Q: Tell me about your life before the trip?
My life before “the trip” was spent checking off a list of the acquisitions that people around me (family, culture, society) told me I needed to have in order to be happy. I think of that period of my life (ages 14-21) as years of blindness: I just felt around in the dark and let the people and objects I bumped into direct my path. I certainly wasn’t unhappy. I just had no goals or passions or interests of my own and so I was fine with putting my faith in the path that American society prescribed for me. I’ve since realized that I sort out a lot of my life by walking down paths that lead to dead ends; it’s just my slow process of learning. So when I had everything I was told would make me happy, but still felt empty, I realized that the path prescribed me was a dead end. I was simply done with that path and ready for a new one.
Q: Why did you decide to go?
I wanted to know what would remain if I left everything behind. I was numb and wanted to feel things again – coldness, warmth, pain, rain, surprise, bliss, confusion; it didn’t matter to me so much what I felt, but just that I could FEEL again, something that could confirm that I was alive. I started to contemplate the idea of traveling for a year in Central America, and only at the first contemplation of the idea, I began, for the first time in a long time, to feel something. I felt nervous and I felt wicked and I felt brave and I felt afraid. But I was feeling! And that’s how I knew I was doing something that I needed to do. So I bought a ticket. I had a job at the time and I didn’t even tell my boss. I just bought a one-year-return ticket and let all the details sort themselves out on their own.
Q: What is the message you want to pass to your generation?
That your life is unique and a mystery to be explored. I’m not sure how we can live with sunrises and sunsets and stars and not wonder the big questions that such visions inspire. But I really think these questions should be pondered, individually and with each other. Because they are the most important questions in life and I have a hunch that anyone who asks them, will come, via their own unique path, to the same conclusion. And this conclusion is the answer to most of our (humanity’s) problems. So I guess my message is to engage your sense of wonder and think creatively with your life path; it’s your own to create and color.
Q: What did you learn travelling for so many countries?
I learned that borders mean little and that an open mind and heart means a lot. I learned that despite the thousands of dialects, we (humans) all speak the same universal languages: of laughter, music, dance, art, and play, of love for family and of needs for safety, community, health and peace. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you start, go or end; but that life, like little kids in the mud, will teach you everything you need to know utilizing whatever resources are available, providing an open heart, creative mind and will to learn are present. And I’ve learned that the truth is easy to find; you just have to ask, respectfully, for it and be ready to listen.
Q: What is the experience, the place or the person that marked you the most?
An American woman named Hanley Denning donated her entire life to providing education, safety and health care to children living in the slum community of the Guatemala City dump. She was a friend and mentor. She died, tragically, in a car accident this year. But she is still my guide by her example of total selflessness and the power of a single human to better the lives of thousands. You can learn more about her and/or the project at: www.safepassage.org.
Q: What is your next trip?
Currently, I’m living in Varanasi, India but in May of 2008, I, along with a best friend, will begin a 40-day pilgrimage into the Dolpo Region of remote Nepal. Logistically, we hope to explore the kingdom of Mustang and visit what is considered one of the last enclaves of pure Tibetan culture left on earth. Intuitively, we are most interested in the nomadic nature of the pilgrimage itself, and the messengers, messages, questions and answers, we are bound to encounter and ponder along the way. For those interested, I’ll be documenting the pilgrimage on my blog: www.seekingsol.com.
Q: Is it possible for a normal person to do the same? Leave a job, family and country and travel the world?
I’m a normal person. I’m actually abnormally clumsy, slow on many subjects, and I bite my lip over the same questions that everyone else does. If anything, that’s my charm: that I’m a single, solo, and normal girl, and I did it. It doesn’t take great courage, but it does take a first leap of faith. My advice to everyone is the same: don’t think about it – just make the decision and start acting like you own it. Make a physical commitment if you can – buy the plane ticket, go the school registrar and ask to defer your next year of university, get the second job you need to save the money. Once the commitment is made, the rest of the details (obligations, logistics, etc.) will sort themselves out on their own. All you have to do is make the decision and take the first step. At least “try on” the decision and see how it feels. If it makes you feel lighter or sparks something on the inside, you’re probably on the right path.
Q: And what about the money? How much does it cost?
Mostly likely, it’ll cost you less than it does for you to live at home. My costs of living abroad are a fraction of what I spend when I’m living in the States. My best tip is to be aware that there’s a two-tiered cost structure when traveling in foreign countries: prices for tourists and prices for locals. Do you hang out at the places in your town where tourists hang out? Of course not. Those places are unauthentic and overpriced. So try to avoid the package tours and tourist hot spots. Pick a random place that fancies you and instead of sticking to the guide books, study the local language, make friends with locals, and let them be your guides. If you are authentically interested in understanding another culture and country, people will feel it and open their hearts, houses and lives to you. An amazing resource for finding friends in foreign countries is the online community of travelers congregated at www.couchsurfing.com. Those are my best tips.
What do you know about Portugal?
I walked along the Camino Portuguese from Santiago, Spain to Porto, Portugal. The route has very few pilgrims on it and no organized accommodation for those on pilgrimage, but I was greeted and treated with enormous warmth by the people of Portugal. Shopkeepers let me sleep in their attics, bartenders served me free hot meals, priests let me set up my tent in the courtyards of their churches and I remember even spending one night at the fire station. I found the people and landscapes of Portugal to be exceptionally lovely and have put the country high on my list of places, should I ever slow down enough, to retire. I was unable to finish the pilgrimage due to heat and forest fires, so someday I plan to return and complete the route, walking from Porto to Fatima.