My shiny, new passport, with an expiration date ten years hence (when I’ll begin to think the photo in this one is pretty), came with a brochure whose cover exclaims, “With Your U.S. Passport, the World is Yours!” What a happy thought.
I’ll use this new passport for the first time next month when I travel to Mexico for a writers’ conference in San Miguel de Allende and then check out this charming, colonial city, where I’m hoping to retire. Some people, learning of this plan, say to me, “Aren’t you afraid?” (presumably referring to the bandidos they’ve read about in the news or seen in movies); others confess, “I’d do the same as you’re doing, if I weren’t so settled here.” The responses I’m receiving are mixed.
My attitude toward leaving home, which most people would call their “comfort zone,” and going off on my own to live in a place altogether new was formed fairly early in my life. Shortly after my sixteenth birthday I traveled from New York to Bangor, Maine, to help my grandmother for the summer. My grandmother was a maid for rich people who summered on the Penobscot Bay. She was 73 at the time and needed a hand with her work. Her gracious, elderly employer, whom my grandmother called “the madam,” paid my way. It was the first time I’d ever traveled so far alone, the first time I’d ever flown in a plane.
I remember standing stock-still in the middle of the airport in Boston, head held high, shoulders pushed back, proud of the navy blue sheath I’d just made for this momentous occasion, waiting for my Bangor flight and singing to myself in my head, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold myself erect, and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect…”
The friendly old woman I sat beside on the small plane to Bangor, I remember, had frizzy hair and a warm smile. She put me at ease. She complimented my “smart” new dress. She remarked that I must be “so brave” to travel alone. She told me she loved to travel and did so as much as she could ever since she’d become a widow. She’d been to Paris recently and planned a trip to India; in between her more exotic trips, she visited her children and grandchildren “hither and yon.”
She looked at me with twinkling eyes. Then she turned to the window beside her. “Look!” she said to me excitedly, pointing at the cotton-ball-studded clear-blue sky, “There’s a great big world out there just waiting for you!”
She didn’t know, I’m sure, what effect her words had on me, how life-changing they would be. I’ve replayed this scene a thousand times in my mind, always thinking of her, especially when I sit beside my requested window seat on every flight. That wise old woman set me on a trajectory that continues to this day, fifty-four years later.
I’ve always loved school, and I’m passionate about books. But in my lifetime I’ve learned the most from travel – not just passing through a place on a tour bus and taking interesting photos of this and that, but actually living in another land, adapting to another culture, striving to learn another language, trying to see the world from the locals’ point of view. This, I believe, is education at its best, education in action.
Some readers of my Africa memoirs have made comments to me, such as, “Weren’t you afraid?” and “Oh, you were so brave!” – which make me feel they haven’t read the books I wrote. Or perhaps it’s that I failed to express in those books just how much I learned from my African friends, how rich the experiences of living there made me.
I believe it doesn’t take bravery to discover the world that is out there waiting to show us and teach us. What I’m afraid of, personally, is being locked in the cage most people call their “comfort zone” for the rest of my life.
[Note to readers: I’ll be gone for most of the month of February and may not have a chance to write another WOW blog post until I return. We shall see… or, vamos a ver! – BB]