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.

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