At one point when I drove my kids to school this morning, we were stuck behind a vvvveeeeerrrrryyyy slow-moving street-sweeper on a two-lane road with no shoulder. The kids were shocked and delighted when I saw a break in oncoming traffic, flew into the opposing lane and whipped around the street-sweeper. They said it was the best ride to school ever.
This incident got me thinking about how often something as mundane as a drive to school becomes an adventure with my kids. Because even when we follow all the traffic rules, they notice and ponder so much about what happens around us. They discuss whether the brown lab or the beagle looks friendlier, and what life must be like for the dapper man who walks past us every day in a tailored suit and jaunty hat, smoking a cigar. They wonder why people say "it's a cloudy day," when really the whole sky is grey, and you can't see a single cloud. They are mindful without knowing it, present without trying.
While there are countless reasons why we travel, I think that many of us adults travel, in part, because we feel like our daily lives are not exciting enough. We think that the people walking down the street we're on are not as fascinating as the people in the next place we could go--in Paris or Malawi or Ecuador. But what if, actually, they are?
If we learn to pay attention, kids can remind us that the smallest experiences contain the largest possibilities. Practically anything can spark wonder in us, or help us start a conversation, or get us moving, or make us smile.
So here's your challenge: Let this upcoming week be a scavenger hunt for wonder, wherever you are. I'll do it too, and let's share together. Each day, notice, and write down or photograph, three small and simple things that spark the curious traveler in you.
It's National Peace Corps Week, which makes me think back on my own experience. My time in Costa Rica was powerful. I worked with PANI, the Costa Rican equivalent of child protective services. A few months before I arrived in BriBri, PANI had opened its first office in the region. Prior to this, anyone dealing with child abuse, neglect, or delinquency needed to travel two hours to the nearest office. Still, people were wary of the organization – there were rumors of child-stealing, along with the fear that those sorts of rumors brings out in people.
But years before my arrival, there had been some Peace Corps volunteers that the community had loved well. So for a while, I became the PANI spokesperson. Because people were willing to listen to what a Peace Corps volunteer had to say, they were then willing to learn how PANI could support their families and their region.
I ended up working in over 20 local communities, some of which I reached by boat and then by horseback. I created workshops and programs on violence prevention, creativity, motivation, encouraging dialogue between parents and children, preparing indigenous youth to attend mixed high schools, and using the arts to share values and perspectives.
I felt amazed and honored that, at least once a week, people ran up to say that I had taught them something that was now benefiting their family.
The most profound impact of my work was when, after teaching school groups about sexual abuse, two girls told me they had been abused. We were able to support the girls and prosecute their abusers. I felt so grateful that I was able to help these girls change their lives for the better.
The theme of Peace Corps Week 2016 is "Highlighting Happiness: What Does Happiness Look Like in My Peace Corps Country?"
Costa Ricans are known for their ability to appreciate the good in their day-to-day experience. In my experience, they are always ready to celebrate something. Even when they face challenges, most Costa Ricans I know can usually find a reason to dance, to laugh, and to create more joy in their lives.
My work with PANI dealt with challenging issues that many travelers don't think of when they visit Costa Rica. My experience with the Peace Corps taught me that all of our lives are complex. It helped me to value the hard work I do to make people's lives better. And it also helped me to appreciate the small joys we all have access to in every moment.
I’ve always believed that traveling is a highly creative act. And after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, I’ve decided that creativity is actually another word for traveling well. Liz asks, “What is creativity?” and answers that it is, “The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.” When you travel well, you are absolutely tapping into those mysteries, and you feel more alive as a result. You give something of yourself, and you connect with the people and places you visit. You learn things about the world, and about yourself. You come home with powerful memories and ideas you can’t wait to act on. And your experience may echo the experiences of others, but, just like creativity, its power and meaning is unique to you.
While Liz’s book is about how to embrace your own creativity, she also weaves in the impact of travel on her own life, along with tales of Brazil, Bali, Philadelphia, and other places you might visit. Throughout the book, she explores how living as a creative being often means beginning in one place and being willing to end up someplace else – figuratively, and sometimes literally.
Liz writes about how the four concepts below apply to creativity. As I read her words, I thought about how they also help us turn travel into an art form.
If Things Don’t Go the Way you Plan,
Try Something Else
A few years ago, we took a family road trip from Vermont to North Carolina. My husband and I planned to drive to Delaware and spend our first two nights camping on the beach. Our kids gleefully anticipated roasting marshmallows, counting the stars, and falling asleep to the rhythm of the waves. Instead, we all waded through hours of nightmare traffic until well after dark, and were told upon arrival at the campground that there was no admittance after dark, our site had been given away, and there were no available hotels within a two-hour drive. Eddy and I expected some tears, but instead the kids got pretty excited about having a “picnic” in a Safeway parking lot at midnight, and then climbing into their pajamas so we could keep driving south while they slept in the car.
Just yesterday, two years after that road trip, I overheard my daughter telling a friend how great that picnic in the parking lot had been. Of the whole road trip, she said that was the most fun thing we did.
Being open to the experience that’s in front of you, even if it’s vastly different from the experience you had planned, involves bear-hugging your sense of creativity. And it leads to those indelible-ink kinds of memories that make us want to travel more and more.
When You Do Your Inner Work, Your Experience in the World Changes
In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert writes about using meditation as part of the creative process. She notes that “when you push past the difficult, you end up with a raw, new, unexplored universe within yourself.” Although travel isn’t a traditional form of meditation, travel often leads us to being fully present, right where we are. And when what’s happening where we are is unfamiliar or makes us feel uncomfortable, we get to choose whether we’ll push on into new levels of awareness or withdraw into judgement.
Once, I was alone in Barcelona, and feeling totally immune to the city’s charms. I was lonely, and I kept tripping myself in an internal dialogue about where I should live and what work I should be doing.
Frustrated with my thoughts, and wanting to move beyond them, I started roaming aimlessly. As dusk neared, I climbed old cobblestones to the top of a hill crowned by an old church. By chance, someone told me that a poetry reading was about to begin, and I wandered inside. Everyone read in Catalan, which I did not understand. The reading lasted for over two hours. It was the first time I had spent so much time listening to a language I didn’t speak without hearing a translation of anything. I had no idea what anyone was saying, but I was struck by a felt sense of what language means to people, and of collective consciousness. I felt the power of what was being said as a visceral force, and I could see its impact on the people around me.
After the reading, I could have asked someone to explain some of the poems to me in Spanish. But I felt compelled to let the experience be what it was. When I left the church, my problems seemed farther away. I felt at peace with the strangers along my path, with the stars that lit my way, and with my own self.
If You Learn to Appreciate Trickster Energy,
You’ll Feel Better
I realize that a lot of my best travel memories involve events that seem rather disastrous. And then hours, days, or maybe even years later, I realize that those disasters were actually some of the best parts of the trip.
That’s what trickster energy is all about. In folktales from around the world, a trickster is a character who embodies opposite energies, and who helps to transform a situation for the better. When we create and when we travel, our own perception is the shape-shifter that determines the outcome of our experience. Especially when we’re in a place where the language and the customs are different from our own, when we are tired or confused, and when we have expectations or make assumptions about an experience – whether we intend to or not, that experience is seldom what we initially perceive it to be.
When I travel I tend to take local transportation, rather than anything designed for tourists, because I like to get a sense of what’s it’s really like to live in a place.
Once, my husband and I took a local ferry at dusk to a tiny Costa Rican town, with the understanding that there was a bus on the other side, waiting to take us to a beach town. (hmm…dusk, beach, I’m beginning to recognize a previously unnoticed theme in my travels) The promised bus never materialized, the return ferry had already left, and darkness was imminent. We seemed to be on a road with no houses, no businesses, no pay phones, and a sign saying that the beach was a good 20 kilometers away. We found ourselves standing in the dust with locals who didn’t seem to know how they were going to get to the beach town either. They talked and laughed and shared pineapple empanadas with us.
Finally, someone’s cousin’s uncle came by with a red pick-up truck, ready to take all of us to the beach. We packed ourselves onto the bed of the truck, and held onto our neighbors and laughed hysterically when the ruts in the road threatened to toss us toward the trees.
When my husband and I stepped off the ferry, we were frustrated that we were told there would be a bus but there wasn’t. We could have let our fears take over – we were in a place we didn’t know, with people we didn’t know, and we had no understanding of how to get, well, anywhere. But relaxing into the experience let it become a little party. We could feel like adventurers rather than like bumbling tourists. And that part of our trip became more interesting, and even more memorable than the beautiful beach.
Recognize Your Gifts and Keep Moving
Toward the end of Big Magic, the author encourages us to “make space for paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul.” When we travel, we constantly come up against beliefs and ways of doing things that are very different from our own. We get to face our fears, our judgements of ourselves and others, and the possibility that how we live is going to be turned on its head. When we can let all of these things be true, our creativity flourishes, and we grow. And we start dreaming about where we’ll travel next.
Travel done well can be a catalyst
for positive change in our lives and in the lives of others.
This on-going series of interviews looks at how that happens.
Today we’ll meet Cate Brubaker, part-time global nomad who has lived in Germany and the US and traveled to 35 countries. Cate is the Founder and Chief Re-entry Relauncher at SmallPlanetStudio.com, a personal and professional development company for global adventurers in re-entry.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Cate! I love the ways you support others to live their global visions, and it will be great to learn more about your own experiences. Let’s dive right in. Tell us, what are the most profound ways that travel has impacted your life?
How much time do you have? Ha! I feel like I could spend hours unpacking this question. My short answer is that travel has made me more adventurous, independent, resilient, educated, open-minded…simply put, travel has made me who I am.
Share an aspect of traveling that felt like a struggle but that you learned to manage.
I used to really struggle with being present. I’d arrive in Paris and after a day I was itching to hop a train to Madrid. I wanted to consume as many new places as possible. Over time, I learned to slow down and focus on where I am. I’m now better at balancing appreciation for where I am with anticipating where I’m going next.
Tell us about the best journey you've taken as a solo traveler.
Just one? This is hard! They’re all the “best” in different ways. When I really think about it, I have to say my first one was the best because it set the stage for a life of travel. When I was 16 I moved to Germany to live with a host family and go to school for a year. That year was filled with so many firsts – first time flying alone, first time away from home, first time outside the US, first time making friends in another language, first time community to school via subway, etc. I always knew I loved travel but after that year abroad I knew without a doubt that I’d always live a global life.
What's the most delicious food you've discovered in your travels?
It’s a toss-up between the cookies my German host mom made at Christmas, red lentil soup in Turkey, the chocolate torte I shared with a friend in Berlin (we really regretted only buying one slice), and the super fresh baguette I once bought at a bakery near my AirBnB apartment in Paris. Food is one of the best parts of travel, isn’t it?!
I’ve actually just launched the “Global Kitchen Project” on my blog. The first Monday of each month I’ll be sharing a delicious recipe from my travels. January’s recipe is Laugenbretzeln, tasty German soft pretzels. Get the recipe here: http://smallplanetstudio.com/global-kitchen-project-january-2016/
If people want to travel internationally, but feel afraid to do so, how would you encourage them?
Feel the fear and travel anyway! I’m often nervous before I hit the road but once I’m on the plane it turns into excitement. Don’t let fear hold you back from seeing the world!
What are you most proud of having contributed to others during your travels?
I’ve contributed to helping people see through stereotypes they have about other countries and learn about who they are as a cultural being.
On your website it says, "Make going home the best part of going abroad." That idea of travel as a catalyst for a great life is essential to At Home in the World. Talk to us more about it.
Most people don’t want to go home after living or traveling abroad! Home can seem boring compared to being abroad. Reverse culture shock can feel bewildering and unexpectedly hard. And sometimes it feels like nobody sees – or cares – how going abroad has changed you. Because of these challenges we often overlook the gift that going home gives us – the opportunity to intentionally create a meaningful, satisfying, and sustainable global life.
Whereas travel is active, re-entry is reflective. Travel is a spark and re-entry is the opportunity to stoke the global fire growing within us. Going home isn’t the end, it’s simply the next phase of your global journey! If you use re-entry as an opportunity to explore who you are and what you want your global life to be like, now that you’ve been abroad, you’ll make going home the best part of going abroad.
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Cate! Your thoughts and your work are inspiring.
I am looking out the window, loving the landscape as it passes like the wind. Waving grasses or graffiti-covered walls, they all appear and then vanish while I stare, transfixed. The walls of this train car are painted a deep green. The cracked vinyl seats flip so I can change direction when the train does. I am wearing headphones, listening to music that spirals me from melancholy to joy and back again. The people around me are speaking languages I don't understand. The door creaks, and often when someone walks through, it doesn't close for a long time. If I take my eyes from the window, I can see into the car ahead: a blue flowered hat hangs from an overhead bin; two teenage boys each balance on one foot and try to push the other down in the aisle; a small girl has fallen asleep with her legs dangling over the arm of her chair. I travel on trains that take their time arriving.
These trains are the best places I know of for daydreaming. On long train rides, my daydreams about what it will be like where I'm going can take their sweet time unraveling. And as long as the train is moving, I can only be right where I am. So I also revel in drawing up new plans for myself and in pulling out old memories one by one to polish them.
When the train stops in a tiny town I've never heard of, I smile at those first sentence hugs and hellos I see outside the window. While the train pulls away from the station, I wonder how those stories will blossom. Then a woman who could be my grandmother sits down next to me, offers me a cookie, and asks me where I'm going.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." I am sure that thought came to him when he was traveling on a train.
Hi, I'm Deidra
To me, transformative travel means traveling in a way that connects you to places and people in a profound way., being real and present with what is happening while you travel and recognizing the impact travel has on your life beyond your journeys.