Friday, June 3, 2011

My Travel-Strut Through Life

Tony:   You know what I wanna do?  Do you know what I wanna do?
Jackie:  What?
Tony:  Strut.
--John Travolta, Staying Alive (1983)

One day, on a walk through town back in Kosovo, I caught my reflection in a storefront window.  My head was high; shoulders straight back; my arms swinging; and, I noticed, there was a pronounced swagger in my step.  I thought:  Who is that person?  I barely recognized myself.   

Along this journey I’d come to notice that I’m a different person when I travel solo.  At home, I could play a quirky (read: neurotic) character in a Woody Allen film.  Abroad, I’m the biggest rock star on the planet, the smartest person in the room, and a total badass—all rolled into one.  I don’t just walk through foreign lands; I strut.  I’m talking a full-on, John-Travolta, Saturday-Night-Fever strut.

The fact of the matter is this:  it can be a jungle out there, and there’s no room in my backpack for a bundle of neuroses.  I have to pack confidence and street smarts and cleverness and wit.  On the road, I can’t show signs of weakness.  I must forge ahead like I know where I’m going.  I know I must appear tough, confident, and sure—even if it is just pretense.

There were times over the past months when I was alone, afraid, and feeling completely vulnerable.  I hopped endless trains, buses and planes, never knowing what lay ahead; at times becoming hopelessly lost; at one point dropped in the middle of a desolate Montenegrin city at 4:00 a.m. with no map and no clue.

For precisely those times, I adopted a certain way of carrying myself.  The more afraid I was on the inside, it seemed, the more exaggerated was my outward stride.  Walking home late at night from Albanian coffee shops called for the Richard Pryor-Gene-Wilder “Yeah, we bad” Bustin’-Loose gait.  Crossing the sometimes-dangerous footbridge to the Serbian side of Mitrovica invoked a George-Jefferson-esque bounce and swing.  For the most part, nobody messed with me.  My strut told them:  they bes’ not.

And here’s the thing:  the more I pretended to be strong and self-assured, the more it became real.  I was, in fact, self-reliant, and savvy, and pushing past fear.  My mind was open wide; my ignorance vanishing; my confidence level off the charts.  I was an international sensation; a bad mama jama; largely fearless.  Solo travel had a way of transforming me, and the travel-strut emerged from this.  It was not an exaggeration.  It was a reflection of me.  

I realized how differently I live life when I travel.  I stop and smell flowers.  I watch sunsets.  I take my time.  I follow unexpected paths.  I laugh out loud.  I learn something new every day.

I believe in things, too.  I believe things will always work out.  I believe in the goodness of people.  I believe in possibilities.  I believe in the outrageous and the divine.  I believe in myself.

This journey reminded me, as well, how simple and straightforward life can be.   Every day I needed only three things:  I needed to eat, I needed to engage in some basic hygiene, and I needed to find a bed to sleep in for the night.  Wait, four things:  I needed coffee, too; preferably cappuccino.  Beyond that, everything else was gravy. 

It’s no secret that I started this sojourn somewhat freaked out over turning 40.  I spent time during my travels thinking about life after this milestone.  I had endless questions:  Where do I go from here?  What should I be doing with my life?  What does it all mean?

I saw signs everywhere, it seemed.  One day, on a long walk close to the shores of Lake Ohrid, I spotted a rusty old 40 road sign beneath a blue circle with a red “X” through it.  Next to the sign was a man tending a flock of sheep.  At the time the song on my I-Shuffle was Tom Petty’s American Girl.  He was singing: 

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
Yeah, and if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep

I spent the rest of the afternoon completely confounded, convinced I was receiving a message between the song and the sign and the flock of sheep.  But what

Was I a lost sheep in need of a shepherd?  The broad life-questions swimming in my head as of late already had me thinking in religious overtones.  I kept thinking about Moses, for example, and how he had wandered the desert for 40 years.  If my Bible-study-memory served, I seemed to recall that Moses died just after his 40 years of wandering concluded.  Of course, that did not bode well for my metaphor.

And what about this so-called American Girl?  Those lyrics drove me crazy.  What was the “one little promise” she intended to keep?  Did the American Girl, in fact, run somewhere in the great big world—like to Macedonia?  Did she die trying to keep that mysterious promise? 

And what was the meaning of the rust on that 40 sign?  Did that big red “X” hold some sort of message for me?  I wondered.

In the end I decided I needed to stop making everything about me.  I’m not the reincarnation of Moses, and I’m not the American Girl in Tom Petty’s song.  I’m just a woman who, at 40, found herself at a crossroads with endless curiosity about foreign places, just the right amount of frequent flyer miles to get to Russia and beyond, and a need to turn another page in life. 

And all those 40 signs out there?  I think they were meant to indicate the speed limit.

And here’s the funny thing.  After all this, I discovered that there was never any need to freak out.  Being 40 is actually pretty damn awesome.  I’m capitalizing off all the wisdom that comes with age, I still have a long life ahead, and—according to some very kind people who told me so—apparently, I still look good.  What’s not fabulous about that?

I did, in fact, make progress on some lingering personal issues as well.  Three days holed up in a Bulgarian monastery will do wonders in that regard.  I went to the monastery knowing that I’ve always enjoyed my own company immensely.  I relish my “alone time,” if you will.  But, as I learned definitively, solitary life is not for me.  I would never make it as a monk, nor would I want to.  I nearly cracked on Day 2.  It was awful.

Weeks later, on the shores of Lake Ohrid, something else hit me.  I was perched upon an old stone wall, mesmerized by another gorgeous Macedonian sunset, and I got to thinking.  As much as I love to fly solo—and, truly, I do— it would be nice, I thought, to have a co-pilot.

Did I just say that?, I asked myself.  “Yes, I did,” I responded, with certitude.  It was then that I realized, as well, that I’d been talking to myself way too much lately.  I was ready to talk someone else’s ear off.  The timing couldn’t be better, either.  I now had so much to tell.

Near the end of the journey, I finally got my long-awaited consultation with the Oracle of Delphi in Greece.  It had been close to six months of self-reflection on the road, and I still didn’t have many definitive answers.  I didn’t know what I’d be doing, or even where I’d be living, on my return home.  I didn’t know the meaning of life, or where my life would go from here, or what was meant to be.

I just knew that I didn’t want to stop being that person I saw in the reflection back in Kosovo.  The one who exudes confidence and dreams big.  The one who lives in the present and trusts in the future.  The one who finds joy in all the little wonders that make up our great big world.  The one with the travel-strut.  

I wanted to travel through my own life the way I travel in far away lands.  

The Oracle said, “Sounds like you already have your answer.”
I do?”
“Well, what is it that you want to do?” the Oracle asked, knowingly.
“Right.  Now go home, and bring your travel-strut with you.”
But what about the future?” I asked, nervously.
 The Oracle said, in an almost teasing tone, “Well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I will tell you, the next part's gonna be really good.”

That's all I needed to hear.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

And thus concludes Travelarity.  Thanks for following along the way.  And now for something completely different . . . .

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Monster-Truck Cure For Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock—i.e., the feeling one gets upon returning to the home culture after growing accustomed to a foreign one—is a real phenomenon.  I know this to be true, because back in early 2008, I had a bad case of it.

At that time, I had just come off the Africa leg of a one-year journey.  I returned in mid-December, just in time to catch the crass commercialism and frivolity of the Christmas holidays.  Blow-up Santas on front lawns; special $3.99 containers meant to present that perfect Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card; overpriced Hickory Farms sausage-and-cheese gift packs; Kleenex with holiday designs; Snuggies and ShamWows; that kind of thing.  It was hard to take after all I’d seen and experienced. 

Long story short:  I tried, without success, to fight my culture.  It was a losing battle, and it wasn’t winning me any friends, either.  No one likes to be told that their expensive shoes cost more than an average Bolivian makes in a year.  I’d become a drag, and it wasn’t helpful to anyone:  not to me; not to the friends I’d endlessly irritate with my soapbox lectures; not to the people living in the slums of Nairobi. 

It took me forever to beat back the reverse culture shock as a result.  This time, I was determined to nip it in the bud—ASAP—preferably by the end of this Memorial Day weekend.  My strategy:  don’t try to beat ‘em; rather, join ‘em.  Embrace what makes my country, my country.  Firmly take my place back.  Be proud to be an American. 

Serendipity, it seems, conspired to help me overcome.  My first day back in America—in Clearwater, Florida, to be more precise—was also the first day of my brother’s family’s vacation out of town.  I now had the run of his large home, and custody of his Ford F-150 monster truck.  “Don’t scratch the rims,” he said, before I was turned loose.

I spent the next few days drowning in excess.  Here I am:  flipping through the 1,952 channels on a ginormous flat-screen TV; taking the longest and hottest showers as humanly possible; cranking up the AC; running the dryer endlessly; leaving the lights on in all the rooms; watching Seinfeld reruns (of course); nibbling Wheat Thins Stix straight from the box.  (When did they start making those?)  For days I’ve done nothing but luxuriate in every excess I could think of and get away with.  I’m not in Albania anymore.

First Starbucks in Florida.  The logo changed!
It had been six months since I’d driven a car, and now I was perched twelve feet off the ground in a bad-ass truck, owning the Florida roads.  Last week, I was walking everywhere.  Here, I’m driving unreasonably short distances to buy expensive cups of coffee.  Because I’m an American, and that’s what people in America do.  What do you mean we should walk to the Starbucks just around the corner?  What are you, crazy?

My brother said only “don’t scratch the rims;” he didn’t mention anything about flying down the highway at top speed, singing Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life at the top of my lungs; or taking my hands off the wheel while I banged air drums to Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me.  So I figured those things would be okay.  I’m addicted to this truck now; it’s so American—the way it guzzles gas and barely fits into a parking space at Target.  I love it, unapologetically, and I don't care if all those people back in Europe think it's not sensible.  It’s just like Jon says:  I just wanna live while I’m alive.

There are other things I’ve been doing to conquer the reverse culture shock quickly.  First, I’ve stopped telling strangers that I just got back from traveling abroad for six months.  Nobody cares, and anyway, Americans think it’s weird, all that traveling to foreign places when we have a perfectly good country right here.  I can tell by the looks on their faces.  I must tuck those “when I was in Macedonia” stories away for someone who's not just pretending to care.  The sooner I get back to the insular and provincial, the better;  I know.

I’ve also stopped living out of my backpack.  I unpacked it and transferred the stuff into a regular roller-suitcase.  I’m still homeless, but I’m no longer a backpacker wearing the same two pairs of pants.  Yesterday I went to the mall and bought new clothes.  I used plastic.  It’s the American way.  In fact, I'm thinking of going back today to get that expensive facial cream I had my eye on.  I'll figure a way to pay for it sometime down the road.

And perhaps the most important thing to make the transition complete:  it’s time for me to stop posting to my travel blog.  I know—it’s going to be hard—but it’s time.  I’ve got one more post left, and then it’s over for Travelarity.  Of course, in the weeks to come, I’ll still check the page-visit count obsessively to see how many hits the blog continues to get.  (Yes, I just did it again.  It’s at 8,396.  By no means viral, but still totally decent.)

Meanwhile, throwing myself headlong into American culture has been nothing short of euphoric.  Yesterday I stopped at the Circle K, where strange things are, indeed, afoot.  On Sunday I visited my eldest brother's family in the next town over.  We ate pulled pork smothered in Sweet Baby Ray's barbeque sauce and watched the first two Twilight movies back-to-back.  (I prefer Edward, but my gosh does that Jacob look good without a shirt.)   On the way there, I spotted an oversized Scarface towel and thought about buying one.  I could take it to the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where maybe I'll rent a jet ski.  Who knows, I might even take in the Gun Show scheduled for next week.  The possibilities are just endless.

Here's something you don't see in Luxembourg.
Soon, I'm sure I'll begin to pull back a bit.  I’m actually thinking of walking to Starbucks one day, and I may even let myself feel bad about spending $3.00 on a cup of coffee every single day, and sometimes twice.  But in the meantime, I’m back, baby, and loving this culture of mine.   I've come to realize over time that, here, nothing is really shocking.  I think that's why I so adore the good ol' U.S. of A. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Master and Johnny Cash: A Travelarity Book Report

The National Library of Russia in Moscow.

I once read somewhere that, to be a successful writer, one should (1) write every day, and (2) read all the time.  I followed this advice religiously during my travels over the past six months, so I’m thinking I must be on the cusp of something big.  In fact, I can smell success as I write this.  It smells like money, and Barnes & Noble, and really good coffee.  

When I travel, I like to read contemporaneously about the places I’m visiting, if possible.  That’s why one day I shelled out 450 Russian rubles (about $15, even at half price) for a book called The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.  I’d never heard of it until my Russophile roommate in St. Petersburg, Scottish Janine, highly recommended it.  It’s a Soviet-era satire concerning the Devil’s visit to Moscow.  I loved it, just like Scottish Janine said I would, and was not the least bit surprised to discover that The Master and Margarita is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

I read and learned from The Master as I struggled simultaneously to write my own book.  Take The Master’s opening, for example.  Here’s how Bulgakov began:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds.  One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand.  His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size.  The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish-hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers.

If I were writing this same passage, I would have said: 

I saw these two guys sitting by a pond.  It was hot.

See the difference?  From that day forward, I tried to be a little more like Mikhail Bulgakov—and a little less like a first grader—in my own book writing.

Drawings in stairwell of Bulgakov Museum, Moscow 

The Master was over 500 pages, and I didn’t finish it until I reached Ukraine, where, incidentally, Bulgakov was born.  I was sad when it was time for me trade it in my hostel’s book exchange.  But I was also eager to see what would come next.

The hostel book exchange is one of my favorite aspects of travel.  It’s pretty straightforward:  leave a book; take a book.  I never know what I’ll be reading next, and I like it that way.  Sometimes you can find a real interesting gem.  A life-changer, even.

In Kiev, Ukraine, I ended up with a compilation of genocide-survivor memoirs called Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.  And here’s the weird thing:  I saw on the inside cover that this had been a library book from a satellite-branch library in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I held a library card growing up.  How weird is that?, I wondered, thinking it was an omen of sorts.  

But what did it mean?  In recent years, I had become increasingly interested in human rights law and genocide studies, particularly after visits to Rwanda and Bosnia.  I was convinced that this book being left behind was meant to be a message for me; like it was pointing me in a direction as I considered my future path.  

I racked my brains thinking, but what?  Should I go to Cambodia?  Become a human rights law professor?  Apply for a job at The Hague?  Later I decided perhaps it was just a large coincidence.  But still it's weird that the book was from my library in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Over the course of six months, I read some great books picked up in the exchanges.  The topics were wide-ranging:  from the Lost Boys of Sudan, to the political, societal, and cultural aspects of Macedonia’s ethnic communities, to a catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep breed types. 

Two random, hostel-exchange books had major influences on my writing, I think.  At least that's what I'm going to tell Matt Lauer when he asks.  The first, mentioned in a previous post, was The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, which won the Pulitzer for fiction recently.  The guy’s a genius of a writer, and I pretty much worshiped him by the time I was done.

Another book took me by surprise late in the game, and I think breathed new inspiration into my writing.  The author’s name is Matt Melvin and I picked up his recently-published first book—Dracula is a Racist: A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires—in a hostel in Albania.  I read it front-to-back on the bus ride from Saranda, Albania to Athens, Greece, and it resonated.  It’s (very) dirty and funny and dark, which can be entertaining if done well.  Which is a relief, because lately I’ve been realizing more and more that I’m (very) dirty, and funny, and dark myself.

In the end, it was the autobiography of Johnny Cash that brought me in, back to America.  Even beyond Walk The Line, Johnny Cash has interesting stories to tell.  His book showed me that if your story is a good one, telling it doesn’t have to be complicated.  It’s a lesson I still needed to learn, I think.  “Just put them words on paper, girl” is what I imagine Johnny Cash would say, as I struggle to finish my travel memoir.

So, about that.  Here’s the long and short of it:

I worked seriously on writing my book over the past months.  I had a theme song for the book and everything:  M.C. Hammer's Turn This Mutha Out.  I'd listen to the Hammer periodically when I needed a certain boost, and I think I made substantial progress on the first draft as a result.  I don't know when the memoir will be finished and polished, but I imagine it will be sometime in the coming months.  The best thing is this:  I know now that my book is no longer a matter of if, but rather, when.  

I’m not making excuses, but in my defense I do want to say a couple of things about why I didn't exactly finish a full first draft.  I didn’t realize when I started this journey just how important and time-consuming my blog would become--not to mention, I spent a lot of time actually doing all the things I wrote about in the blog.  Travelarity forced me to practice my writing every day, and it was really a great thing.  I finish it tomorrow convinced that it was worth the time, even if it did slow me down on the book.  My book will be better for it.  

Also, Travelarity connected me with so many people at home and abroad, and helped me feel less alone as I traveled solo.  And here’s something really big:  it gave me confidence.  Sometimes, when people asked me what I do for a living, I actually told them I was a “writer.”  And sometimes, within those times, I didn't even feel stupid saying it.    

Now that I’m getting close, I’ve begun to worry about other things, like fame.  I was thinking back to my visit to Scotland in 2006 when I dropped in at the “The Elephant House” – one of the cafés in Edinburgh in which J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel.  The place has become a tourist attraction.

Inside the Elephant House

As I finish my forthcoming travel memoir—and prepare for the potential spotlight—I think about all the places in eastern Europe and the Balkans that may receive similar attention.  I wrote my book in many libraries, including, most notably, the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia, where—to my amazement—I was able finagle an actual library card with my picture on it.  I wrote on the shores of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, in the Rila Monastery outside Sofia, and in endless cafes along the way.   Some of my best work emerged at the Café Memento on General Gurko Street in Sofia.  Perhaps that will be the next Elephant House?

My desk in the Rila Monastery.

A lot of times I kid—this being, after all, a humorous blog—but I want to say something seriously.  I appreciate all the support I was given on this travel-writing adventure.  With respect to the blog, I tried to give my best for those who followed along the way, and I appreciated the opportunity to write, show, and tell.  I have two more posts to go, and I’ll be sad when it’s done.   But the book is waiting, and regarding this, let me say, if I may:  if you liked this blog, you might want to cordon off a weekend when the time comes.  From what I've got so far, I'm thinking you won’t be able to put the book down once you get started.

On the flipside, if you think my blog sucked, then you’ll have plenty of time that weekend to catch up on laundry.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

And now, the Complete Travelarity Reading List, in case you’re curious:

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, David Sedaris
In My Hands:  Memories of A Holocaust Rescuer, Irene Gut Opdyke
Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, edited by Kim DePaul; compiled by Dith Pran
A Long Way Gone:  Memories of A Boy Solider, Ishmael Beah
Why Should We Teach About The Holocaust?, Jagiellonian University Institute of European Studies 
I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree, Laura Hillman
I Was No. 20823 At Auschwitz, Eva Tichauer
Survival In Auschwitz, Primo Levi
Into the Flames:  The Life of Story of a Righteous Gentile, Irene Gut Opdyke with Jeffrey M. Elliot
Mother Tongue:  The English Language, Bill Bryson
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Power Sharing and the Implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (2008)
Catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep Breed Types 
What Is the What, Dave Eggers
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Dracula Was A Racist:  A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires, Matt Melvin
Cash, The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Meet The Wilsons

Don't worry Wilson, I'll do all the paddling. You just hang on.

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, 
Cast Away (2000)

Perhaps I understand more than most how Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away became insanely attached to an inanimate object.  The protaganist, Chuck Noland, finds himself stranded on an uninhabited island after his FedEx plane crashes in the South Pacific.  In one of the undelivered packages was a white volleyball.  Chuck eventually names the ball “Wilson” and the two fast become friends.  Chuck regularly talks with Wilson—even argues sometimes—as Wilson serves as Chuck’s faithful companion.  When Wilson falls overboard into the ocean, Chuck is naturally grief-stricken. 

I probably would not be able to watch that particular scene where Wilson floats away without breaking down.  I had two Wilsons of my own when I was out there in the world alone, and I think I can understand the extent of Chuck’s devastation.

My first Wilson was a black LL Bean long-sleeve, fleece pullover.  I bought it in an outlet store somewhere outside Wilmington, Delaware in 2006, and brought it with me when I left home to travel the seven continents in 2007.  At first it was just a fleece pullover, but by the time we reached Peru eight weeks later, it had become my Wilson.  At least, that’s what I called him.

Wilson was a good friend.  He kept me warm on frigid Bolivian trains.  He was a comfortable pillow on long bus rides through Patagonia.  He was a constant companion; always there to guard me against the night air’s chill.  Many times, he just hung at the ready around my waist, sleeves tied in front.

This is where Wilson was when we made our way into Oslo, Norway toward the end of summer.  I remember what happened like it was yesterday.  It was August 27, 2007, and our big plan for the day was to visit the Nobel Peace Center, next to the fjord at the harbor.  The Peace Center museum highlights past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by a committee of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Storting (i.e., Norway’s Parliament).

Wilson and I took our time getting to the museum.  We stopped at McDonald’s and ate something called a “Laksewrap”—sort of a pita wrap with salmon inside that cost some outrageous amount of Norwiegan Kroners, considering it was fast food.  We also souvenir shopped for a friend whose grandfather was Norwegian, and passed the morning taking in the sights around town.

When I reached the Nobel Peace Museum, I thought Wilson was with me.  I toured around, reading about past winners that I recognized, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jimmy Carter.  I also learned about other heros, like Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank which provides microcredit to help poor people establish creditworthiness and financial self-sufficiency.  Soon I reached the gift shop and it was then that I realized:  Wilson was gone.

At first I was fairly calm.  I started back through the museum, retracing my steps, feeling confident he was somewhere within.  My panic increased as I discovered:  he wasn’t in the theater; he wasn’t in the Points of Light room; he wasn’t in the bathroom; he wasn’t in lost and found.  He was nowhere to be found.

Now I was beside myself.  Where could Wilson be?  How could this have happened?  I left the museum and began to visit the souvenir shops where I stopped along the way, being careful to conceal the panic in my voice as I asked various shopkeepers if they had perchance found a black fleece pullover.  No one had.

I began to allow myself to accept that Wilson was gone, and it made me feel sick.   I knew it was probably crazy for me to cry, but I didn’t care.  Wilson had become my friend along the journey, and I was devastated at the thought of continuing without him.  Suddenly I felt completely alone in the world, and the tears began to well.

That’s when I spotted something in the distance on the ground near Oslo’s City Hall.  It was black and just lying on the sidewalk.  Could it be Wilson?  My heart raced as I sprinted over to see.

It was Wilson!  He must have fallen from around my waist when I passed by this way hours ago, and here he was on the ground, waiting patiently for me to come back for him.  I snapped a picture to memorialize the happy moment.  I then picked him up and hugged him close to me.  “I’m sorry, Wilson,” I told him, vowing not to lose him ever again.

Later, in December, Wilson was with me in Johannesburg, South Africa, when we boarded the long plane ride for home.  Together we had been to forty-two countries over seven continents that year, and it was one wild ride.  Wilson was a little worn out from the trip, so we decided that he should retire.  Every now and again he makes appearances at the budget travel classes I teach back in Los Angeles.  He’s part of the backpack show-and-tell night, and he’s always a hit.

I didn’t think another Wilson would emerge on this latest journey, but another Wilson did.  My second Wilson came into my life in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Second Wilson is a small water bottle, purchased at a supermarket in the Passage Shopping Center on Nevsky Prospect.  The bottle was light and held a perfect amount of water for walks around town, and conveniently fit into the side mesh pocket of my small backpack.

I had the bottle with me through Russia, and Ukraine, and Poland.  By the time we reached Belgium and Luxembourg, I realized that this was more than just a water bottle.  This was my friend.  I named him Wilson, as well, kind of like how George Foreman names all of his kids George. 

I carried Wilson everywhere from eastern Europe to the western Balkans and down to Greece, and refilled him with water everywhere from the Rila mountains in Bulgaria to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.  Wilson connected me with so many people in restaurants and elsewhere who happily complied with my request that he be refilled.  Many interesting conversations were struck as a result.  By the time I reached Albania, I was thinking how special Wilson had become.  I had even decided to feature him and the first Wilson in a blog post called Meet the Wilsons.

One night, in Athens, Greece—just days before my long journey was to end—I was hopelessly lost looking for a certain sushi restaurant.  Finally, after winding through endless back alleys, I found the place.  I went to reach for Wilson for a sip and noticed—to my horror—he was gone.

Along the way I had stopped in several shops and a nearby hostel, asking for directions.  I knew that if I had left Wilson behind and someone found him, he or she probably would just throw him away, thinking Wilson was just a plain, old water bottle, rather than a close friend of mine.  I ran through the streets in a panic, hoping against hope that I would find Wilson before disaster struck.  I thought it would be a bad omen, too, to lose Wilson just before our journey was to come to a close.

I approached the last place I visited—the hostel where I stopped for directions—and peeked through the front glass window.  There Wilson was, on the counter where I left him.  I ran in and took a picture to memorialize our happy reunion, just like with the first Wilson.  I tried to explain to the people behind the counter what Wilson meant to me—but they just returned my words with odd looks.  I left with Wilson securely in tow, feeling positive that we were both going to make it okay to the very end.

Wilson rode home with me the other day on the plane from Amsterdam.  We both recognize that it’s time for him to retire, too.  I gave him a good washing, and now he’s ready to join first Wilson when our travel classes start up again.  I think he's going to love the spotlight on backpack night, and I'm sure he and the first Wilson will get along swimmingly.

And yes, I realize—especially now that I’m home and surrounded by actual, human loved ones—all of this is totally and completely nuts.  But if there’s one rule I’ve kept with this blog, it’s this:  I speak my truth.  And the truth is, the Wilsons were, and always will be, friends who kept me, among other things, warm, hydrated, comfortable, and--most important--company.