Ah, travel is a cruel mistress! The traveler’s initial required price of barebones vulnerability and a complete departure from one’s comfort zone would cause anyone to question whether or not traveling should still be considered a “fun” activity. And the most unapologetic travel challenge is what I like to call First Day Syndrome, something I am unfortunately becoming an old hand at.
On the first day of any trip, your main concerns involve trivially vital matters such as not forgetting your toothbrush, clearing TSA without a rectal exam, rushing around to wait in more lines than you conceive as humanly possible, using the claustrophobic bathroom on the plane before the seatbelt sign comes on and you end up with a bladder infection, a growing concern over the gentleman seated next to you that looks as if he's in the early stages of Ebola, finding your hotel transfer using only charades and a phrase book, heavy luggage with wheels that only work above a certain temperature on odd-numbered calendar days, a bewildering state of never-ending consciousness despite emotionally-draining jetlag, and last but not least, that cotton-feeling level of blood sugar that can only be obtained by consuming plane "food". And to make sure you really enjoy every last moment of Day One, the act of crossing time zones, enduring layovers or a simple inability to sleep on a plane can make Day One last a mind-boggling 36 hours or more.
By this point, you're wondering what on God's earth compelled you to leave your comfortable bed and fully stocked kitchen for what simply seems like a bad idea. Your state of exhaustion takes over your entire thought process, and your ability to cope with the littlest things becomes non-existent. You're sliding down Maslow's Hierarchy at breakneck speeds. In short, you're pissy. And hungry. And you really feel like crying for no apparent reason. It is at this point that you find yourself carrying on conversations not dissimilar to the following:
“I really miss my cat. I didn’t think I’d miss my cat this much. Did I remember to feed my cat? Do you think my cat is going to die?”
“We’ve only been gone 12 hours. And besides, you hired a house sitter. Your cat is fine.”
“No, really…my cat doesn’t like strangers. What if she hides for the entire trip and doesn’t eat and dies? I don’t want my cat to die!”
“You’re cat isn’t going to die. Chill out.”
“I never should have left! Now my cat is going to die while I’m stuck over here where they probably eat cats!! WHY DID I COME HERE?!”
“I’m not talking to you any more.”
Provided you survive until your new bedtime, you then find yourself staring down at something that almost resembles a bed while beginning the fine art of living out of a bag, considering yourself lucky if nothing has spilled or was confiscated by a paranoid security agent with a kleptomania problem. And that is only if your bag actually made it with your plane and isn’t lost in another airport on the other side of the world. You’re actually grateful it is sitting in front of you with a brand new permanent shoeprint on the front, everything inside smelling like petrol and wrinkled beyond hope, despite the $25 "No Wrinkles!" luggage add-on you bought specifically to address this problem. And to think you paid quite a lot for this lovely experience.
So now, there you lie on your adopted “bed” - wrinkled, clogged ears from the plane’s air pressure, enormous bags under your eyes, still a bit malnourished and smelling like stale coffee – wondering why you keep subjecting yourself to this torture. After hours of staring at a foreign ceiling and further contemplating the fate of your cat and the sorry state of the pillow under your head, your body slowly drains of the adrenaline that’s been keeping you moving for an inhumane number of hours and gives in to utter exhaustion.
Congratulations; you’ve passed the test. The Traveling Muses now render you worthy of having the curtain pulled away; your destination will now reveal herself to you in small tastes. And the love affair begins…
Fresh from some sleep, you start to find an odd appreciation for the strange foods and customs that confused you only hours earlier. This time, instead of gagging when someone hands you a plate of food floating in an unidentifiable liquid, you find yourself thinking, “I’ll just eat around it.” You get a bit excited to go out and try your hand at the uniqueness of this new place. Driving on the wrong side of the road and rough toilet paper are novelties. You don’t mind if something goes awry; it’s an opportunity to experiment and live a bit more like a local. You absorb as much of the culture as you can each day, realizing that perhaps the bed isn’t so bad, the wrinkles aren’t that big of a deal and you can even live with your suitcase’s new shoeprint.
As time goes on and your body clock realigns, you begin to develop a distinctive appreciation for your temporary reality. With each day, you discover something new and your eyes open a little bit more. You learn to keep up with locals and they show their appreciation by including you. You learn why this place is special and you develop your own comprehension of its people and customs. You find yourself actually understanding odd plumbing, strange foods, language barriers. You start thinking in their terms, almost finding your native rituals a bit foreign. You realize the ingredients of this place and that alone validates their worth.
And that’s when it happens: your moment, a supernatural clarity that can’t be put into words, a mental snapshot of pure perfection. Every wanderlust-bitten traveler has their own collection of these moments and holds each one near to who they are inside. It’s in this moment that you fall in love and the addiction enters your bloodstream. It’s as obsessive as a narcotic; you crave the natural high like a drug. This is why you came here and why you’ll come back. This is why you endure the frustrations like some sort of masochist.
This is why you travel.
(This blog was started in London at 3 in the morning, the end of one of my “first days”, in my 37th consecutive hour of consciousness, listening to my sister’s steady slumbering breathing and watching the purple glow of the London Eye out the window.)