I have been traveling since the week of Thanksgiving.
I should re-write that, because I haven't been "traveling" the way that long-haired, beautiful, bohemian people who wear waterproof pants and straw hats mean it. Yesterday I went to my local bike shop, and the owner said, "It's been a long time since I've seen you! Where have you been?" I said, "Oh, traveling." He said, "Where have you been traveling?" I said, "Oh, you know, Belize, Greece. Places like that."
It is true that I went to Belize for Thanksgiving. I was supposed to go for ten days and I went for four because I misplaced my passport and missed the jungle-y, monkeys-and-toucans part of the journey. So, four days basically lounging in paradise and watching dolphins. It is true that I went to Greece shortly thereafter. That time I made it for all ten of the days, but spent the majority of the time I was there in my parents' well-heated college apartment, re-reading Carson McCullers books.
I'm ashamed of this. This year I was supposed to have adventures and write about them. I was not supposed to come within inches of adventures and then crawl into bed with all my clothes still on to watch the first season of The Mindy Project nine times in a row.
The rest of my "travel," for the sake of transparency, consisted a two-week stint in Portland visiting my family for the holidays (this meant waking up at 10 a.m., eating lots and lots of bread, and sometimes going to comic book shops), and four days in Memphis to see my friend Alex (this meant waking up at 10 a.m., drinking lots and lots of beer, and trying to understand football).
Two years ago, I met this man, whom I will call J (because he's kind of a private man). J turned up in my kitchen one day in January, an old friend of my roommate's. He had a wise smile that made you kind of feel like you were meeting The Buddha. Obviously, I immediately fell in love with him.
It was good for me to fall in love with J, because I was two months out of my most serious romantic relationship which had ended in an emotional-spaceship explosion. I had spent those two months never leaving the house, banging my forehead against the kitchen table, getting repeatedly drunk alone, and saying, "NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME EVER AGAIN." As we all know (because we've all tried it), this is a surprisingly ineffective tactic if you ever want to get laid. Luckily, J met me on a comparably good day, and so I somehow convinced him to be interested back.
Within a few weeks, J revealed himself to me to be the kind of bohemian traveler I had always imagined but hadn't previously been able to visualize. He had been to more countries than I can remember. Sometimes, lying in bed, he'd show me pictures he'd taken in Africa or South America: there were monkeys and cliff sides and beautiful women. J was staying at his uncle's bungalow in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. It seemed like his whole life fit in a backpack: four shirts, a pair of shorts that you could swim in, the kind of sturdy pants that hunky construction workers wear, a sack of red quinoa, a book from an ex-girlfriend. Once, we went to go get tacos, and J described what it was like to be completely immersed in someone else's culture. He made it sound gorgeous and far-away; it was the first time I thought I might ever want to travel.
I think I know that I'm making J sound like a caricature of a certain kind of person -- you know: the pretentious, anglo-centric, exploitative type -- but he wasn't. He was this genuinely curious, quiet, charismatic person who magnetized everyone he met. He had this incredible ability to be present with people -- he was the sort of guy who could walk into a coffee shop and within an hour, without trying, would have the owner of the coffee shop offering him a job there. Effectively, he was a great traveler. There was nowhere he didn't seem to fit.
I will never be this kind of person. That is maybe the primary thing I learned over the last two months. While "traveling," I felt uprooted and lonely. The experiences were too many and too variant to write about. More than that, I thought I would sound stupid, and I knew I would get the story wrong.
There are only a handful of people on this earth who can hop on an airplane and live an entirely different life for a few days. Those of us that can look into other peoples' lives -- people who will never get on airplanes at all -- and make great assumptions about them. "Oh, this entire nationality of people is SO NICE. The people of ---- are uniquely wonderful and kind and industrious." We'd never say that about our own people; the one world we recognize to be necessarily complex and indescribable.
J was good at traveling because he did not draw conclusions. In talking about his travels, he spoke about the single individuals he met, the specific meals he ate, and the moments as they passed. There was no, "Everyone in this place is this way; everything about this city stacks up just so; here is what you need to know about ---." This is a gift J has that I do not.
In March of the year I met J, he moved away. Of course he did! He could live out of a backpack.
I banged my head on the kitchen table again, and cried. To fall in love with someone means to let go of your control. It means knowing that you are going to get hurt, and deciding that the warm tide of The Good Part is worth it.
Traveling can be like that, too. You don't get to sleep in your bed; you don't cook; you are not familiar with the roads. I got a little lost inside myself when I let go of the reigns, and I wish I had done better. I wish I had written a novel or at least taken pictures. But instead, I learned how hard it is for me to let go.
But here's the thing about falling in love: with practice, you learn how to weather the heartbreak better every time. You get back on your feet faster, and you've got a new experience to work with.
Maybe next time I spend two months traveling, I will be better at enjoying my meals. Maybe I'll be a little more present. Maybe I'll be able to write about Just A Day, and not need to explain The Meaning of Life.
For now: I'm home.