fire drill routine-twittering, bumping into each other, running this way and that. I reached out and crushed some fennel fronds with my hands as I walked, appreciating the potent scent of black licorice. My left shoulder was hot from the sun and weirdly, my right shoulder, cold from the damp cotton of fog that continuously creeps in and slips back out. I looked up at the sky, squinting and watched an airplane draw a sharp, white line across the sky, precise as an Exacto knife. Aside from the wind moving through the brush, it was silent. Until my guts made an ominous rumble. Spoiler alert. I am digestively challenged. There is an ever-increasing list of foods that bother my stomach. Bread is one of them, but Esalen makes a loaf of homemade sourdough rye that sits, available for the snacking, wrapped in a green cloth napkin, 24 hours a day. My hike was on fast forward. The quest for the Holy Granola (and hopefully a bathroom) suddenly took on a new urgency.
I popped back out onto the road and strode purposefully towards the Hermitage. I passed through the screen door which shut behind me with a bang. It was cool and dark and there was a monk in white robes manning the gift shop. A few patrons browsed quietly through the books. Pleasant harp music played overhead. I found and happily purchased two bags of Holy Granola. My digestive tract gave an audible groan prompting me to sweetly enquire about a restroom open to the public, perhaps? “Oh yes, right over there” the monk said sincerely, gesturing generally to the right. “Oh dear God, please let him mean right over there as in outside right over there and not RIGHT over there like two feet away from where he stands at the cash register” I thought in dismay. Of course it was the latter.
I went in and turned on the faucet for background noise and let out a series of most unholy trumpet blasts. Angel Gabriel this was not. I squeezed my eyes shut, gripped the edge of the toilet and prayed fervently. “Dear God, let it be over!” Alas, there were honks and squeals to follow. I became fearful the monk would think I was being purged of my demons. Impossible for such a tiny woman to make such a noise! My personal symphony concluded I was too mortified to leave. I cracked the door open and peered out with one eye. I waited till an older woman reading a book, moved off a ways then slunk out with my tail between my legs, feeling most unholy, granola or not. Oh gluten-full sourdough rye loaf, you evil temptress.
The next day, fully recovered from my digestive dismay and with hardened resolve to leave the bread alone, we converged for class, pencils and pads or laptops and cords in hand. The beautiful hardwood floor reflected the light from the windows giving us teasing glimpses of the outdoors. Pillows lay scattered about roughly in a circle. We discussed favorite places to travel, what to do about inevitable encounters with poverty, how in Japan, the less written, the more said, and about how certain experiences or emotions are common to us all. “Loss is the deep bass note of life.”
Loss and grief are the price we pay for being human. No one escapes their touch. And yet without the bass note in the orchestra, the music would be lacking in richness and depth. When I met my ex-husband, I shared with him my dream of going on a year-long around the world trip. He shared my enthusiasm and it became our dream. When we married we asked for money for our trip instead of blenders. And yet, we still got two blenders. But, I digress. We saved and planned and dreamed. Nearly ten years from the day I heard there was such a thing as an around the world ticket, leaving my mouth agape in awe and eyes shining in wonder, we set out for Asia. Or rather I set out as Zach seemed to be dragging his feet about actually boarding the plane. It was agreed he would meet me a month later in New Zealand which more suited his interests. It quickly became apparent that Zach did not like traveling. The peripatetic lifestyle did not appeal to him. He was fearful and stressed and unable to see beauty in even such a place as the Alps. As we moved from country to country there were several times when he just couldn’t take it any more and would buy a plane ticket home right then and there. Once home, he would send me angry and threatening emails. “You need to stop this ridiculous behavior at once!” Or, “You need to come home right now and prove to me that you love me more than travelling.” He declared he had changed his mind about what he wanted. He wanted a wife who would be there to make dinner when he came home from work. He wanted babies. He wanted to buy a house and get a dog. Could he hear the tinkling glass as the shards of my heart hit the ground, all those miles away? He was asking me to be somebody else. Somebody I couldn’t be. We both knew that. In hindsight, it seems so obvious. I can’t believe neither of us could see it back then. When Zach was a toddler, his father had abandoned his mother and him to go travel. He never came back. In marrying me, Zach had married his father, in hopes that this time it would turn out different. Of course it didn’t. It never does. In our romantic relationships, we recreate the unresolved parental relationship in hopes of redemption. But this is supposed to be about travel and writing.
More on that soon…