May 24, 2007

Goodbyes, Homecomings, and One Expensive Glass of Wine

I wrote this on November 1, 2006 en route to South America. I always meant to post it to my blog, and have finally remembered to do it. Enjoy!

A crowd of family, friends, and lots of excited kids gathered around the TSA Security checkpoint tonight. Holding banners, signs, balloons, it was clear that the welcoming party was waiting for someone very important to arrive. I stood outside of the Wine Bar at the Rose City Cafe, clutching my carry-on, a bit shell-shocked from having just said my own goodbyes but caught up in the infectious excitement of what appeared to be a long awaited homecoming. For someone who loves to come and go, and detests stagnation of any kind, I still find the act of leaving very challenging. It's emotional, to leave loving relationships, safe places, and familiar faces to land somewhere where you might not find any of the above. Or you might find all of the above and more.

Traveling is about taking chances. It's about change and discomfort, new perspectives and customs, different cultures and dangers. But it's also more than that: it's about how you cope with the differences and inconveniences, how you dig deep to find that you are resourceful, capable, and incredibly adaptable. Most importantly though, even if it happens only in hindsight, you learn who you are in the process; growth is inevitable, and each experience that takes place outside of your perceived safety zone affects you more than you could imagine possible.

With my head spinning, full of these thoughts, questioning why it is that I work like a dog for an entire year only to spend it all on seeing the world, I make my way to the tail end of the growing crowd. I can tell by the shreeks and rhythmic clapping that the guest of honor is about to arrive. I see a TV camera person in the crowd, confirming my suspicions that it is someone important. As the thundering applause grows louder, the crowd bursts into song and "America the Beautiful" is sung loudly and flawlessly; I know then that it must be a soldier coming home from Iraq. I can tell not only by the patriotic vibes coming from his receiving party, but by the sense that this is his family, his close friends waiting for him. How long has he been gone I wonder. Then I think what kind of horrors did he witness, did he have to participate in? How many of his compadres won't come home, won't have this tremendous welcome home?

I finally see him. He is very, very young. Stocky and very fit, like a soldier should look. Strong and capable as you would picture a Marine to be. But his eyes, they gave it all away. The innocence was gone, and he looked older than his years. More wise, but also tired. So very tired.

Tears welled up in my own eyes, as so many questions raced through my mind. Juxtaposed with my relatively silly wonderings of to travel or not to travel, the plight of the soldier seemed so much more real, significant. Here I was, standing there, free to go. To go somewhere amazing and exotic to do fun things and meet great people, not to be deployed to the Middle East into combat far away from home and loved ones. That my circumstances, the direct result my own personal choices, allow me to be who I am. Free and happy to travel and live as I wish, where I choose. And then it dawned on me that this was exactly the answer. I am stepping outside of the box, leaving comfort and safety to see new places and hopefully grow as a person along the way; having fun but working hard is sometimes a process that isn't always the easiest way to live in a society full of expectations and pressures and Social norms that can be difficult to ignore.

I do it not just to be crazy and young and irresponsible (although that is sometimes a factor, don't get me wrong), not to avoid or run away from the past or future. I do it for one simple reason: because I CAN. It's a choice I choose to make, and live with, even if it means living in a tent for the summer and driving a $400 car, that faithfully got me to 3 different jobs all season long. For me, it isn't a sacrifice to live this way: it is the key to being able to live how I best know how, and to continue down the path that makes me happiest.

Though not a patriotic person at all, ever, I felt inexplicably grateful to this man. I secretly thanked the young soldier for his personal sacrifices; despite my political beliefs and sentiments over the Iraq war I thanked him for choosing to do what he does, giving up his freedoms, knowing that I still have all of mine. I smiled at the thought that yes, yes I am taking advantage of my freedoms, and living to my own standards. My OWN hopes for a fulfilling life. Then I proceeded to walk into that Wine Bar and order the most expensive glass of wine I have ever enjoyed, even if it was the cheapest one on the menu. Salud! to life, freedom, and Venezuela.

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