I board the plane crisp and respectable and promptly feel myself morph into something wretched and inexplicably slimy. Flights do that to a person. But after all the rearranging of doll-house-sized pillows and the moments of fitful sleep, the end is near. I know this because the nice lady just handed me a slip of paper- the entry form.
This is all they want to know about me: Name, Date of Birth, Passport Number, and Reason for Travel. The last one always stumps me. It’s a ‘why’ question and there’s only a couple boxes available to check. There’s definitely not enough room for my answer. I search for something that says, “If you need more space, please attach another sheet’, because this is what I really want to say:
“Dear unsmiling uniformed officer,
No, I am not carrying more than $10,000 in currency, nor do I have any goods to sell, though I heard that blue jeans were a hit in Russia some time ago. And, no, I have no fruits, seeds, or meat. The truth is, I ate them all on the plane ride, mostly 10 minutes before disembarking because I knew they were illegal to carry in, and yes sir, it was a lot of food. For some reason, I always think that an eight-hour plane ride will require the nourishment to sustain a marathon; as if I would starve to death right there in seat 23E and embarrass myself in front of the Window Guy and the Aisle Lady. So, I have just consumed three apples, a banana, a bag of beef jerky, and a pound of pistachios. Yes, the pistachios were the most difficult; with the shells and all, but the jerky was quite a struggle too. I apologize if I look rather bloated.
But you are obviously busy with very serious business, so let’s get to the point. Yes sir, I did spend a really long time in South America. No sir, I do not have any involvement with drugs. I went to study Spanish, you know, the language. Wouldn’t that be the most obvious reason to go away for many months? Can you believe I didn’t meet a single drug lord? I met ladies that baked delicious breads and sold them out of a basket on their heads. I met boys determined to enter politics and change the future of their countries. I met children begging for small change. Uh oh, I apologize. It appears that I have offended you.
So, as I was saying, yes, I have a passport full of stamps, and honestly, I’m not exactly sure why I keep running away and returning. It’s not like everything was cake and berries, no, sir. There was the time I got locked in a self-cleaning bathroom in Rome, and the time I got lost in a grizzly bear preserve, and, yeah, the seven horrific food-fails in Asia. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, all of my trips were fraught with misadventure- delays, missed buses, bad street food, and one too many moments of inadvertent nudity. I got lost, cold, hungry, and embarrassed every single time, but I kept wanting more.
Then one day, I stumbled upon a list. Not any old list, sir, but a list that smacked me hard on the face. It was titled, ‘Common Traits of Americans’ and it scared the sweat out of me. Every single item on that page was something I had assumed, until then, reflected who I was at my very core- my innermost passions, my innate sensibilities, and even my quirky nuances. But it wasn’t me, it was my culture that made me that way. I was defined and shaped like a hunk of clay- and the potter was my society. It was so blatant that it was subtle; possibly the greatest magic trick in the book. The truth is, we are all shaped this way. And really, this is not such a bad thing, but it made me wonder; beneath all the ketchup and denim, who am I, really?
Travel, it turns out, has a way of stripping us down to our innards; separating us from that ‘list’ and the expectations of our society. People boast of freedom behind the colored and symbolic flags of their nations, but I sir, tend to think that the only true flag of independence is the white one. When we have surrendered all of the things that define us, all that is left is wits and guts. It’s so very Wizard-of-Oz-y: there you are on some cobbled road, a much more potent and colorful version of yourself.
So, who am I? Well, sir, here’s the bad news: I’m still trying to figure that one out. My mountain of travel journals and the well-inked passports may look like just paper and words to you, but I see them as the remnants of abandoned cocoons. You see, every time I go somewhere, something inside of me is outgrown and something brand new is born. And, alas, my question is still unanswered.
And, that, officer, is my ‘Reason for Travel’. I hope this helps explain things and again, sorry if I look so slimy and bloated.”
(This story was my submission to http://wesaidgotravel.com/, We Said Go Travel’s Independence Writing Competition for 2015)