In my teens and 20s, I jumped on a few personal and educational opportunities to travel to places I couldn't afford to just go and visit as a tourist. I wondered what it would be like to book vacations at international resorts like the rich kids at my private high school and college, but now, looking back, I'm grateful that I didn't have the means to treat the world like a safari or a theme park. I couldn't be a tourist, so I went places as a student or an invited guest. Now I appreciate that I was able to access deep, rich, immersive experiences that I had to pay for with pride, innocence, and comfort rather than a lot of money. My travels weren't consistently pleasant or fun or easy, but they were meaningful. Visceral challenges mixed with ecstatic thrills to make me feel more alive and human than I ever had before. They changed me, made me grow, and infused my memories with a store of what Till Lindemann calls "travel preserves."
Till likes to go on survivalist camping expeditions through harsh environments such as the Amazon and the Yukon (some of his adventures in both locations now featured in National Geographic photo books), where it's not so much about relaxing as challenging oneself in the most extreme ways. Till can afford to do mountains of coke on yachts, but his favorite vacations consist of throwing himself at the mercy of the world's most brutal wilderness areas. Why go on a trip that doesn't allow you to party or even relax? He explains,
It's hard to describe why you travel. You don't realize it until you're back home again, where you can profit from the memories for a long time. You've got a kind of inner store. When things aren't going well, you just go inside and get a glass of travel preserves for your soul, open it and fill up on it.
In 2020, I am treasuring my own stash of international adventure preserves, both for the delicious escape from my time and place and also for the reminder of hardships that made me stronger. That heady mix has killed any interest I once had in traditional tourism.
Before the pandemic, global badass Greta Thunberg had already begun such a successful campaign of flight-shaming that European air travel decreased significantly, and air pollution went down. While I understand that the ethics of travel are complex, and that there are economies that rely upon eco-tourism, I believe that in general, tourism is a vain, wasteful, vapid, colonialist system of exploitation, and if you're just doing it for Insta, you can easily paste your two-dimensional fake image having a fake experience on a fake background anyway.
I say, if you have a true yearning to travel the world, go big or stay home.
Go where you've been invited by a person who lives there, and let them welcome and host you however they will. Or go where the landscape sings to your soul in a way you can neither understand nor deny, and then let it consume you. Open all of your sensory and spiritual jars, and accept whatever it wants to give you, trusting in the transformative processes of time to reveal the fullness of these gifts in your distant future. Or migrate like a wild goose, instinctually and staying in your part of the line. Learn to receive the unpredictable and challenging gifts and hospitality rather than customer service that protects you from learning anything real. Spend a long time falling in love with one setting rather than collecting passport stamps to places you've barely met. Live so fully in the moment that you forget who you are or why you are there and you have to figure it out as you go and keep figuring it out long after you return. Trade a piece of your soul in every destination for a piece of itself to plant in your skin, heart, and bones.
Beware: A part of you will stay homesick for the rest of your life, for everywhere you have ever loved and been loved. But it's worth it.
The first time I left the United States (except to cross the border into Canada), I was eighteen and had just graduated high school with an award for achievement in Spanish language class. That didn't mean I was fluent in Spanish; it meant I had worked hard at learning grammatical rules and that I could read in Spanish pretty well. I could understand roughly 50% of naturally spoken Spanish, and I could only occasionally think of how to say something out loud in time to contribute to a conversation. Even then, I would often screw it up by speaking a complete sentence with perfect grammar, in a decent accent, but using one wrong word that would change the entire meaning of what I had said (for example, mixing up yet/already or last night/tonight) and derail the conversation with comical confusion.
It was embarrassing. And yet. I wanted to learn so badly. I met my friend Esperanza in an art class at the end of sophomore year, and we bonded over our shared interests in painting and punk rock. I didn't notice this at the time, but she was also among a small group of ambivalent Catholics that I gravitated toward when I switched from a Catholic to a public school--kids I felt a kinship with even before I knew that they had been raised Catholic. I still don't know exactly what I might have been picking up on, but it's a pattern I realized later.
Something that also intrigued me about Esperanza was her Mexican family culture, which was new and exciting to me and made me feel that the more I got to know her and her family, the more my world expanded. I had rebelled against the very white supremacist Catholic community I was raised in--in part by refusing to continue at my weird-bubble private school--and Esperanza and the other first-generation and immigrant kids that I met at public school were people of the big, wide world that I wanted to know more about.
Esperanza was one of the friends I made who enjoyed my thirsty curiosity and had fun introducing me to everything that was totally mundane to her and thrillingly new to me.
When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about bringing to life a character from a book I was reading, set in a historical time period, so I could show them everything about my everyday life--This is an electric toaster! This fabric is called polyester, and it's made of plastic! And this... is a television set!--so that I could witness their awed reactions and feel, through them, just how miraculous and wonderful were all the things I took for granted.
Of course, that fantasy remained impossible for me because time travel isn't a thing and because I live within a culture so dominant that everyone in the whole world watches people who live like me in TV sitcoms.
However, when Esperanza invited me to stay for a couple weeks at her grandma's house in San Luis Potosí, they got to do the show-and-tell, and I got to feel like a TV show character that comes to life and receives a tour of the real world.
My husband calls this feeling "visiting Planet Earth."
Some people feel empty or numb when they travel. Some describe a feeling of dissociation from reality, either at their destination or upon returning home. It hasn't been like that for me. Whenever I've traveled to a truly foreign environment, where nobody speaks English and nothing looks familiar, I've enjoyed heightened senses. Nothing has ever felt so real, no colors so bright, no scents or flavors so complex.
And each time I return home, that ecstatic quality fades, but I feel a renewed affection and appreciation for everything and everyone I had taken for granted at home before I left. And that fresh perspective tends to last.
The first time I went to Mexico, the sensory richness overwhelmed me. I could hardly speak, even when I remembered the right words to say. Everything and everyone glowed with a profound beauty that I needed to savor--the faces of Esperanza's cousins, the music from cars, the colors of shop fronts and houses, the indescribable quality of the light at high altitude. Everything felt intense and seductive, and I wanted to open and absorb it all.
In Spanish, dejar. In Italian, lasciare. To leave, to let, to allow it to happen.
Nobody looked like me. My complexion and height set me distinctly apart from everyone else around. The cousins teased me and called me Christina Aguilera, and I loved it. Abuelita yelled at me like I was one of her own, but stupider, and I loved it. Schoolchildren in uniforms pointed at me, and it made me smile. Women followed me not-so-subtly in the grocery store to stare at me through squinted eyes over their shopping carts, and men screeched their cars to a halt in the middle of the street to holler at me in a fun-loving, friendly way before continuing on. I'd never literally stopped traffic before. I loved it. All of this sounds scary, but there was an affectionate warmth, a crudeness of the sort allowed between close siblings and old friends, in all these interactions instead of the cold, threatening hostility that accompanied unwanted public social transgressions back home in the U.S. In the humble little Jacarandas suburb, people seemed to have a raw reaction to my strangeness (this was no place for tourists) and an immediate comfort with expressing themselves in a familiar, small-town, family kind of way--as if my being there proved that I was somehow one of their own. At least, I was on their turf and therefore fair game for a bit of fun.
I'd never been the object of exoticism or a sideshow kind of fascination before (distinct from regular old catcalling and spiteful rudeness back home), and I'd never had any experiences that taught me to fear that kind of attention. Besides, every person who wanted to tease or scold or seduce or ogle me was letting me also look at and listen to them, oh and in one case touch and smell and taste a lovely rock-n-roll drummer in a sweet Before Sunrise type of moment, and I couldn't get enough of drinking in a wholly new ecosystem of human life and cultural interaction that didn't play by my familiar Midwestern rules.
I was porous, I took in everything.
And I got sick, because I took in some giardia with my pan dulce, apparently.
I cried when I realized how very sick I was, not because I was even a rational amount of scared or miserable but because my illness made us have to cancel our weekend plans to see Esperanza's cousin perform as a matador while I spent the night in the hospital. Even that turned out to be an amazing experience, though--I had a private (pink) room with a cute ceiling fan and a pastoral courtyard view (with a donkey braying and rooster crowing outside the open window), a bunch of medications provided onsite, and an IV of vitamins and saline that fixed me right up. Also my doctor (Doctorcito C) looked, sounded, and acted like a hot doctor straight out of a telenovela. You can't make this stuff up.
Normally gastrointestinal issues make me so uncomfortable that I can't enjoy anything, I sometimes wish for death, and I feel traumatized and squeamish long after recovering. But this time, I was high on travel. Almost immediately after my release from the hospital, I was ready for anything and everything again--a rooftop party, a dance club, a rock concert.
Esperanza took me to see Jaguares on tour for Cuando la sangre galopa, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of my entire life. Saúl Hernández was in his long-curly-hair-and-bellbottom-jeans phase at that time, at the height of his erotic glory. He tossed his hair like a man-pony and sang the hit single "Asi como tu," the way he does. I couldn't take it.
The longing in his voice possessed me. I started the concert right in front, up against the barriers to the stage, like Esperanza and I always did when we went to concerts together, but after my recent illness, the screaming, surging crowd made me feel lightheaded. The altitude had also weakened me more than I had wanted to accept. I shrank back, trying to fight my way against the human current to get some air, and in that passionate crush of hot, sweaty bodies, I become overwhelmed with a new, strange feeling of being all at once lost and alone. I looked around me and saw girls with boyfriends standing behind them to block the stampede or lifting them up on their shoulders, and I started to feel sorry for myself that I'd never had a boyfriend at a rock show before. It's so funny looking back--I wasn't as worried about my health as I should have been. I wasn't afraid of fainting and being trampled, which was a real danger in that moment. I was just a teenage girl steeped in a rockstar's mournful love song, wishing so hard it felt like my skin was peeling off that I had a boyfriend.
And then, as if I had conjured a fantasy to life, a pair of muscular, brown arms wrapped in black leather bracelets appeared on either side of me, from behind my back, and shoved the writhing fans away to give me a space to breathe. A sexy voice whispered in my ear, asking me (in Spanish) what my name was. I turned to meet my rescuer, a handsome rockero who took out his hair tie, releasing a cascade of glossy black hair down to his ass, lifted my own hair off of my sticky neck, blew under my ear to cool me off (o dios mio the goosebumps that raised), and gently tied my hair up in a ponytail.
The rest of the evening was kind of like the movie Before Sunrise in fast forward, but mucho más caliente, with a near-constant flow of personalized Spanish love poetry murmured into my ear and then the corner of my mouth in bass notes and Saúl Hernández moaning his tenor to a Latin rhythm above us. Even now, replaying it in my mind heats me right up, and at the time, it spoiled me for the next half dozen Ethan Hawke-ass, fedora-blighted, English-speaking mansplainers who tried to talk to me in college. Ay.
Another dreamy memory I have from that trip is very, very different, not steamy at all--a dry and perilous journey up one of the nearby mountains, to Santa María del Río, famous for its convent and its rebozos. I had to pop some of Esperanza's mother's beta blockers to stay on my feet up there in the sky, but it was beautiful and amazing. We visited a family friend, an elderly woman who lived in a stone house with polished wood furniture and a courtyard full of brilliantly colored birds. The woman proudly showed us photographs of her countless great-grandchildren as well as a gorgeous rebozo she had saved up for and purchased--to be buried in.
I learned that in some places, even death is welcomed like family.
The second time I went to Mexico, five years later, Esperanza invited me and my new husband to stay at her parents' new home, a short walk from her grandmother's home, during Day of the Dead festivities.
This was in 2006, before Day of the Dead aesthetics had blown up as a trend in the United States, so it was all very new and exciting to me. And this time, I also had the opportunity to play tour guide a little bit, because my husband had never been to Mexico.
We flew over the Texas border in the dark of night and watched as the bright, crisp shape of Texas, lit up like a neon sign, gave way to almost total blackness that stretched on and on, most of the way to the highlands in the middle of the country.
If anything, the welcome we received was even warmer than what I had enjoyed the first time. My husband is fun and expressive and wears hilarious t-shirts and makes up for his lack of Spanish grammar knowledge with sheer confidence that if he spouts enough words and gestures, people will figure out what he's saying--and they do.
Esperanza's lady cousins ogled him, and her grandma went right ahead and groped his muscular thighs and slapped him on the ass. She shook us both by the shoulders and shouted at us to wait a few years before having children and enjoy each other, and we swore to do it, and we did!
With my husband at my side, men politely didn't holler at me on the street, but we received other kinds of exuberant friendliness from strangers. One man caught sight of us, stood up from his perch on the edge of a fountain, and ran full speed at us. I had recently studied abroad in Rome, where people try to mug you every time you step into a public plaza, so I flinched as the man barreled into my husband, wrapped him in a bear hug, told him he loved his t-shirt, called him hermano, patted him on the back, and walked away.
Nothing stolen. He just really liked the shirt.
Another time, a man ran to us across the street and put his hands out like he was going to hug me. My husband looked alarmed for a second, but then the man kept his arms open and asked loudly where I had bought my necklace because he wanted to buy one for his girlfriend. I told him Plaza de San Francisco, and he grinned and thanked me and ran off in the direction of Plaza de San Francisco.
On that trip, my husband was as much of an excited sponge as I was the first time. He managed to pick up an admirable amount of Spanish for a two-week stay, and after we came home, he practiced his small but enthusiastic vocabulary on customers at the bike shop he manages and coworkers at his UPS gig and made a bunch of Spanish-speaking friends.
Between trips to Mexico, I studied in Rome for five months (it was supposed to be a six-month stay, but all of my classmates bailed out early, and it wasn't safe for me to go it alone for another month) and traveled to as many different parts of Italy as I could on a shoestring budget and a stingy amount of free time.
I'd like to say I had as wonderful a time in Italy as I did in Mexico, but I was only able to experience that mix of warmth and welcome and ecstatic awe in one spot, Manarola in the Cinque Terre.
This was before there was such a thing as Airbnb, but I received a tip from a fellow traveler that if I went to Manarola (a long and breathtaking train ride through the early autumn Italian countryside), everything would be fine.
"What's in Manarola?" I asked. "Why do people go there?"
She just smiled dreamily and said, "You'll see."
And oh, I did, and oh, she was right.
I went on a strong and irrational leap of faith, because the rest of my stay in Italy had not been remotely welcoming. We had arrived at the worst point (from Italy's perspective) of the Iraq War, just in time for the world's largest-ever war protest. Americans were not cool in Rome that year, to put it mildly. We were threatened, stalked, ignored by store clerks, swore at, sprinkled with cigarette butts, slapped on the street, groped and humped on the bus, constantly pick-pocketed, grazed with cars and motorbikes, laughed at, and told to "go home." When I could get away with it, out of sheer terror, I pretended to be German. (Oh, what a reversal from all my German immigrant ancestors who pretended to be English.)
I got to experience just a little taste of what it's like to be "other" in a way that isn't at all fun or cute.
On top of that, I was housed in a wretched slum a 45-minute walk from most of my classmates, with a roommate who was both physically and mentally very ill. Our educational program contacts made it clear that they didn't want anything to do with it and that we were on our own to fend for ourselves, so I spent much of my time trying to keep my roommate from throwing herself off our top-floor apartment building balcony while she screamed at me that she hated me because nobody else hated me as much as they hated her.
Over those five months, I survived things I never imagined I would and developed new strengths. Even in the most miserable stretches of that trip, I found moments of beauty and trusted that long in the future, my memories of that time would settle and ferment into something fine and deep and savory.
And they did.
When this pandemic ends and traveling is as easy again as it ever was, there are places I'd like to go and people I'd like to see. I haven't felt the loss of traditional tourism of the cruise-ship, all-inclusive-resort varieties that some people seem to need in their lives, but it will be good when people can move freely again and follow their hearts to new frontiers of love and learning.
If you long to travel, I say go forth and visit Planet Earth when it is reasonably safe. But don't travel as a tourist. Leave your white sneakers and your sun visor and your water bottle at home, open your heart and your mind to the gifts of new experiences both pleasurable and challenging, and go as a guest where you are welcomed.
For inspiration by a travel-loving woman with wisdom and a brave spirit who has achieved the honor of becoming the first black woman to have visited every single country on Earth (and who lives in my home state of Michigan!), follow Jessica Nabongo on Instagram.