It’s stinking hot and dusty. You feel a press of sweaty bodies moving in on you as you inch forward ever so slowly to a ramshackle hut marked douane. Sometimes there’s no discernible line and you must scrum for position and brace yourself to keep ten more people from cutting in. Seizing a half second of opportunity, you thrust your passport through a slot in the window, bend down to peer into a darkened, fly-filled room at the expressionless functionary who pretends to scrutinize every page, and then accusingly looks up at you. You hold your breath and suddenly: Kachung! He stamps you in!
A feeling of pure elation washes over you. A new country! Walking away, you smile, feeling a bit smug, even triumphant. And sometimes you question your sanity: “Why do I do this to myself?” The Genesis of a Traveler Some of us don’t discover the wanderlust until adulthood when work sends us abroad, or perhaps a random trip reveals how spectacular the planet really is. For others, it begins in childhood. It could be the family atlas–a magical place filled with exotic names such as Timbuktu, Samarkand, and Zanzibar–that triggers the romance of travel in us, or even a stamp collection. And for others,we were just born with it. I’m of the latter breed.
Growing up, not only did I find the atlas an instrument of wonder and inspiration (and still do), but I read and reread the books of Harry Franck and Richard Halliburton, books about the search for the Nile, and books about theMiddle East. Exotic languages? I could learn those! But these were only distractions to pass an agonizing amount of time until an age where I could act on my passion.
Not until college when a guy in the dorm showed me an old notary stamp he had found in an antique shop could I make my escape. Still underage to go anywhere without my parents’ permission, this was my answer. I immediately notarized my own permission to travel to Mexico, caught a flight to Phoenix, found a ride down to Nogales, Mexico, and bought a train ticket south. As the train rattled through the dark of night into my new, unknown world, there were no doubts. The morning brought brilliant colors, the musty, fruity smell of the tropics, and the din of a vibrant street life where people spoke a different language. I was at home. Year by year, those fantastic places I had always read about then translated to my own photos on the wall: Ujiji, Petra, Ta Prohm…
But does the reality of finally laying eyes on those fabled names from the atlas live up to one’s childhood imaginings? Sometimes no, but sometimes it’s even better, and when it is every moment of those travails of travel – no matter how awful – is worth it. Without doubt and without question.
Many thanks to those who have already e-mailed me your white-knuckle stories. Please keep them coming!