Confessions of a Traveler
Originally sent June 28, 2014
"Not all those who wander are lost."
To all my old friends and family, recent acquaintances and fellow travelers, former co-workers and past bosses, returned Peace Corps Volunteers and those still fighting the good fight (and oppressive heat) in West Africa:
Greetings! To those of you accustomed to the periodic letter, I apologize for the long absence, but as a very dear friend of mine once said to me, there is a time to write, and there is a time to live. Needless to say, I have been preoccupied with the latter. And to those of you who are getting a letter for the first time, those who happened across my path and were kind enough to offer a business card or a hastily scribbled email address, welcome to the World According to Travis. I will try to keep the pretentiousness to a minimum.
Now, when I last left you, I was sitting on a little patch of paradise beside Lake Malawi, dreaming of the Mother City. Thirty-eight-hours-on-a-urine-stained-bus later, I was back in Johannesburg, from whose sprawling metropolis I happily left on the wings of a Boeing Seven-seventy-something, bound for a different kind of paradise: Cape Town. And with no real plan besides get a job, I took yet another bus to the city center and booked into a hostel. Forty-eight hours, and a couple choice beers, later, I was set. I would spend the next six months working behind a bar, serving drinks to young, cash-strapped travelers, earning a little money, smoking entirely too much cannabis, and generally enjoying a southern summer. Coming from the intellectual solitude of living in a West African village, the hyper-social reality of life in a hostel proved difficult at times, and I learned that I was perhaps a little stranger than I had previously thought, but all-in-all I look back at my time there with the utmost fondness. Cape Town is a very special place, a city unlike any other in Africa, and Ashanti (the hostel) is a world unto itself—a magical, drugged-out fairy land where everyone is welcome, however strange of fucked-up they may be. (Or, as one staff member coined, it’s an orphanage for adults.) And so, to those of you who shared this time with me, a million thanks—I love you all way more than you probably ever imagined.
At this point, however, many of you must be thinking, But Travis, where are you now? Well, several months ago, I was looking into extending my visa to South Africa and discovered that in order to do so I had to show that I had purchased a plane ticket out of the country. So I started thinking about it: I could buy a ticket home, like I had originally planned, or, because I still had money in the bank and a job that would add to that balance (if only small small), I could go somewhere else. It was an easy decision: I was going traveling again. But where? I knew I was done with Africa, at least for now, and after three-and-half years in the Third World, I didn’t want to go anywhere particularly impoverished either. So, naturally, I settled on Europe, where I now had friends scattered throughout. Which bring us to the present moment.
Today I am writing from the city of Riga, in the tiny Baltic state of Latvia. (I’ll wait while you look that up on a map.) It has been two months since I arrived on the Continent, and thus far I have been to Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and, more recently, Lithuania and Latvia (in that order). I have taken many buses and trains but just one flight (from Ireland to Lithuania), and am now traveling almost exclusively with my thumb. I have wandered many of the great cities alone, and have shared others with friends both new and old. I have stayed with acquaintances, I have stayed at hostels, and I have stayed with complete strangers found over the internet (couchsurfing.org—a beautiful thing). I have seen many incredible works of art, bantered with prostitutes in Hamburg, sat and worked at the same Parisian writing desk as Allen Ginsberg, and drank 33-year-old single malt scotch whisky with good friends in Edinburgh (in a bar that boasted over 200 different whiskies). I've followed in the steps of Leopold Bloom and sat down to dinner with a James Joyce look-a-like, an editor of a major newspaper (or rag, depending on who you talk to...), an Irish MP, and a foreign ambassador (all because I struck up a random conversation with a man thinking of buying a copy of Finnegan's Wake). I have walked well over a hundred kilometers, snapped in excess of 3,000 photographs, and spent more on coffee than I even care to know. I’ve explored so many incredible cities that they start to blend together, and still have many more to see. I have met complete strangers on the street and spent some of my best days with them. I even had a short foray into the nudist lifestyle in Amsterdam (a story I’ll save for another time…) But more importantly, I have found my way back into the arms of the beautiful Oreige, who I met once upon a time traveling in Morocco. My days of traveling alone are over for now, and that is truly a beautiful thing.
Now, I get many questions from people I meet traveling. The younger ones always want to know how I afford it, to which I reply that I sweated my ass off in West Africa for two-plus years, and in return got a little bit of money from Uncle Sam. Granted, that money is meant to provide a little financial stability upon returning home to the States, but I think what I’m doing is much more valuable. Money comes and money goes, but experiences stay with you forever. (Plus I’m pretty certain my parents won’t let me starve if I come home broke—which, of course, I will.) The next question I usually get is whether I ever plan to go home. This one is easier to answer: Yes, when I run out of money.
But don’t you miss home? they ask.
Now this one is a bit trickier. I miss my family, I say, and I miss my friends (what few I still have after so many years away). And I genuinely miss Mexican food. But I know that home will always be there, and that it’s probably much the same as I left it. Stepping outside your own borders gives remarkable clarity, and I’ve discovered there are many things about my country that I don’t like, and I meet some Americans abroad that legitimately make me cringe. But for every loud, stupid, ignorant compatriot I come across, there is another that clicks perfectly with me, and I am reminded of who I am, where I come from, and what I love about the dear U.S. of A. So yes, a big part of me misses home, but a larger part of me loves the joy of traveling, of seeing new places and new people. Life is too short, and the world too varied and too beautiful, to sit contently in your own little bubble. Of course, I am blessed with what remains of my youth and the total lack of responsibilities that comes with it, but I challenge you all to step outside your comfort zone and experience something a little extraordinary. It may just be the best thing you ever do.
As always, I hope this letter finds you all in good health and good spirits. In case you’re curious, our plan is to head south through the Slovak countries and down into the Balkans, then over to Turkey and maybe into Georgia. We’ll see. I’ve found that if you don’t have a concrete destination, you can’t really get lost. But no matter where I end up, you can be sure that my camera will be a’snappin’ and my pen a’scribblin’. So until next time…