Me, 1999, Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
I was 17-years-old when I went on my first international trip. My mom took me and my sister to Israel. A 16 hour flight around the globe felt like a big deal. I had only been on an airplane twice before that: once to San Francisco, and the other time to San Antonio, Texas. I don’t remember having thoughts or an opinion about travel yet at that age. I just remember being thrilled about having summer plans.
That excitement shriveled like a deflated balloon once we got there. It wasn’t the scenery–that was better than I imagined. Donkeys being used to pick up trash in narrow alleyways in Nazareth. Calls to prayer echoing throughout the ancient city. Fresh bread from neighborhood ovens. Roosters crowing. Cars, church bells, street markets, fresh produce–all of it was the perfect collision between new world and old world.
You would think this ambiance would be enough to satisfy me throughout the trip, but in fact I remember being quite sullen.
First it was the brutal jet lag we had never experienced before, and then it was being dragged around to visit relatives when all we wanted to do was our own thing. It was house after house of relatives who we didn’t know. We were surrounded by language only vaguely familiar to us, sweating profusely in the hot and humid Middle Eastern summer, and all of the smiley-faced people who we were apparently related to pushing too many plates of watermelon on us at every house we visited. Watermelon we were forced to eat, because as our mother informed us, not doing so would have been an insult to our hosts. Nineteen years later, I am still leary of watermelon.
I felt like a caged animal–a hostage to my mother’s schedule. She was doing what she wanted to do. I was being dragged around and forced to comply with things I did not want to do.
I remember my sister and me fell asleep on a relative’s couch while my mom yakked away in Arabic with her cousins. We had been there longer than she promised us. Each visit transpired in this way, stretching way past the time we were told we could leave. Being captive in somebody else’s home. Planted on somebody else’s couch. Listening to a conversation we did not understand. So we fell asleep. In our minds, if our mother was going to make us stay somewhere we didn’t want to be, then we wouldn’t stay awake for it. So we slept, part out of jet lag, part of it out of insolence.
I was annoyed when we were made to hang out with people our age who we didn’t know. I resented being forced to do it.
I was mad when I had to wrap cloth around my legs at a church in Jerusalem, because…you know. Feminism! Apparently other parts of the world did not care about that, which I would learn on that trip. I couldn’t accept that my bare legs (from the knee down, I was already dressed conservatively) would be a source of shame.
I thought the pot of snails that one of our cousins boiled was horrifying.
We had to visit my mom’s crazy aunt. Aunt Victoria would sometimes visit us in the states and stay at our house. I remember she would bring her suitcase filled with random crap, which included useless items like empty Easter eggs. Her hands shook wildly (a family affliction) and when she would hug us it felt like we wouldn’t make it out of the embrace alive. Once she commented on how tasty our pet rabbit would be to eat. After that she definitely couldn’t be trusted. When my mom said we had to visit crazy Aunt Victoria way out in the rural town where my grandfather had been raised, my sister and me protested loudly. How could our mom make us do that? Gross! Even our other relatives said they would never step foot in that house. It was one more way I was convinced my mom was trying to ruin the trip for us.
I didn’t take too well to the customs and traditions and being told what I “should” do. I’ve never operated on those terms.
We did have fun on the trip. It wasn’t all watermelon and snails and being held hostage on a couch.
There was the trip to the Dead Sea, covering our bodies in mud. A foreign film festival in Jerusalem. Staying with relatives we had met before in the states. Eating good food. Staying in my grandmother’s childhood home and trying to picture her as a little girl walking around. Meeting new people. Finding the one person in 1999 who actually had an internet connection for me to check my email.
It’s funny how as a teenager, the unpleasant parts of your experience can wildly color your trip. Define it. Obscure other facts. There were many good moments, but everything that pissed me off became indelible in my mind.
In hindsight it was fortuitous that we got to meet so many relatives during that trip to Israel, especially my grandparents’ siblings, who would all die before my next trip back. My grandmother’s sister, a taller version of her. My grandfather’s brother, who put rubberbands around his hands to control his shaking. My grandfather died when I was in the third grade, so meeting his brother felt like the closest thing to meeting him. It was an amazing opportunity to see the country, to also go to Egypt and walk inside of pyramids, and to do something most of my classmates had never done at the time: get on an airplane and leave the country. It was the beginning of wanderlust I would never shake.
But at the time, I was an insolent teenager brewing over not having control over my schedule. I have never responded well to a lack of choices. I need to be in the driver’s seat. I enjoy deciding when I wake up, go to sleep, where I go, how I spend my time–I’m an active participant in my own life. It’s not my nature to “go with the flow.” I just can’t do it.
I decided after that trip I would see the world. But on my own terms.
In the past 19 years, I’ve traveled with my sister. I’ve gone with friends. I went to 4 countries alone. Later I traveled with a boyfriend, who eventually became my husband, and then we traveled with our children. When he died, I traveled alone with the kids, and later brought Madison along to help. I’ve traveled with my sister-in-law and with my mom (who was not allowed to control the schedule, haha). I’ve traveled for so many years that each trip has had different configurations with the common denominator always being me.
Recently I was driving back to our 6th floor apartment in Melbourne. We had just seen the little penguins at St. Phillip’s Island, a two hour drive each way. Every night the penguins swim back to the shore when the sun goes down and they hustle in small groups in pursuit of their sleeping spots. We had great seats where we watched thousands of the world’s tiniest penguins waddle by, literally a foot away from us. The experience was wild to be able to see the penguins in their natural habitat, in Australia, doing something we couldn’t experience at home in California. I felt lucky. I remember having a sense that I was living my life, seeing new things, doing exactly what I set out to do when I decided to travel as a 17-year-old.
The kids were asleep in the backseat of my rental car and I concentrated on the dark road back to Melbourne, still trying to get used to driving on the the right-side. Madison, my 19-year-old travel assistant/buddy, navigated alongside the spotty GPS system. We drank our McDonald’s coffees and talked.
It struck me that I was the oldest person in the group. After years of mostly being the youngest, I was finally the oldest. It didn’t seem possible. And yet there I was, driving through Australian countryside, doing the adulting, being the most seasoned traveler in the group, and most definitely not the youngest in the car.
How odd it feels when time slips by, tricking you with the illusion of slowness during your youth when the days and weeks seem to crawl by, until suddenly decades have passed, and there you are. In a place you thought would never come. Wondering how it happened so fast.
Part of you wants to rewind and go back to the glory days of being young, when you could fall asleep in the car and your parents would carry you to bed. But then there’s that side of you that feels like you’ve climbed up a steep and treacherous mountain with hard-earned survival skills, and you feel safe there. You deserve to stay there, at the summit of your accomplishments, because it was your blood, sweat, and tears that got you there. In a way it feels safer than how you felt when you were young and unsure about your place in the world. You chose to be there, at the top, with views of the valleys that you traversed below. The risks you chose to take to get there. That choice is power.
Traveling as a young adult was often stressful times. Budgets were limited. There was a lot of second-guessing. Many blunders. Disgusting hostels. Missed opportunities. Taking the cheap way. Overlooking an experience. Avoiding the uncomfortable at the expense of new discovery. Not taking enough risks. I’m a natural fretter, so I worried a lot about details. When I started traveling there was no Google Maps. No data on my phone. Just old fashion books and paper maps and internet cafes.
Traveling isn’t stressful for me anymore. I’ve done it so much that I can now do it on autopilot, even with three kids. I know what works and what doesn’t work. I know what to avoid. I know how to find deals and how I like to travel. Traveling has become second nature to me. I didn’t have that as a young traveler.
The kids, Madison, and me drove down the Great Ocean Road while we were in Melbourne. We stopped to eat in Lorne. It was a sunny day and we ate a leisurely lunch and watched the cockatoos, a novelty to people from Southern California where there are only ugly pigeons and sparrows. The cockatoos were perched in trees nearby and visibly calculating their chances of stealing our food. Next to us was an older man, bespectacled and balding, reading a newspaper with a sandwich in one hand, which he occasionally put down to sip from his small coffee. I admired the lack of urgency in his routine and the way he appeared to be eating and drinking and reading exactly what he wanted, in the exact place he wanted to be. It seemed as comfortable as sitting in a living room recliner with your slippers on. That’s what doing what you want feels like.
I had a thought in that moment. I realized that if you aren’t enjoying yourself in life–if you aren’t having fun–then you haven’t done the work to get there. This is something we learn with age and experience. When I was younger, so much of life felt out of my hands. Experiences felt tied to coincidence. External factors had more control over me. I felt powerless.
It took time to realize that I could assert my power. Only we can control whether or not we are having a bad time.
In youth, it is easy to get bogged down by your negative feelings. Fears. It is common for the weight of a world we do not yet understand to drag us down, hinder us, and make us believe that somehow we are doing it wrong.
We forget to notice the things we can control.
Age helps, but I know many people older than me who haven’t figured it out.
I think experience is more important. There are people who let the current of time push them along without attempting to take control. You can get older without accumulating diverse experiences. You need to get out there and not expect an invisible hand to create the excitement for you. Putting yourself out there requires taking risks and allowing yourself to make mistakes. And try again. And again. And again and again and again. You live and grow through trial and error. You gain exposure to new things. This is how we learn to listen to ourselves and understand what we like and do not like. We stop trying to force ourselves into an existence that does not feel true to who we are. We begin to live on our own terms with a deep understanding of what the world has to offer.
In theory this is what we figure out with age.
The question is: do we listen? Do we remember? Do we follow what we know to be true?
Do we take control over our lives?
If we aren’t happy with something, we need to remember that we can do something about it. We can battle the uncontrollable with our attitude and perspective. We can make choices within our control. We don’t have to live a helpless existence, and we don’t have to stay in a bubble.
It’s raining in Sydney today. Not ideal, but we’re going to ride trains and buses around to explore neighborhoods and maybe pop into a museum.
If it’s raining tomorrow, we’ll figure it out. We’ll get rained on. That would be okay too, because we came here to see new things. And new things we’ll see, no matter what the forecast is.
It won’t be a good or bad thing. It will be us making the most out of what we have to work with and still choosing to enjoy ourselves.
That is what I’ve learned is the building block of happiness: making the most out of what I have to work with. Letting the rest go.
Traveling has taught me so many of these lessons.