The Non-Existent Right or Wrong of How to Travel

By Margo Millure

Given the slap your face kind of heat that rose in oil mirages off the blacktop, I remember thinking at the French/Spanish border that the passport control agent was wearing a short sleeved shirt that seemed rather starchy.

My husband, infant daughter and I would only be in this part of Southern France for a few days, but we wanted to be able to say that we’d been to Spain. Even at the time, 20 years ago, we knew that trading France, one country that has the landmass of Texas, for another, was pretty ridiculous. We justified it by saying that our 9 month old daughter who was strapped safely in her car seat behind us, was happiest when her favorite children’s music cassette was playing and our leased Renault was moving. But we knew the truth.

Our entire Espana aventura lasted under two hours. Around 15 minutes into it, a large black snake darted from the grass as if he had been lying in wait for us. So when all was said and done, we crossed the border back into France with our goofy, “We almost ran over a snake in Spain,” story and memories of the heat. We also could say we’d ventured into a new country. Looking at it now, I appreciate that the experience, as unsophisticated as it seemed, was a luxury.

Ask and people will tell you many reasons why they travel. They travel to get away or to find; they travel to learn something or to forget everything, They travel in pursuit of different landscapes, new foods, or better air. They travel for work and for play and to see things they’ve read about in books. They travel to have something to talk about with their friends and check things off bucket lists.

In spite of these seemingly disparate reasons, I believe that what we are really all looking for when we travel is a feeling that is strong enough to turn into a memory. I find that one of the nicer effects of the economic downturn, is that generally people have wizened to the fact that this “feeling” cannot be bought.

This past July when I stepped out of the cab in front of my hotel, I didn’t know that the street upon which I was standing would turn out to be my favorite thing in all of Ghent, Belgium. I didn’t even know the name of it. That Jan Breydelstraat was my favorite thing wouldn’t occur to me until after I returned home.

I paid the cab driver and checked to be sure I had my suitcase, purse and camera bag. Disoriented still, I got my first look up and down the cobblestoned street. To my left I could see Gravensteen Castle and looking right, towards Ghent’s main canal, I could see that the street wasn’t very long. Flower pots were neatly lined up on the roof of the shop next to my hotel, and across the street a man on a ladder was painting the trim of a restaurant a thick and shiny black. Something familiar, cozy, yet just the slightest bit uncomfortable stirred in me. Like the beginning of the kind of dream you have at night, I wanted it to keep going.

When traveling the best experiences always occur when we are pushing ourselves at least slightly beyond what is comfortable. Sometimes it happens in places like the Louvre, but most often it happens somewhere else, like on a street you have just stepped onto in Ghent, or on a seemingly silly and impulsive border crossing into a new country. It has less to do with the place or moment itself I think, than the uncomfortableness and “familiar unfamiliarity” of being forced into it.

One of the temptations I must consciously resist when traveling by myself is to pay too much attention to a voice in my head that says, “don’t venture any further than right here.” Sometimes it calls for a literal border crossing, but often it’s a matter of a simple internal shift.

Each time I walked back to my hotel, I would allow Jan Breydelstraat to hold me there. Peering into her windows was the easy part. I then made my own kind of small, but significant internal shift. I found myself sipping coffee at one of her outdoor cafes, then later that day I sat on a bench in a small green space and people watched. I made a reservation in her shiniest, most welcoming restaurants for dinner. Bravely I entered an elegant store that sold only chandeliers. Then as a final small border crossing, instead of merely looking in the window of a boutique that looked way too chic for me, I went in and tried on a scarf and chatted with the storekeeper.

When we travel, even the least outwardly dare-devilish amongst us, I know for a fact, are crossing borders, both literal and not, all the time.

So contrary to what many self proclaimed gurus tell you, there is no right or wrong way to go about all this. Nor, do I believe there are “travelers” and then there are “tourists.” When it comes down to it we all crave this feeling of being jettisoned into the present moment, stopped abruptly, and gifted with the luxury of dancing around in it for a while. Whether you are the person on top of the tourist bus or visiting a small village in Peru, we are all more similar than we think.

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2 Responses to “The Non-Existent Right or Wrong of How to Travel”

  1. Krista says:

    I love that you popped over the Spanish border just so you could say you’d been to Spain. :-) I did that in Sweden once – took the ferry over from Denmark, drove round a roundabout and took the ferry back. So silly but fun. :-) I love that there is no right or wrong reason to travel. I find that my reasons change with the time of life I find myself in. But no matter what the reason, it is always a good one. :-)

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