I travel big but I travel small, gradually expanding my boundaries once I arrive. Acclimating. I adore and absorb the details that create for me a sense of wholeness. I can only travel with those who understand that I don’t necessarily want to pack an itinerary from morning to night and accept my quirk of wanting to stop and take photos of interesting sewer grates.
I woke this morning in Cape Town, a view of Table Mountain from my breakfast window, groggy, adjusting from a day and a half of travel, knowing that I have to take it slow. The evidence is clear: Last night I ventured out for dinner and left my wallet in my room. This morning, I dressed with both my bra and t-shirt on backwards.
So I order coffee from a kind woman who asks if I want a cooked breakfast. She brings me French-pressed coffee, strong. I sip the bitter coffee and notice the way whoever renovated the dining room left a square in the wall so you could see the original brick. The way the air smells bright with flowered trees that I’ve never known. How purple hangs heavy over the streets.
The sunflower seeds crusting a slice of bread. The square of butter in a round dish. How the waitress asks a couple sitting nearby whether they want brown toast or white toast. The man, who was white, ordered white. The woman, who was brown, ordered brown. They laughed and laughed.
A scratchy recording of “La Vie en Rose” plays in this quiet breakfast room, decorated with fertility goddesses and mirrors, and I am struck by connections: Remembering this song played by a street accordionist in Florence, the notes echoing agains medieval walls; my friend and I being serenaded on Duval Street in Key West by a singer that looked like this guy:
One thing I’ve learned this year from returning to places I’ve already been: Experiencing places this way, by moments and by details, rather than by tour bus, doesn’t detract from the whole. Not once have I felt like I missed something big. In fact, each time I’ve felt like I was returning to a very familiar place, like revisiting someplace I never really left.
Two years ago yesterday, the day before the Mayan calendar ended and we waited for predicted apocalypses, I learned that I had early stage breast cancer. A few days earlier I’d had my first mammogram, supposedly routine. (Note to every over-40 female: Do schedule a mammogram. Don’t do it a week before Christmas.)
An early-stage cancer diagnosis quickly became more complicated when I learned I carried the BRCA-2 gene mutation, increasing my chances of a recurrence.
I could only process the next two months through metaphor: I was stuck in a house of horrors, trapped with a serial killer and a lot of sharp objects, forced to make impossible decisions about my fate. A Jigsaw Killer victim, thrown into a twisted game of ‘would you rather.’
And suddenly my body wasn’t my own anymore but the territory of a team of professionals, one step removed from my humanity, knowing that so many others had gone through this but still feeling like I was the only one. Like being encased in a moon suit and tethered in a tenuous orbit of despair.
I needed something to look forward to.
Just before the diagnosis, a friend and I had planned a Key West vacation for the following year to A.) Go someplace warm in winter and B.) Visit the Hemingway House and dozens of hemingcats. Despite mounting medical bills, I was determined to hold onto that trip.
My wandering soul dawned at young age amid messy piles of National Geographics and pink-and-yellow atlas pages. I’d spin globes to see what the world turned up. I daydreamed. I was an Indiana Jones-girl, adventure girl, a space girl. I was Luke Skywalker’s sister before I knew he already had one. I rescued galaxies and vanquished enemies. I started writing my stories down.
When I got older I traveled, less than I’d planned but as much as possible, seizing opportunities whenever I could and creating others. I went as far as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Egypt. I collected photos of myself in iconic places — under the Eiffel Tower, in a London phone booth, on a camel in front of the Great Pyramids. Regular life got in the way too much, though, and suddenly it was more than a dozen years since I’d had a new stamp in my passport.
And then I was diagnosed with cancer.
That’s when I went to the moon.