Finding Nemo

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

So small, so big

Most of us have boarded a plane from New York to LA or the equivalent, and at some point during the flight, amongst the clouds, a thought occurs. As cities and mountains and deserts scroll by slowly below, "How small is the world! How easy is it to flit about the globe, jetting from one end to the other as easy as reading a book."

But, there is a saying: the more you learn, the less you know. The same could easily be said of traveling: the more places you visit, the more you realize you will never be able see it all in a single lifetime.  After my first trip abroad to Europe (backpacker Level I), I knew immediately that I needed to see "the rest of it."  It seemed simple: take a year off like other Euro gap-years, and go to all the cool spots.  A year should be PLENTY.  Maybe even overkill.  The problem, of course, is that the more you travel, the higher in the backpacking belt ranks you rise.  Which means it simply won't do to see 7 cities in 7 days.  You feel the urge, the need, to see each place longer.  To take your time, meet local people, learn new cultures, eat new foods, to get a little bit lost.  And hence, a year suddenly gets broken down to 12 months, which have only have 4 weeks each.  And of course most countries take at least 3-4 weeks to visit properly.  Which means a year away is only a scant amount of time to visit about 15-20 countries.  As there are 195 recognized countries in the world, that means it would take about 20 years of solid traveling to just see the highlights of each!!  Suddenly, a year away seems tiny: the traveler is forced to rank countries, to pick and choose only a few highlights in each place, to try to guess how long they need before flying off to the next place.

And it gets even worse.  After ranking, planning, and then setting off, you realize you are constantly missing out on great experiences you simply did not realize existed.  On a beach in Zanzibar, I spent the week listening to lazy African music, swinging in the hammock, watching the blue-green waves roll in on the white sand.  I was so happy with myself.  I patted myself on the back for being such a great traveler and planner.  But over the course of the next few days, I met traveler after traveler who also decided to spend a few days at this beach.  And they all had visited many other parts of Africa that I had no time to see.  I heard about the wonders of Lake Malawi, of running into huge packs of rare game in relatively untouristed Botswana, of the incredible dunes of the Namib Desert, and on and on and on and on.  I felt defeated.  How on earth could I possibly ever see all of those places?  Here I had planned my neat year off, feeling I had properly ranked all the best places to visit, and suddenly I was left wistful and longing for more time, more money, and a lifetime sponsorship by Itchy Feet Magazine.

Thus, here I am today.  About to embark on another year away.  But I have no illusions this time.  I realize I can't see it all, and never will.  This time its about simply enjoying being on the road again and relishing the adventure of it all.  I will stop and smell the roses, the mud, and fresh rain, the grass, the flowers, the snow, the dirty cities, the fresh kabobs, the stinky camels, and I will smile and be content.

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