When I was little, I used to dream of having a life where I could travel and see the world. When I tried to imagine myself as an adult at the ripe old age of, say, twenty-five, I imagined myself in an airy New York apartment with wood floors and concrete walls, stalking about in power heels and a sharp suit in between jaunts to London, Chicago, Paris, and Moscow. I was a lot taller too.
It wasn’t clear what all exactly I’d be doing, but that’s what it should look like.
As I got a little older, the probability of this fantasy coming true began to wane. I maxed out at 5’1″ in high school. I pursued studies in art, clearly having no realistic sense of how few artists make enough money to buy tailored suits and plane tickets. I thought I’d become a graphic designer, working with models and photographers for fantastic magazine ads like the kind you see in Vogue, clearly having no sense of how to get there.
I thought I might do a semester abroad in college, but I had the kind of love going on that kept me bound rather than setting me free, and I was okay with that. I made my choices. I might have been a little afraid to leave too.
Then, after college, I got a “real” job working in advertising for a real magazine company. The dream, right? Except I was chained to my desk. I learned that ads involved more computers than cameras and stock photos of Tahiti rather than trips to Tahiti. I finally made enough money to travel, but with only two weeks’ worth of vacation time primarily eaten up by Christmas and New Year’s, I never had time to go anywhere.
I made a rule for myself then: to see one new place every year. It didn’t have to be exotic; it just had to be someplace I hadn’t been before. I stopped envisioning trips to Rome and Machu Picchu, and focused instead on the splendors of Yosemite, Nevada, and South Carolina. That rule for myself was my lifeline; my declaration that I had not given up on my dream, no matter how little money or time allowed for it.
When that job at the magazine publishing company lost its luster, I decided to go back to school, and again traded time for money. I had vacation time aplenty, but no money.
My twenty-fifth birthday did not see me in a svelte flat in New York.
But it did find me on a plane to Germany. I begged and bartered my way there, staying with people I was lucky enough to know living there, thus saving on hotels. (One of whom was a man I’d never met before in real life and on the train down to meet him I began hyperventilating over the fact that he could be all manner of dangerous freak — it turns out he was one of the most gentlemanly men I’ve been fortunate to know and he set me up with a place to stay at a female friend’s house and they showed me all around Munich, despite barely knowing me, and we’re still very good friends to this day.)
I made that trip as a gift to myself because I wanted to prove to myself I could travel on my own. I remember arriving at that German airport and being terrified for not being able to speak the language and being all alone. It ended up being one of the best gifts I ever gave myself. I learned the kindness of strangers, and I learned I was less fragile than I thought.
Flash forward a few years, I was coming to the end of my doctoral program, still unsure what my future would hold. I might have had a few day dreams of standing in a long flowing skirt on a dirt road, with dusty children playing around me, as I fought for their rights. But those dreams were born of visions of movies like The Constant Gardener and had all the reality of centaurs and Patronuses.
And yet, this time, I was a little older, a little braver, and married to a man who had spent a year traveling around the world. Rather than chaining me to all I knew, he spurred me to know more, see more, and do more. We spurred each other on.
I could have played it “safe” and followed a career path so set and immutable it was literally called a “track.” But we were ready for a transition. We were comfortable – and we figured we were far too young to be so comfortable.
So we shed everything: our apartment, our furniture, prescriptions for a “safe” job (which, by the way, was not at all safe given the state of the economy), my trusted old car, and my husband’s beloved motorbike. We traded it all in for one-way tickets to a foreign country and a potential position with an NGO.
This year alone, I’ve been up and down Thailand innumerable times. I’ve been to Hong Kong, Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Dresden, and Los Angeles. I’ve stood in a long flowing skirt on a dirt road, with children playing by my feet as I discussed the best ways to keep them from becoming enslaved. And I have plans to go to Charleston, Santa Barbara, and the tropical islands in the south of Thailand. I have far more experiences and much less stuff. I take shorter showers, but communicate in more languages and eat a much broader repertoire of food.
Looking back, I’m still not sure how I got here, other than much like my first trip to Germany: I booked the tickets and then freaked out about it later, when it was too late to do anything but put one foot in front of the other.
But I’m still just shy of 5’1″. (If anything, I mighta’ shrunk a bit.)
A traveler’s life can be lonely and isolating, being so far from all you know and having to navigate all manner of things without speaking a lick of the language. But the truth is, I never really did any of it alone. I did it with the emotional (and often financial) support of family. I made friends with people who made transitions easier. I have a husband to hold my hand and mirror my look of awe and surprise as I go. I flew, always knowing I had a soft spot to land with friends and family whenever I wanted or needed.
When I was little and dreaming of a globetrotter’s life, I couldn’t really imagine much beyond that svelte flat in New York. Now I’m living it, I know it has nothing to do with any flats in any particular place and everything to do with the attitude you bring to it. The things that matter in life – loving family, good food, strong connections, freedom, and security – are the same whether you’re sitting in fisherman pants on a bamboo mat in Mae Tha or around the dinner table in Elgin or at a beer garden in Berlin. Whether you’re riding in an SUV or a rickshaw, you still make the choice to impact the people around you in a manner that’s positive or not. Children respond to gentle encouragement whether they’re learning to color in a community center in a rice field or learning to skate in a rink in Fountain Valley. You can have the same conversations with concerned people, whether you speak in a northern Thai dialect or with a Southern twang.
And whether here or there, you can be 5’1″ and still walk a long stride.
Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!
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I’m linking this up again as my Best of Bigger Picture Moments from 2012.
Join us next week with your One Word Resolution for 2013!