I sometimes travel in my dreams. Like the average dream, they can be bizarre: I’m crawling hands and knees along a street in Northern Ireland in the dark to get a closer look at the colors painted on the curbs (so I know I’m in the republican neighborhood where I’m staying), or I’m bodysurfing through a mashpit of Moroccan men while trying to buy a ticket for a train out of Fez.
Other times, the dreams are more serene: I’m harvesting vegetables on an organic farm stay just outside the Abruzzi National Park in Italy, photographing statues in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria or having coffee with an old friend in San Francisco. All of these are versions of real travel experiences I’ve enjoyed, but I still find myself analyzing them, and wondering why I keep re-playing them in my dream state.
What I find even stranger, is that the older I get, the more I have such dreams. Perhaps it’s because I feel the years flying by and I have always felt the pace of my life slows down when I travel. I also like to travel independently, which though it complicates things sometimes, also slows things down. I can’t think of a better antidote for the monotony of the familiar routines that clutter my life than to get away and be faced with what feels like a strange new pace, no matter where I am.
Ironically, technology has made it harder to really get away. Wifi clouds and smart phones have made travel to many developing places feel less remote. Modern infrastructure has changed things too, as have politics and the risks that come with crossing dodgy borders. Paved roads, helicopter pads and boutique hotels are now common in places that were once only accessible to the intrepid independent traveler, and the few remaining undeveloped places in the world are now largely inaccessible to all but the best-funded adventurer. The more remote a place, the more money you need to get there and be there.
On the other hand, technology and modernization have eased travel for people with physical disabilities, families with children, or anyone with a fulltime job and limited vacation time. Tech and modern conveniences, like helicopter airlifts, have also made travel safer, though I’d venture that safety sometimes takes the adventure out of travel.
Some years ago, I cycled from Oslo to Bergen, Norway, and never saw another traveler, other than my cycling partner, along the remote areas of the route we traversed, particularly across the Hardanger Glacier. Today, the route is well-trodden, often inundated by tour groups on foot or bike. The same can be said about some of the places I rode in Ireland, and even Scotland. There were moments in both places where I realized that had my bike broken down or had I fallen and hurt myself, I would have had to rely on fate to get me through. Today, technology, one way or another, would likely save my ass.
I have travel dreams in waking life, too. I still imagine myself pulling off one more year-long journey under my own power—cycling, backpacking or paddling, or all three. I just hope I can sustain this way of being.
At a gathering recently, I was talking to a friend’s husband about daring-do people and some of the older ones we know who inspire us. I lamented the fact that the body seems to age faster than the mind, and wondered aloud if it’s even a good idea for the two to ever catch up with each other.
“Life,” Richard said, “is a one-way trip. There’s no getting around it.”
I heard no resignation in his voice; just total acceptance and even a bit of detachment. I had the feeling he was OK with this mind-body arrangement, but I also felt like he was also making a pretty profound statement about accepting this journey called life for what it is.
If I understood that the way he meant it, I think he is right. Regardless of age, time is still pulling us forward toward an inevitable deadline. The magic of travel, when you fully embrace it, and don’t try to rush through it, or over-think it (oh, man do I have work waiting for me when I get home) is that it does slow it down to a more doable natural pace. Slowing down makes living in the present and staying open a lot easier, which in turn makes for, in my opinion, a more creative, interesting and fulfilling life.
Richard told me about a recent birthday party he had attended for his wife’s vivacious 102-year-old aunt. On reflection, he attributed much of her longevity to her organizational skills coupled with an uncanny fearlessness. The always healthy centenarian ordered donut holes rather than a cake for her party. Due to the large number of celebrants attending, and with the popularity and high price of fancy donuts these days, she felt she couldn’t afford to buy whole donuts for everyone. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her from sharing something she loves, something I would call one of her “quintessentialities,” (my term for qualities in each of us that are essential and yet unique). She wasn’t going to “settle” for cake when she could give her guests a taste of what she loves.
Now, there’s someone, I thought, driving her own train, crossing the bridge from “not enough” to a place of fulfillment; someone who keeps moving forward but enjoying every stop along the way. Someone living in the present.
This seems like an apt metaphor for travel too, not getting stuck in one place, staying open to something working out differently. It also got me to thinking about what happens when only the young and the rich have the desire and resources to travel. Adventure should not be a deliberate luxury afforded only a few. Without travel, people never see beyond their own window; the world view gets very tiny, from the inside and out. Considering the economic costs of war, I ponder the cost of not traveling. Is it peace?
Being open, present and ready to roll when the opportunity presents itself is essential part of the equation. I have a friend, Janet, who has built her entire life around traveling. She’s not a millionaire. Instead, she consciously chose and created a profession that ensures her enough time and money to spend at least half of each year exploring new places, and returning to favorites like Baja, Mexico, India and Thailand. She’s cycled through South Africa and across Nepal. I can’t think of many places she hasn’t been, maybe Japan. It doesn’t matter, it’s not the destination for her, it’s the experience of meeting new people, tasting new foods, and learning new things, like Poi in Goa.
My friends Ram and Reina didn’t let having a family keep them locked in their work cubicles. They took sabbaticals, pulled Gyan and Jeev out of grade school and spent six months traveling around the world by various means of transport, including buses and trains. In addition to blogging about their journey, the boys each wrote and eventually published a book.
My friends Joe and Beth, took their tribe (three young sons—one not quite a year old) on a bicycle trip across Canada. Joe, an author, also known as the Metal Cowboy, previously traveled by bike across the U.S. with two of those boys as well.
None of these people are wealthy. They have just made travel a priority in their lives and went for it, often just winging it as they went along: open and present.
It’s not always necessary or desirable to travel with an itinerary or know with certainty where you will sleep each night. When we are ruled by the unconscious desire to know exactly where we are going, it’s hard to appreciate the journey. It also makes it much harder to get up and go. I am not saying we should always be in transit, dragging our burdens along some undefined track never knowing where we will end up; I’ve learned that when I lived like that fulfillment was always just out of reach. Which is why the alternative to travel might well be depression, which I tend to think of as anger with no place to go.
And I know for sure this that the remedy for the wild arrows of grief that find us all at one time or another isn’t found in protecting ourselves from life. On the contrary, the cure might better be described as pain put into motion, which sometimes means simply taking a trip. I learned this following the death of my 17-year-old niece, an experience that had plenty of potential to paralyze me. A couple of months before she died, I had unwittingly booked a flight to New Zealand for a month-long adventure. As the departure date closed in on me, I knew I had to go if I wanted to keep on living.
As I stood on the top of a building in Auckland, tenuously tethered to an adventure travel outfitter’s unknown rigging, I realized there was no other option but to give myself over to the possibility that I might live. And so, I moved toward the edge and began springing down the front of that building, forward, toward the crowd gathered below for what felt like an hour but was actually only about 15 minutes.
Far and wide, that was one of the finest lessons of my travel life: living is not about protecting ourselves from life as much as it is about strengthening our lives so we can let a more of it in.
Do you have a big adventure in you but are still fretting or doubting? Read on. This opportunity, should you get it, promises to relieve you of all excuses by essentially funding your dream. If you go for it, and I am hoping that one of you will, let me know how it works out. I am a true believe in the abundance principle, that there’s enough to go around for everyone. The more we share, the more we get back, even if it’s vicarious, because vicarious is catchy, and those who merely dream of travel are often inspired by those who actually do.
Seize the opportunity!
Polartec Challenge Grants Available for 2012 Expeditions
Over the past 20 years, Polartec has supported hundreds of expeditions around the world through the Polartec® Challenge, an international grant program encouraging outdoor adventure. The Lawrence, Mass. company makes that awesomely soft microfiber fabric your favorite fleece half-zip is made of, as well as other performance insulation fabrics used by a wide variety of cycling, climbing, hiking, camping and other sports apparel manufacturers. They’re also well known for funding adventure athletes and explorers. Surf here http://pitch.pe/177069 or read below for more information.
The Polartec® Challenge Grant seeks to assist frugal, low impact teams who respect the local culture and environment and serve as role models to outdoor enthusiasts worldwide. Applications are evaluated on the basis of vision, commitment, educational and cultural value. (One note: this is not the appropriate venue for projects that involve competition or fund raising).
Some of the latest Polartec Challenge Grant recipients include Kate Harris and Melissa Yule who are exploring environmental conservation while cycling from Europe to Asia, and Jon Turk and Erik Boomer who recently completed the first circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island—regarded by many as one of the last great Arctic expeditions.
To apply, visit polartec.com/polartec-challenge. The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2011.