Lightning snapped across the inky blue Belizean sky, lighting up our world for a split second, just enough to reveal that we were still not anywhere close to shore. I sat in the front of the boat, armed with a dinky flashlight that did nothing but provide me with a false sense of purpose. I turned back to Suzi, my best friend, and right then co-leader, who was manning the back of the boat, huddling the ten teenage girls we were responsible for like baby chicks under her wings. I shouted over the roar of the wind and the whizzing of tiny, sharp raindrops stinging our faces: “Hold on, ladies!”
So begins one of my favorite travel memories. That’s right, not worst, not scariest — favorite. Yes, I was in charge of ten teenagers on a volunteer trip in Central America, and yes we were caught in a less-than-adequate boat, in an awful storm, in the middle of the night. And yes, this memory is precious to me. I’ve spent some time this week pondering why. What factors lift a moment from the road to “unforgettable” status? What makes some moments stand out over others?
It’s a complex question that lacks a single correct answer, so I polled other Matador staff, students, and travel bloggers, trying to get a sense of what solidifies a moment into an unforgettable memory. It’s easier to start with what they didn’t mention — nobody’s response involved fancy hotel rooms, predictability, or a good night’s sleep. Rather, there was the opposite: unhinged plans, the unforeseen, the unknown. Regardless of the specifics of the memory, each seemed to draw near to a sense of self-awareness, of our tiny and precious place in the universe — that is, moments where we felt honestly alive.
It doesn’t matter where or what brings us back to this sacred place. It could be hurling oneself from a cliff and slicing into the ocean’s depths; it could be tearing open a steaming, soft croissant while wandering a side street in Paris, ducking in and out of the golden morning light.
So why is one of my favorite moments a memory of ten terrified girls, stuck in a storm, in a tiny metal boat? Because when I turned around to shout to Suzi, I didn’t see ten terrified girls. I saw ten strong young ladies on the cusp of womanhood — albeit drenched and shivering, hair plastered to their faces — holding hands, singing. Yup, singing. Together, the twelve of us sang an African hymn to the rain, watching the lightning come down all around, praying to the good Lord that our boat was headed for shore. And we felt it. Our hearts, our breath, every drop of rain on our skin. Not “safe and sound” back home in Vancouver, not preoccupied with “life,” not watching the world from a safe distance — in it, present, aware, together. I felt as though I saw them awaken, right in front of me, quivering like arrows, aimed and ready even if not yet entirely certain.
What favorite travel moments do you have? Moments of mayhem? Moments of silence? Community? Humanity? Sacredness? The unknown? The simple, poignant, ancient pleasures of food, drink, or friends? The warmth of sun on skin, or your feet on the ground? A split second, a meal, a day? Love?
Here’s how some of my fellow travelers answered the question:
- My friend Lindsey and I were driving back to Reykjavik after spending a day on the eastern side of Iceland. We’d hiked on the Vatnajökull glacier, watched blue icebergs crack and fall into Jökulsárlón (a glacial lagoon), and got caught in an Icelandic “sheep roundup.” When we saw a pale green streak in the sky, we pulled over to take photos and dance around like crazy people with the Northern Lights.
– Katka Lapelosa, Matador’s social media manager, www.katkatravels.com
- On a nameless road in India, my motorbike broke down for the 100th time. Dozens of cars and bikes pulled over, with each driver and passenger trying but failing to fix the bike. Miserable and hot, I wanted to give up and walk away. Someone dismantled the backseat of their car to load me and the bike, and then drove us to the nearest mechanic — an hour away. I was greeted on arrival with a cup of chai, half the town smiling, waving, and saying hello while I waited. Their joyfulness fixed more than the bike.
– Rachel Kristensen, MatadorU student, www.meandertheworld.tumblr.com
- While leading a photography workshop for The Giving Lens, we were crossing the Peruvian countryside at 2am, coming back from Machu Picchu on our final day. We pulled over in the darkness to ‘use the facilities’ when our eyes turned up to see the Milky Way rising in the moonless sky. Soon, all the camera gear was out, and an impromptu and very dark workshop took place. Goes to show that even a 2am bathroom break can lead to incredible opportunities, when you allow them room to happen.
– Michael Bonocore, travel photographer, http://www.mb-photography-sf.com/
- In Mongolia in 2007, my ex and I and two other couples booked a Russian van and a driver for a 6-day excursion from Ulan Bator. Along the way, the driver stopped at what looked to us like a pile of random rocks. He got out and started walking around the pile. A couple of the girls thought they’d take the opportunity to empty their bladders. A lot of the landscape in Mongolia is steppe…no trees, no hills…just flat land. They took advantage of the rocks for some privacy and did their business behind them. Moshi, our driver, got back in the van, looking horrified, and explained in broken English the sacredness of the rocks — that, to paraphrase, he had been building up some good travel karma for us by circling the pile. Shortly after, we had the first of several breakdowns en route to our destination (highlighted by one where Moshi disappeared under the van and we watched him toss out this big piece of important-looking machinery). We also got lost one evening and had to spend the night in an unscheduled village. What was already an adventure got amped up by some poor bathroom judgment.
– Carlo Alcos, Matador managing editor, @vagab0nderz, vagabonderz.com
- Camping out on the Mexican border — my travel companion and I had arrived too late, so we got out some tarps and made a makeshift tent in the middle of a fairground. It obviously wasn’t a good night’s sleep, but I love that travel can throw stuff like that your way and you can just go with it.
– @RosaLiaJune, MatadorU student, http://throughthewardrobe-rosa.blogspot.co.uk/
- Homero, our Peruvian jungle guide, told us to follow him and we took a small wooden boat out into the Amazon River. We disembarked on an island about 30 minutes downstream. I noticed something running full speed at me, low to the ground. My initial reaction was fear, but before I had time to think, a very tiny grey monkey scrambled up my legs and onto my shoulders. We were on Monkey Island, and I met dozens of rainforest animals that day. I remember one: a spider monkey named Sucia and her baby. She let me carry her around for hours in a full body hug with the baby snuggled between my back and bag. It was hard to return to our boat when the sun began to set and she looked at me with sad eyes.
– Maryanne Wirkkanen, travel blogger, www.unknownhome.wordpress.com
- I and the 14 kids under my charge jumped off the train in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Immediately, we shuddered as gunfire ripped at our ears. Rebel fighters were shooting into the carriage next to ours. A gaunt gunman grabbed my shirt and screamed, “Are you American!?” “No,” I pled in Khmer, “I’m Scottish.” He lifted a handgun and pushed it hard into my temple. My hands turned white, gripping the children holding my legs. “I’m one of you!” I begged, “I run a children’s home!” trying my damnedest to copy his local accent. I spent the night in a holding cell on the outskirts of Phnom Penh while the children were freed and found their way home. Today I stand in New York City under an American flag on the 4th of July and remember that day. Gratitude overcomes me. My crimson British passport saved my life.
– Katie Scott Alton, Matador staff writer, http://katiesaras.wordpress.com/
- Moments in Nepal: Watching sunrise over the Annapurna range, standing 5,000 meters below the highest peaks and 3,000 meters above sea level. The silence on the lower trails, walled in by giant white mountains. The downward trek on the final day, knees and ankles screaming with every rocky step. An old lady over twice my age walking past me, uphill. The sight of an old man weighed down by the blond tourist he lugged in a basket on his back. The taxi back to warmth and clean clothes. Peeling the backpack straps off raw shoulders. The hot shower.
– Dikson Slam, Matador staff writer, @diksonslam
- Not too long ago I did an overnight camping trip in Saskatchewan’s Prince Rupert National Park. We rode horses through a herd of bison to reach our site, where we’d spend the night in a tipi. My guide, a rancher named Gord, invited me to sleep out under the stars next to the campfire with the rest of his crew. I knew it’d be tough to get any rest there, but thought it’d make for a funny, self-deprecating story. I finally fell asleep curled in my sleeping bag, listening to howling coyotes, and woke up many hours later with wolves on the edge of our field.
– @CandiceWalsh, MatadorU Travel Writing faculty, www.candicedoestheworld.com
- I was utterly without words when first entering Ta Prohm, an old temple in the Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia. At once, I became aware of how blessed I was to add my footsteps to this ancient place. In the jungle’s effort to take back its own, massive vines and tree roots cover the great stone walls and weave their way through the buildings, cutting and splitting the huge stone structures in their path.
– Pat Kennedy Corlin, photographer, http://www.PatCorlinPhotography.com
- My favorite travel memory is the one I’m making right now: Bounding at 76mph down Interstate 5, 18-wheel freight trucks shaking the hot July air. Dead ankle-high grass whips past in a blur. Bridget lifts her hand from the wheel and beats tempo in the air, singing with shower-diva abandon. Whoever drives is dj and sings and boogies. Whoever isn’t driving plays with their Instagram and makes sure everyone has snacks within reach. Unspoken rules. It’s a funny little meditation to think about making memories. So much is forgotten. Will this be a memory? My ‘favorites’ have had their cutting edges dulled by a tide of time, by very dint of still exiting in my mind at all. But now: central Oregon plains and my wife of nine years and a half-drunk, sun-cooked Diet Coke.
– Joshua Johnson, MatadorU Dean of Education, @joshywashinton, http://joshywashington.wordpress.com/