Today I leave for India and Nepal, and my heart is in my throat. My body feels like a roiling storm of adrenaline and stress hormones, and no matter how much I try to quiet it down, it refuses to be still. My pulse is racing, and I cannot help but count down the hours until I can board my plane from Narita.
If you were watching me closely, you might see how my knee is jiggling and how my fingers are trembling. I catch myself smiling and though I try to compose my expression, my mouth refuses to stay in a neutral straight line. It’s been like this for several weeks. I’ve been stealing glances at the calendar, willing the days to pass more quickly. To look at me, you would think this is my first trip abroad, my first time on a plane, my first time using my passport. You’d think it was a whole host of “firsts” for me. (Or maybe you’d just think I’m a little bit hyperactive, and maybe you’d be right.)
In reality, however, I’m lucky enough that I’ve had the opportunity to travel a fair bit, and though this will be my first trip to the Subcontinent, it’s by no means my first time venturing to a foreign country. I can order a glass of wine or ask for the bathroom in a half dozen languages, I can pack a carry-on for three different climates and three weeks in under 30 minutes (in fact, I did it last night), and my passport bears the wear, tear, and immigration stamps of eight years of travel.
And yet despite all this, I still think of myself as a complete rookie when it comes to travel. The time I’ve spent traveling obviously has taught me many things, in terms of book and street smarts alike. All that stuff, like learning to brush off someone pushing souvenirs on the street, to hail a cab in a new city, or to figure out a new metro system, is still with me. It’s changed me for the better. But when it comes to the fire that travel holds for me, that joy that resides down deep in my bones and hums up my spine when I stumble like a kindergartner over a new language or take the first bite of some exotic specialty? It still rages as brightly as the day I first lit it.
The first time I went to Japan, it was for a sociology study abroad course with my university. When our group, bleary-eyed because of the early hour, met at the deserted airport, my first reaction was to bounce up to one of my friends and hug her. (Playing it cool before traveling is definitely not one of my strong suits.) She’d shied away in a mix of surprise and under-caffeinated crankiness and had remarked to me, “Shouldn’t you be totally used to this traveling thing by now?”
But really, is traveling ever something we can get truly used to? Looking at the miles we’ve covered and the stamps that litter our passport pages, it would seem we’ve become veterans. But how can we become accustomed to something that’s so thrilling and varied from day to day?
Every time I go somewhere, it feels like the first time. It doesn’t matter how many trips I take or how many miles I cover. Even now, I still get a euphoric kick out of pushing the “confirm booking” button for airplane tickets; it doesn’t matter where I’m going, just that I’m going at all. I cover. That excited buzzing in my brain, the grins I struggle to stifle, and the excitement of breathing in that first lungful of foreign air — those things have never dissipated.
On the surface, I’m doing the same thing over and over again. I’m stepping into the same experience. I go to the airport, get my passport stamped, and emerge somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. But every time is different. It doesn’t matter if I’m returning to a city or country I’ve been before. Hell, I don’t even care if it’s the same street.
Two summers ago, I returned to the German city of Cologne, where I studied abroad in college, and it was all I could do not to vibrate out of my skin from excitement. I had the exact same reaction when I’d set foot in that gorgeous city and laid eyes on Der Dom for the first time. I hope that feeling never goes away. In ten years, my knee will probably still jump up and down when I’m waiting at an airport gate. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In that respect, I am no veteran of travel. And I’m crossing my fingers that I never will be.