When I was twenty, far too young to know any better, I booked a one-way ticket on a Yugoslavian freighter bound for Tangier, Morocco. I had $240 in my wallet.
Why do people travel and, more importantly, why should people travel?
My trip was taken during a time without the internet which, today, is great at showing us the dangers that lurk in the world around us. As a young woman, I got my travel bug from books and foreign films. Without too much thinking, and very little planning, I set off dumb as a box of rocks, but full of anticipation for the adventures I was convinced awaited me. I wasn’t wrong.
Traveling alone is hard and often lonely but the flip side is you can go where you want, when you want, and you are forced to interact with strangers, even if that means speaking in foreign languages with the aid of a dictionary.
I spent my money carefully, hitchhiking everywhere and finding jobs along the way including a paella restaurant in Valencia where I worked in the kitchen and partied with the staff. I was a big hit with the Spanish boys who used my knowledge of French to translate for them with the beautiful French girls who were much more likely to hang out unchaperoned than the Spanish girls at the time.
After working for a few months in Paris, I hitched to Yugoslavia to meet a boy who had been a crewman on the freighter I took to Europe. His family welcomed me, and I spent a month in Opatija, a small town on the Yugoslavian coast. My friend’s mother had passed away a few years earlier and I spent much of my time cooking for my friend and his family on a hot plate used both for cooking meals and heating the water for washing dishes. I went to parties in Opatija with young Yugoslavs, drinking slivovitz, and thinking how impressed I was with how much they loved their country, which at the time was still part of the Soviet bloc. My Yugoslavian friend visited my family when his ship sailed to New York, and his only request was that I not tell my father he was the Communist leader of the crew on his ship.
I was invited to stay in homes during my travels both grand and modest. The most memorable was the three-bedroom cement home of a gypsy family I met in Grenada. At the time, a number of gypsies lived in caves surrounding Grenada, outfitted with different rooms and kitchens. One man I met was so proud to show me the home he had built for his family, carrying sand up the mountain on his back. You would have thought he was showing me the Taj Mahal. I have often thought of that little home, as our own homes here have grown grander and bigger over the years.
Maybe travel is important because we have time to miss the place we call home. I have never been away for long periods of time and haven’t missed the towns and beaches of the South Fork. And let’s not forget the deli coffees and Kaiser rolls.
When you take a trip alone you learn about the places and people you visit but you also learn about yourself. All that time alone forces you to draw on strengths you were unaware you even possessed. Travel can open your eyes to the joys and sadness that exist in the world, often side by side. As Americans, we can’t help but be grateful for our luck to be born in a place that strives, however endlessly it sometimes feels, to live up to our best selves.
My adventures as a young woman have provided me with memories and an optimism that has served me well over the years. Travel can do that for you.
Susan Sontag was quoted as saying, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” I want to take a page from her book and keep adventure alive and my dreams big.