Monday, March 22, 2010

Travel as Hero

“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.” —Charles Dudley Warner

A long time ago, when I worked at an advertising agency as a copywriter, I learned about the genre of ads we called “food as hero.” In these snippets of salivation-inducing marketing, a giant hamburger can become an edible superhero in less than 30 seconds, driving hungry carnivores straight to Carl’s or Wendy’s in search of beef oozing with mouth-watering drippings. For vegetarian types, more tempting spots might feature ripe summer fruit from Chile, like the current one with the pop-off-the-screen, please-squeeze-me grapes and mellow-yellow bananas. For me, a 50-something freelance journalist who will eat practically anything, travel has much the same delicious, hypnotic effect. It activates something in my brain—endorphins, if you will—that makes me feel happy and at peace with the world.

So let me say a few words about globetrotting as I prepare to launch my next adventure—an exercise in cultural overload that will take me from Eagle Island off the coast of Georgia to Spain, Israel, Egypt, Italy and the Netherlands. It’s likely I’ll evolve along the way, for travel has a way of changing who we are and how we see things. “Without travel, said actress Lauren Hutton, “I would have wound up a little ignorant white Southern female, which was not my idea of a good life.”

Solo adventure travel has potent, drug-like side effects. It boosts stamina, improves powers of observation and makes operating on auto-pilot impossible. It enhances our ability to make decisions and solve problems. Most significantly, it shows us how other people live and see the world. According to author Miriam Beard, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

And so it has been for me. On all my recent adventures, I’ve become a cultural chameleon, embracing foreign customs and cuisines. Now I wonder if I’ll be eating with my hands in Egypt and gasping for air on a bike or on foot in the Italian Alps. On the plus side, I’ve become better at ignoring the inevitable potholes, enjoying the journey and turning situational lemons into traveler’s lemonade. I know a missed connection can become an opportunity to visit a new town and an overcrowded hostel can yield tips not available in guidebooks. Now certain I can’t control the universe, I accept the reality of flights at insane hours, long layovers and uncertain accommodations—all small trade-offs for the wonders of independent travel.

My upcoming adventure will blend planned stops with serendipity. The former will include a return visit to VaughanTown in Spain, where I'll earn my keep (just as you can if you're a native English speaker) by gabbing with Spaniards for 10+ hours a day; a bike-sail tour down the Nile; and a stay in the Dolomites (the Italian Alps) for hiking, cycling and watching pro-cyclists on the Giro d’Italia. I’ll couchsurf in Jerusalem, ride buses through Israel and return to my beloved Amsterdam for an extended stay.

Whether you’re a real or an armchair traveler, I invite you to become a follower and share my journey. We launch on April 3 and who knows where we’ll actually go, for as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber observed, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Come along, share tips and discover the world with me!