“Hold on.” I said, as my friend turned off her car and was about to get out. We were in our usual routine of carpooling home from work, unwinding from the usual stress the day would bring, and arriving home a little calmer and a tad bit more ready to handle the next day. My housemates and I had just hosted a huge weekend event with friends coming in from all over to run a marathon while raising funds for a local DC catholic school. I had one friend staying until another two showed up, those guests stayed until my family overlapped and spent just enough time in DC to get a taste of the cherry blossoms and then drive me home to my native state of MN to celebrate Easter. From the outside looking in, I was merely trying to stay connected with the world around me. From the inside, my throat caught for just a second as the words “Fulbright” showed up as a notification across my screen.
My heart stopped. The gmail application loaded. Then, I read the first lines. In the least dramatic fashion possible, I handed my phone to my dear friend sitting next to me; the very person who had stayed up late with me and dedicated hours to helping me refine my application, the very person that understood everything I had undergone the past year, professionally and academically. As understanding dawned on her that all of the hard work and time had paid off, the excitement came. It was uncontainable and the disbelief and choked back tears were imminent. The rollercoaster of emotions I was about to experience was just beginning.
Over the months that passed, I found myself saying some of the hardest goodbyes I could imagine. First, to the students and the school that had helped start my formation as a teacher and a place I loved dearly. Then, to the greatest friends I could have asked for. Whom, even long distance, walked with me on my journey through the first few years of teaching and graduate school. Next, to the new school I would come to love and cherish and the students that were in my heart from the start. Last, to my family and friends that feel like family, that have always walked with me and supported me and all of the crazy adventures I find myself going on.
I think people get the wrong idea about travelers. Although, we all travel for different reasons; escape, adventure, opportunity, learning, business, pleasure, I get the feeling that people think it is easy. Some trips are certainly less taxing than others, but rarely would I say it is easy. Traveling takes a different part of myself, a part that is courageous and strong, a part that knows I will fail at things but goes forward anyway, a part that wants to be pushed to the limit of discomfort and find a way to make that home. As calm as I may seem on the outside, there is always a part of me that I’ve learned how to quiet, screaming inside in discomfort and frustration. New is difficult, the opportunities can be luxurious, grand, beautiful, but it will always be difficult.
The level of difficulty doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy it, I think a part of me enjoys it even more. Overcoming challenging situations is extremely attractive in that I know that I am a stronger person, a better person, for having suffered and conquered. However, we don’t always agree on what is challenging. Getting around a new country, where you don’t speak the language and only have a map and hand gestures, is challenging. Learning a new language is challenging. Making friends with people, because you both know you need friendship, is challenging. Don’t let the pictures fool you, just because I look like I’m enjoying myself, doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging.
Traveling isn’t always glamorous. Sure, I put myself in this situation, but that doesn’t mean that every moment you can’t see on social media and even those you can, are top notch moments. The other day, I was peed on by a man on the balcony above me… Why? I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, waiting for the crosswalk to open so I could cross the street. The other day, I almost stepped in human feces as I was leaving a beautiful park where a cultural event almost made me cry because it reminded me of my former students and their cultural beauty. The other day, a bus hit a car while we were on it and after some yelling, continued on its way, all the while creating a discomfort of what would happen if the argument escalated. The other day, you may have seen a photo where we all looked nice and were out on the town, but you will never see a video where everyone stared and made crude sexual comments because my hair was strawberry blonde, my eyes were light, and my skin was pale. The day to day isn’t always glamorous, but that doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself as a whole.
The first time I came to Brazil, my first real true experience living abroad. I remember feeling lonely and wondering how all of my friends were feeling so alive and involved and going to all of these events. Little did I know that they were asking themselves the same things about me. We all felt disconnected, like everyone else was having a better time. This is the curse of social media and the way we choose to portray ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, we were all genuinely having a decent time, but as we compared ourselves to each other, we thought we were falling short and this led to feelings of loneliness and incompetence. Those moments we chose to share with the world and the moments we saw from others were moments we were truly enjoying ourselves, however, the picture it painted was that our entire life was made up of moments like that. Those photos didn’t share the monotony of a regular day to day life. You don’t see the trips to the grocery store or the long hot walk in the sun on the way home from school. You don’t see the time spent in front of the tv with family, friends, or alone. You don’t see the books being read or the same meal being eaten day after day. Just because I want to share the great things that are happening, doesn’t mean I don’t have the same day to day experience as I did back home outside the context and lens of a new culture.
Now, think of all the great experiences I’m having, those must be worth it, right? Yes and no. There is a steep price to pay when you live away from home and it is one that money can’t pay off. For every great cultural event I get to go to, I miss a holiday from home. For every wedding in a new place I get to go to, I miss one of my friend from childhood. For every world leader or ambassador I get to see speak, I miss the childhood of a cousin. For every birthday I spend with a new friend, I miss a loved one’s from home. I can’t begin to explain to you the emotional price you pay when you lose a loved one, knowing that you spent their last months away from them, knowing that you won’t spend time with them for the rest of your life, knowing that you can’t be comforted by people that knew you both and knowing that you can’t do the comforting for those who are hurting the worst. The price is high when you can’t witness your friends fall in love, you can’t have a dog or plant a tree because you don’t know where you’ll be in five months time, you miss the wedding, you miss the nightly foot rubs, and every minute you miss with one person is a minute you can’t ever have. Now, as costly as that is, you also get the chance to meet people and spend these moments with them and those bonds are beautiful in their own way, but I will never say traveling is cheap.
As glamorous as traveling looks, it isn’t all that. Sometimes it is more, sometimes that chance to experience monotony somewhere else makes you realize how alike we truly are. Sometimes the frustrations that come from a new system make you appreciate your own home all that much. With the realization that you must choose between one place or another comes the growth of understanding of others’ commitments. For every person who touches your life, far or near, and every moment present or missed you are shaped and changed as a person. So although traveling isn’t glamorous, easy, or cheap, it is beautiful and full of worth and I have been changed and moved by every experience. My social media or quick message to a friend across the world will never do justice to the things that have shaped me and theirs will never do their own experiences justice and that understanding has to be enough.