I love sitting in the common room of a youth hostel, or on the deck of a boat sliding down a jungle river swapping stories with other travelers. I love the light in the eyes of that girl who’s just had her first real adventure and lived to tell about it. I love the excited trading of intel on what to see, “when you get there,” that’s not in the guidebook and the frantic scribbling of details in the back of a well worn journal. There is a camaraderie in shared experiences; a brotherhood formed in adversity and adventure. All travelers know this, and we recognize it instantly in one another’s eyes.
My kids play a game, it doesn’t have a name, but it goes something like this:
“Hey, that guy over there, he looks like the real deal, this is not his first rodeo.” They’ll admire his worn boots and filthy pack. “I’ll bet he’s got some great stories!” One of them will follow him around until he notices and then invite him to dinner, “We’ll trade you dinner for your travel stories,” is our hook. It works almost every time. We’ve been taken vicariously across the great-grey-green-greasy-Limpopo river in a worn out jeep, flown in war planes over Palestine, crossed mountain ranges on foot and by bicycle, and seen full moon parties we’d never attend in a million years, all though the stories of the road worn, in trade for a chunk of homemade bread.
The other half of the game plays out more like this:
We’re walking down the hill towards the boats that will take us an hour across the lake toward “home,” the nine year old spots a group of backpackers conferring nervously over their map:
“Uh oh, those guys look lost,” and he trots off to see what they need. Later, on the boat, I overhear the dialogue, “It’s okay, these boats don’t turn over very often, but if they do, just pop your backpack off and swim away from the boat, in a panic someone might try to grab you and drown you if you don’t. When the boat arrives, just pay attention to what the guy ahead of you pays and pay that, whatever you do, DON’T ask how much the crossing costs, the boat drivers jack it up by three times if you do that.” The backpackers exchange incredulous looks, Ez carries on, oblivious, “So, where’ve you guys been? Where are you going?” The ball is successfully lobbed into their court; the boy settles into his boat cushion to listen and learn.
What’s the point of the game?
Travel is not a contest.
It’s not about who’s been to more countries, or speaks more languages, or has logged more days in uncomfortable places. It’s not about the number of “flags” you’ve collected or the world records you’ve broken or the world heritage sites you’ve ticked off of your list. Those things don’t matter any more than winning the National Spelling Bee does if you can’t then string those words into meaningful reflections and write your life with them. The game is about finding out what kinds of lives have been written, what lessons have been learned and discovering what it means to be human in the grander scheme of things. It’s a good game for nomadic folk of all ages to play.
I lay on the deck of a floating raft house on Cheow Laan Lake, last week with a group of young travelers.
Conversation rapidly deteriorated to the member-measuring contest for pecking order of who’d “done” the most. We listened, we played some music and sang while they patted one another on their backs for their accomplishments. We watched the Leonid meteor shower with them and asked some questions to keep them talking. Some of the best teachers are the ones who don’t even know they’re delivering life lessons. As the meteors petered out and the travelers turned in we found ourselves alone with one, beautiful, young German girl, with hair the colour of starlight. She had remained quiet in the group, but opened up when we were alone with the moon. She was just 19, traveling solo for a few months, and trying hard to find her feet in a world where she was out gunned and out talked by almost all of the other travelers.
“I don’t know why it matters,” she mused, “Why do I have to know who I am and where I’m going? Why do I have to have answers to all of those questions right now. I can’t say what I want to “do” or “be” as an adult. I mean, I’m here right now. This is me. Do I need to be any more than that? I am on this journey not because I need a gap year, or because I’m trying to figure things out, I’m doing this because this is what I want to do, for me. I’m learning about the world, and about myself. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been, or where I’m going. I’m just writing my own life.”
I smiled in the darkness. There it was, the lesson: Travel, and life, are not a contest. This young girl “got it,” and she articulated it beautifully.