I was three or four years old the first time I visited Disney World and rode "It's a Small World." I remember sitting inside the small boat utterly mesmerized as it slowly rode past hundreds of painted animatronic dolls representing children from all over the world, each dressed in traditional clothing, singing the attraction's title song. I LOVED that ride. LOVED THAT RIDE! I wanted to jump from my boat, run across the displays, meet every child and learn more about where they were all from. I was literally overcome with the desire to go -- everywhere and anywhere.
Legend has it if you ride "It's a Small World", the song will stay in your head forever. I'm pretty sure more than the song has stayed in mine.
I made my first solo trip abroad to Mexico when I was 12 years old, to visit a girl I barely knew. We'd become friends just a few weeks before her family left my hometown of Bethesda to move back to Mexico City where they were from. Back then there was no email, or texting, or Facebook, or Skype or long-distance phone calls that cost pennies to make. So keeping in touch had been out of the question, not that our fledgling friendship would have called for it anyway. But nevertheless, a year later, a simple blue airmail envelope arrived with a handwritten note on onionskin stationery inside, inviting me to come stay for the summer.
Despite not knowing the girl or her family, nor having heard from them in a year, my mom agreed to let me go with nothing but an address -- something-something-something, Mexico DF -- hoping there would be a family waiting for me on the other end. At the gate my mom instructed me to turn around and fly back home if there wasn't, but I remember thinking to myself that family or no family, there was absolutely no way I was coming back without exploring first.
I guess that might have been the first clue that my wanderlust is profound and unassailable. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer and avid traveler, "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake."
Traveling as a means to see the world is something I love, and something I am ridiculously lucky to do fairly often. I'm never happier, or feel a greater sense of relief, than when I'm touching down anyplace new, knowing there's nothing but exploring, adventure and learning ahead. Without travel -- near or far -- I feel lost, trapped, constricted, uninspired, discombobulated, aimless and unmoored.
I've come to understand that for me traveling is far more than just checking off countries, or visiting famous sites. The "where" I am in the world hardly even matters anymore. It's leaving behind the quotidian details of everyday life and throwing myself with abandon into uncharted circumstances that does.
I've learned through traveling how much I truly love embracing what makes me uncomfortable, doing what comes unnaturally, going against the grain, making incautious decisions, facing my fears and refusing to give in. In doing so, I've enhanced my ability to push myself harder and farther. I'm a braver, more adaptable and more confident person as a result. Travel forces me to live outside my comfort zone, and I consider that a privilege.
The experiences I have, the things I see, the people I meet, the circumstances I encounter, the decisions I make, the fears I face, all challenge me mentally and physically, relentlessly and perpetually, and are inextricably linked to the person I've become.
When I was nine or 10 years old on holiday in Puerto Rico with my mom and sister, I'd spent a day or two silently staring at a group of boisterous girls (sisters) having a grand time playing on the beach and in the pool, wishing I could join them, but too shy and introverted to introduce myself. Then suddenly something clicked in my prepubescent brain: Why not? What's the worst that can happen? They say no and I die momentarily of embarrassment? Fine. It's not like I'm every going to see them again.
And with that I took a deep breath and marched over. We were fast friends from "hello," spent the rest of the week running wild on the grounds of the Old Hotel San Juan and remained close for years afterward. It was a valuable lesson that hit me hard: I would have never had the courage to introduce myself like that at home...but there, I wanted to.
When we boarded our return flight, I took my seat and immediately burst into silent tears. Sure, I was sad to leave the warm sun for winter back home, but I was terrified I would also leave behind this newly discovered, outgoing and fearless person I'd become. I remember so clearly in that moment thinking to myself, "Be like this at home. You can be like this at home."
In a weird way, I've always aspired to be the person I am when I'm traveling. Me, only a better version of me. Traveling has helped me battle shyness, self-doubt and self-consciousness, combat assumptions and preconceived ideas, practice patience and empathy, and understand what love, compassion and gratitude really mean. How I conduct myself, interact with other people, and react to circumstances are all aspects of my personality I've improved and enhanced while (and from) traveling. I've consciously transferred these practices to my life at home.
When I'm forcing myself to camp alone in the Congo, hurling myself from a perfectly lovely airplane or just dining solo in a popular, happening restaurant, traveling has given me license to say, "Why not?" and doing so is not only extremely addictive, it's empowering.
There's no halfway with travel. It's easy to say "no" when you're sitting on the couch at home, but why would I bother saying anything other than "YES!" when I've already made the effort, and spent the time and money, to get somewhere?
Traveling constantly challenges every belief, presumption, and goal I've ever had, or ever will have, to the point where I'm now barely capable of having any. Aside from a few basic principles like be nice to others, do good things, try your best, and help other people, absolutely nothing is intractable. Ultimately I may not change my mind, but I will definitely pause to reconsider, and contemplate all sides.
And even then, nothing is absolute. I truly believe anything/everything is possible and/or may be true, and I simultaneously believe no one really knows anything at all. As an artist I met in Tunisia once said to me, "It's a big world... there's room for us all."