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.
On this trip I crossed both the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn for the first time. Woot! Go, Cape Town.
I’m traveling again and it’s weird, and wonderful, as always. Being in one place and then
another place, so different from each other, and so quickly. Our great-great-grandmothers marvel at the speed of our culture collision.
I’m sitting in the Dubai Airport now: It’s sleek, spacious, futuristic and spotless, with an overabundance of smiling people with “May I help you?” printed on the their blue polos. They helpfully point toward waiting lines and sliding train doors. It’s surreal after contorting myself into a dark airplane seat for 12 hours. Now I’m sitting in an Asian restaurant and tried to order breakfast at 8 p.m. local time. I don’t know what time it feels like but breakfast seemed right. I ordered soup instead.
Just this morning I waved good-bye to my parents, yellow leaves covering the gravel driveway. Stopped for gas at the Kwik Trip in Winchester, watching bearded guys dressed in camouflage gas up their pickups that carried lumber or ATVs; in a couple of weeks they’ll be loaded with bloody deer carcasses. Drove on a spacious highway under Skeleton Bridge Road, billboards breaking up the plowed fields and nearly leafless trees. One for a store that sells 70 kinds of cheese & sausage, one with a smiley face made from bullet holes (“We sell silencers!”), one for Jug’s Hitching Post (“It’s the meat that matters!”). And one that says “You don’t use heroin; it uses you.” I pass by an electronic Mobil sign that optimistically proclaims that it’s 91 degrees. Maybe it is where I’m going, I think.
I pass a Love’s tanker truck, a port-o-potty on top of the Mercury Marine plant. I pass under Lost Arrow Road, thinking about all the places I’ve been this year — how they’ve all been back to visit places I’ve already been, except for this one. Wondering what all this revisiting is about. Like I’ve been using the gravitational pull of all these places to slingshot myself somewhere new.
I’ve spent so much of this year traveling, both externally and internally, and a friend suggested that my trip to South Africa might be analogous to new lands I’m trying to find within. I think there’s something to that.
I invited my mother to Mexico and we went together. We breathed the salty air under navy blue clouds on a beautiful red-flagged beach, bracketed by hurricanes.
She had stayed with me in the hospital for two nights while I recovered from surgery. “The last time we stayed together in the hospital was when you were born,” she said. Now we walked on the beach and waded into the ocean in between storms, and when we weren’t on the beach we filled our plates with tasty food and listened to the waves.
We breathed some more.
We visited Chichen Itza on the day of the fall equinox — one of two days when the shadow of a snake appears on the side of the pyramid and connects with an ancient carved snake head at the base. We saw the shadow start before it clouded over and rained.
That was in 2013. The Mexico trip acted as a sort of springboard. My friend and I kept our plans and went to Key West in January 2014. Then some classmates of mine started a writing retreat in Italy and I went in September. By that time I was completely restless, wanting to move back to the west coast where winters wouldn’t keep me shut inside — I wanted to be outside more, to get more exercise, to get more Vitamin D. But I also liked being near family in the Midwest. And I needed to keep working, and I wanted to keep traveling.
What to do.
Maybe I was putting out some serious travel vibes to the universe. Maybe it was a some kind of karmic consolation prize. But just a couple of weeks after my second surgery in 2013, I won a trip to Mexico.
It was at one of those business expo things. The organizers had set up a fun little way to get people to talk to the exhibitors — a “passport” that you’d carry around and get stamped at each exhibit. Get twenty stamps and you could enter the passport into a drawing for a three-night trip for two to Mexico.
I was determined to win that trip. That was my trip.
Ha, ha, a coworker said. It’s my trip.
He was wrong. I was right. And I didn’t even have to be present to win. I left for a doctor’s appointment and later that day noticed a bunch of voicemails and tweets.
Yay! How cool was that? My real passport was about to get stamped, for the first time in more than a decade.
And now, instead of questions like, “How long do I need to keep these drains in?” and “Why is my skin graft turning black?” the big question was “Who wants to come with me to the beach and sip umbrella drinks?”
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.