There is a lot you could say about travel. There is a lot, in fact, people do say about travel. They say that not all who wander are lost (Tolkien), that the world is a book and you must travel to read more than one page (St. Augustine). They utter clever things about the boredom, the lack of control, the discovery of travel. Proverbs tell us that it’s the only thing we can buy that will make us richer.
That’s the funny thing about travel. It means something completely different to each person. It wears about a thousand different hats. And even more than that—if you asked a nomad what traveling meant to him five minutes later, he would probably give you a different answer (or I would, anyway); it is ever evolving.
It is inherently and deliciously unpin-down-able. It is like the boggart in Harry Potter, snapping into a different shape depending on who stands before it, looking, daring, dreaming. Travel changes as you do. And the unbelievably best part about it: travel is capital “G” Good regardless of who or where or why. I may get discouraged, I may be confused, I may feel alienated from my drunk, very-not-homesick fellow travelers, but this is a fact in which I have never lost faith.
Something happened to me somewhere between Bulgaria and Croatia. I’ve been wondering with a kind of constant hum of curiosity if—or how, rather—I would change through my travels. I figured I might not even find out how until I returned back to the setting where I was someone else, months ago, until I could find a familiar backdrop to compare new Tiffany to old Tiffany. But I already feel different.
“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith
On the twelve hour bus ride from Sofia to Zagreb, we paused in Serbia at a rest stop next to the highway. The driver gave us forty-five minutes to sit or stand or smoke. I didn’t have any Serbian money to buy a coffee, so I walked over to a large swath of grass and laid down under a big tree. As I put my hands under my head, as I took in the cool softness of the grass, as I stared at the blue sky and the gold evening light through the branches, I performed my habitual evaluation of self and soul. And you know what I realized in the quiet? That I didn’t have one measly thing to complain about. That I was completely at peace. It wasn’t a grand moment, it wasn’t sparkling or particularly special. I didn’t feel that weird, occasional sheen of contentment that coats the world in a splashy soundtrack and an overly forgiving optimism. I simply was, and everything that was, was good. That’s when I first noticed it.
I think I might be attaining the thing I’ve been wanting all along: not simply being comfortable with travel, but being comfortable with existing at all.
The American travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux, said that “[t]ravel is glamorous only in retrospect.” I certainly understand the sentiment of this statement, as I am more often stressed, inconvenienced, and scrambling than I ever would be at home (though to be honest, I was also often going without, pushed to limits of resourcefulness, and uncaring about shower frequency even before I left). As I stood wearily waiting for a bus with two travel friends on the side of a dirty gray highway after a long, disappointing morning looking for a beach that never surfaced, one friend observed, “Travel is so often just waiting around.” I laughed and agreed.
But in spite of these things, it’s remarkable how often I catch myself thinking, Gee wiz, Tiffany, you are one lucky duck. I pause and look around, blinking, almost disbelieving. I keep having those moments that are so beautiful and surreal you might have seen them in dreams, or maybe just movies. If you were to take pictures of these moments, they would be of the sort that used to make my stomach lurch in painful desire and envy when I saw them on my computer screen at home, at work. As one who strives for continual contentment, gratitude, and optimism and is therefore loathe to complain even in inconvenience and ill fortune, I might argue that traveling is every bit as glamorous as one would hope, even when it’s not. Because, even when it’s not, it’s still Good. It is not for nothing that travel is a subject so frequently immortalized into quotes like the following, after all:
“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” – Freya Stark
- Tossing myself into the streets of Pula after twelve hours on a bus, six sleeping on blue chairs in a bus station, five walking around Zagreb, three on another bus. Getting caught in the rain, getting lost, getting an accidental ride and a new friend. Waking up to a warm woman and homemade Croatian liquor at nine am. Not knowing we should sip, instead of throw back. Putting “fire breather” into google translate and laughing in two different languages.
- Wandering around the ancient, seaside town full of warm yellow stones with an old friend. Delighting in company over twelve cappuccinos in a row. Deciding to go to the cinema in the evening, because why not, seeing a refreshingly excellent film and walking out into the balmy, starry, bustling night with a joy that rolls into involuntary laughter. A long, pretty day.
- Sitting on a third story balcony of a charming labyrinth hostel and watching a yellow crescent moon rise. The flowers below are purple and pungent, the voices of vacationers bounce off cobblestones and hit me like a serenade.
- After squishing into a tiny apartment with thirteen other couch surfers, we made friends with two and went hiking up one of Croatia’s coastal monsters. Didn’t know starting at the bottom by the beach means hiking for over four hours and not actually making it up to the top. But we picked fruit off the trees along the way, sweat through our clothes and packs, talked about our lives, flexed our muscles and then came back down. At the bottom, we quenched our thirst with beer, our hunger with fresh grilled fish, our heat with blue water.
- Swimming in the Adriatic is spiritual. I’ve been practicing my breaststroke. The salt makes my bony limbs bob on the surface without any effort. I roll with the waves. I do all of this alone. When I’ve reached some deep outer limit, I peer down past my ghostly legs—blurry, like a vision—and regard the earth’s surface ten, twenty, fifty feet below; the sea never stops being wholly transparent. I face the deep and drink in all the enormous shades of blue that make up the water, the sky, and the mountains in between. From where I tread, I am immersed in God’s glory. I revel in my smallness, I let my heart sing praise, I give myself over in trust.
- Divine good pleasure would have it that we be accepted as couch surfers into the home of one bright spark named Iva (pronounced Eva), against most odds. Iva was also hosting Philip, equanimity incarnate. While the two make a delightfully magnetic couple, the four of us together make an equally merry and rapturous affair. I knew I was in love when Iva shooed us into the kitchen as soon as we showed up at ten pm to insist that we immediately start eating cereal. Fast friends, we conquered the town: huge watermelons, late night Croatian pastries (burek), playing and making up games on city monuments, a purring black kitten named Poe, porch side haircuts, lazy afternoon Disney movies, sneaking on the back of busses and then seeing who can stand the longest with no hands, diving into the sea, wondering about life and love, sleepy cocktails and serious talks.
- Staying in one place just long enough to feel like some small secret has been given to you.
“A journey is best measured in friends, not miles.” – Tim Cahill
Venice is even more charming in real life than your idyllic brain could imagine, but dare I say, perhaps, too charming? Admittedly, my mother and our friends and I didn’t make it much past a small radius of San Marco Square, the most heavily touristy section of the city, but every perfect corner turned seemed to reveal another perfect alley or small square (campo) just like the previous one. It’s not that this is such a bad thing, but repetition and familiarity tend to breed apathy and ingratitude, and I don’t like to take even one minute in this wide world for granted. To top it off, the city is spotless in spite of the hordes, a fact which struck me as incredible and eerie. Such perfection comes off as contrived. It felt like Venice was bracing itself against the tourists, holding its breath until they all went away and it could return to itself. I don’t blame it for that, either; it is decidedly overrun. Of course I don’t actually have any idea, but the spirit of Venice that I imagine is much seedier. In the meantime, it is both alluring and suffocating.
Naturally my favorite part was spending time with my mom. It was funny; being there with her made me feel as though I had stepped into a time warp or something, like I pushed a big red pause button on backpacking and was instead on another vacation with her like we always went on growing up. If felt uncanny, but okay. The apparent and sudden normalcy of getting what I’ve been craving—to be with my family (in Italy no less)—was a bit startling, especially since I knew it would end in a few days and I would be returned to myself, this new life. We spent our last evening just the two of us drinking white wine on the Grand Canal while the sun set, talking and treasuring.
The rest of Croatia:
- Plitvice National Park is a sparkling diamond, as long as you can see it between the heads of a hundred other people squished on a tiny footbridge. Here, you will follow a path of thin wooden planks that wind across bright blue water—something like a fairy tale. Little schools of fish will hover by your feet. Waterfalls emerge from exotic looking greenery and mountain cliffs alike. It will feel like if you bent down and even touched the perfect water, some awesome and terrible consequence would suddenly befall. You won’t realize that you left your debit card at the ticket office until you try to pay for the hostel the next morning, in a city three hours away.
- What better way to finish a day traveling to Zadar than by going swimming at midnight? Walks down the pier turn into walks on the beach turn into sinking under dark water warmer than the air. Stars toss themselves across the black dome above, rocks glisten in the moonlight on the sea floor below.
- Split’s got an old town to make the heart melt. It’s like some beautiful combination of Venice and the Caribbean. Sitting in the balmy shade of a palace’s ruins, drinking coffee and looking over the blue sea is made sweetest by the knowledge that I can stay here as long as I want, that there is absolutely nothing keeping me from enjoying this with everything I’ve got.
- A little bit gutsy and stubborn, we slept on the beach for two nights in Makarska. It was fortuitous: we found two floaties on the shore just waiting for us to use them as mattresses. Headlamps, sleeping bag, and wet wipes—what more could you need? We were completely prepared. The first night was interrupted by, in retrospect, a hilariously friendly hedgehog, and the second night by an enormous thunderstorm. The first morning we woke up and simply went swimming, immediately. The second we woke and chatted amicably with the man who let us take shelter under the roof of his open air cafe. A beautiful, crazy, practically obligatory experience in the roving timeline of a backpacker. I mean, let’s face it—I see some pretty amazing things in many of my days, but falling asleep under a navy starry sky to the sound of softly crushing waves in Croatia is pretty special.
“Traveling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
I suppose out of all the differences wrought in me from June 4th until now, the biggest thus far is the one where I am no longer demanding what the heck but instead inquiring, calmly and peaceably, ok, what’s next, then? Ironically, I feel as though I am standing on solid ground. The path my feet take is still black and shrouded in mystery, but I step with more sureness than I ever have yet.
To me, at this moment, travel is a means to live with intention. Before I left, I found the idea of being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, a bit appalling. And after I left, at the beginning, I was rent asunder by the fact that traveling—having no real plans, schedule, structure, industry, familiarity, community, and therefore distractions—makes every question and doubt you’ve ever had about your life and your place in the world that much more large and unavoidable. You are forced to face yourself head on; you can do whatever you choose, and you must. At the end of each day, none of it has or will matter, except to and for you.
I have always tried to live intentionally, to maintain a habit of looking honestly at myself and striving for constant betterment. To live with intention means living each moment on purpose, each day decidedly, each second with forethought. It means not going through any motions, not slipping into unconscious habit. It requires discipline. It means changing, adapting, growing. It is awareness first, then choice, and finally, action.
In travel, I have found this way of living to be both easier, and necessary. Honestly, it didn’t take me very long to get used to having absolutely no obligation to anything except myself. Each day is a blindingly white slate. And the key, I think, is in knowing that it doesn’t matter so much what I do, but how I do it. Life will always, after all, barrel on, but how I choose to act and react is entirely up to me. I realize these are not new ideas, but travel’s way of emphasizing this point is why I have come to like it so much. To me, traveling is like a beautiful marriage between freedom and opportunity. These things allow me to prod myself into exactly who and how I want to be. And, I think I might have some pretty good ideas about that whole business of existing.
I finish writing this and send my greetings from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today was perhaps my favorite yet, but I’ll tell you about it another day. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last nugget:
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of mankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins