Above everything else, I think the main reason we all travel is to get out of our comfort zone. In fact, this concept of the “comfort zone” and “getting out of it” seems to be something we hear repeated time and time again, whether it’s from our own mouth or someone else’s. This collective goal so many of us share says a lot about routine and the simple idea that we could all benefit from a good ‘ol shaking up.
And when we do “get out” into that new and unfamiliar place, the influential moments rush in — those that remind us we’re alive and we’re lucky. These MatadorU students were able to pinpoint that well-known feeling down to the very moment they first felt it.
We were on a train somewhere in west Texas when the rain came. A smattering of frenetic droplets began to obscure the café car’s arching glass window as the Sunset Limited slowed to a stop. I looked up from my book in time to see the sky crack open. Where there had been slabs of fissured earth and pale dust, a web of frothy rivulets as dark as cinnamon and as moist as chocolate bled color into the ground.
“It’s a flash flood,” I heard someone say.
The torrent of water could be powerful enough to derail a moving train. From the corner of my over-sized booth, I peered along the tracks stitched arrow-straight all the way to the horizon, where the purple-grey bruise of clouds began. As stillness settled over the train, I realized we were guests on that lonely stretch of desert. It ebbed and flowed in its own careful way, oblivious to timetables and connections on buses to sprawling suburbs. We would wait until the desert had had its fill. We would be patient despite ourselves.
A lush mango tree provided shade for a couple of lazy dogs while hens cackled and ran around the dusty patch meant to be a garden. An old wooden door, framed with strips of red paper and golden Chinese characters, caught my attention.
As I gazed through the scene I noticed something unusual, a leg stood leaning against the wall. On closer inspection I quickly realized it was a prosthesis. I’d never seen one replicating skin tones and form in such a realistic way.
From across the garden the moto-taxi driver’s deep voice called out, “She can’t get used to it, it mostly lies there.”
At that moment his beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter managed to gracefully walk down a staircase while balancing her weight on a pair of crutches. Our Cambodian friend told us how on a fateful childhood day she and her father were driving back home when the bike drove over a buried land mine. She lost her left leg, almost completely from the waist down.
“What’s your biggest wish?” I asked her.
She replied, “I wish I had the money to study and become an accountant so I can help my family.”
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I was struck by an odd sensation — a vulnerability — as though I was missing something essential. Maybe it was when I reached my hands into my pants pocket, expecting to feel a cold jagged edge, followed by the trail of soft braided leather, only to come up empty. Or perhaps it was my ears straining to hear a soft jingle-jangle.
I was at the start of my backpacking trip in Australia, and realized the nakedness of not possessing any keys. At that moment, I had no car, or home to lock up. I was carrying everything I needed on my back. It felt free and foreign at the same time.
This feeling comes back into memory from time to time. It reminds me that I live in a culture of accumulating and retaining “stuff.” As I pass each chapter of adulthood, I make an effort to not have my possessions own me, and sell or give away items that I no longer use. I remind myself it is experiences I want to accrue, as creating memories is the most valued treasure I can ever own.
I’m impatient even in the least trying circumstances. I’d been living in Nepal for a year, and on a rare clear day in June’s monsoon it was time to leave. In airports I’m always on the cusp of becoming a monster. This time, I threw a tantrum because the check-in staff was talking rudely about me in Nepali, thinking I wouldn’t understand. I marched onto that aeroplane relieved to be leaving the country that, on this morning, I believed had treated me badly.
My seat on the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul was on the right-hand side, which on a west-bound flight over the Himalayas means potential views — although I hadn’t expected much during monsoon.
What I witnessed silenced me physically and internally, it silenced the noise in my head.
The jagged white of the Annapurnas against the cold blue expanse of sky turned to the arid plains of northern India. Pakistan’s Karakoram remained on the horizon as the orange canyons of Afghanistan sunk towards the earth’s core, then became the vast emptiness of the Iranian desert. My camera was tightly stowed above and I left it there, as nothing could capture the humbling merge of peak into desert.
The morning air was rich with the smells of hot earth, warm tortillas and wood smoke. The distant echoes of laughter seeped in through the chinks in the adobe walls, muffling, but never quite overwhelming, the bright sounds of conversation.
Hundreds of eyes lined the barbwire fence of the kindergarten we pulled up to, each Nicaraguan child on tiptoe trying to be the first to see the strange gringos. I felt a soft touch on my hand as I entered. A pair of huge brown eyes looked up at me. Su nombre? Maria.
She led me down a path past houses built of cardboard and black plastic Hefty bags. The lucky ones had tin roofs. There were no cars, no pools, no running water, yet people still emerged from their homes, smiling.
When it was time to leave I was with Maria still. Hand in hand we made our way toward the bus, walking at a snail’s pace so as to avoid the sting of inevitable goodbyes. She stopped me and slipped from her finger a small silver ring. Mi amiga. Te amo. I love you, she said, slipping it onto my own.