It happened on the south side of the River Thames in London. My girlfriend Sara and I were on our way to the Old Operating Theatre Museum when it started to rain. Sideways. We had no umbrellas, so we did what anyone our age who is traveling in Britain would do at 10 till noon when it starts to pour: We took shelter in a pub. The bartender pumped two pint glasses of bitter. We sat by the window, watching the 1940s-style black cabs slosh in puddles. Sara, who had just arrived in London the day before and who had not traveled internationally lately, shed her jacket, lifted her glass and said – this despite being trapped indoors – “Ah, it’s liberating to be in another country.” Cheers to that, Sara.
I had thought this many times, and when Sara voiced it, I felt magically lighter, as a liberated person does. For metaphorically, I, too, had shed my jacket. Then I got to thinking, what is so liberating about being on foreign soil? Anonymity, yes, but also unfamiliarity … of customs, of surroundings, of the language.
When we travel to a foreign place, we experience it with the same wonderment as an infant looking upon the world for the first time. Without any memories or expectations of how things should be done, we wallow in our ignorance. It is from this distance from home, truly uninhibited, that we often get a closer look at ourselves. And this is liberating. Here are a few things that I typically wouldn’t be caught dead trying at home.
Purposely getting lost. What’s so great about knowing where you are going? In San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, I boarded a bus, and I had no idea where it was headed. I still don’t know where I went because I don’t speak much Spanish. (The extent of my knowledge of that language is this: hola, por favor, gracias and la cuenta – hi, please, thanks and the check). But I sat in a courtyard next to a burbling fountain and ate marinated beef served with fresh tortillas. I lived to tell about it.
In London, I disembarked at a tube stop simply because I liked its name (Angel) and not because that’s where I wanted to go. Angel, it turns out, is angelic – a hip area with plenty of cafés, shops and pubs.
Talking to strangers. I’ve asked grownups to hold a stuffed Cat In the Hat so I could photograph him with my Polaroid by the Tower Bridge. There are plenty more stories like that. Why, when we travel, don’t we care what people think? Or is it just me?
Eating cake for breakfast. Noodles at 8 a.m.? In Asia, you bet. An enchilada casserole before 9? Sí, buenos dias. Alcoholic drinks at 11 a.m.? That’s the Caribbean’s “elevenses.” Go experimental at mealtime: fried grasshoppers, ant eggs, worm salt and corn fungus. That’s Oaxaca. It’s a baby’s paradise, dirt and insects.
Developing a Buddhist attitude toward bugs and danger. I’ve actually said things such as, “Is that a scorpion on that shelf? Let’s put it outside,” and “Is that a spider on your handbag? Wow, it’s so big. It looks like a handbag ornament, and it’s so purple … I don’t think I’ve ever seen a purple spider. Do you think it bites?” and “Don’t sit under this tree. It drips poison. Ouch. Oops, should I go to the clinic or just wait and see?” In non-litigious societies, you can do much more, albeit at your own risk. Makeshift stone stairs to the waterfalls in St. Vincent washed out by the rain? No problem, mon. Slide down, but mind the drop. London Dungeon scare those with a weak heart? Take a pill. Fear and injuries are so American.
Traveling, as liberating as it is, makes me appreciate returning home, where we have luxuries such as flushing toilets, un-amoebic water and the USDA. But what I’ve learned to appreciate most about home is opportunity. We may not always believe we have it because we are jaded by our spoils. But travel to a village in a Third World country. Take shade under a laurel tree and watch the Zapotec Indian women sell homemade cheeses at the market for 4 pesos (less than 40 cents) or Caribbean women hand-wash their family’s laundry (for free). Credit cards to dig themselves out of a hole? A weekend break from their daily labor? Travel? These thoughts wouldn’t even cross their minds. Americans, even struggling Americans, have access and privileges.
And these opportunities allow us to do one very important liberating activity at home: dream of better days.