I was dismayed last year to realize my passport, which I hadn’t used in 9 years, was about to expire. I hadn’t left the country since the Bush administration. I speak six or seven languages well enough to make small talk and find my way around; I hadn’t used but one in almost a decade. Recently my mother showed me my great-grandmother’s passport. She circled the world in the late fifties—unheard of for an Indian woman in her sixties. Her passport has stamps from Kabul, Moscow, Bangkok…it’s almost full.
I held my own expired passport, saw the old photo of myself, and flipped through the unfilled visa pages, blank after blank. Insert metaphor here. What was my excuse?
Sure, those nine years were financially difficult (speaking of the Bush administration…) and I had had a major health scare and almost died. In 2016 I found myself back in good health, with a nice middle-class job in a Chicago skyscraper, and no valid passport.
I was told I should get one because our parent company is in London and I might have to visit. That doesn’t look likely to happen soon (what do communication directors have to meet about?). Even if it did, who wants to travel to London to sit in an office and talk about derivatives trading? Some live Shakespeare, some curry, a trip to the countryside, looking up distant cousins—those things would be fun. A punk rock concert, Harrod’s, a random local pub, and how far is Stonehenge?
But a few days of “And this is our head of blah-blah.” “Oh yes, we’ve met on email! Nice to finally meet you in person.” That’s not travel. No offense to the Head of Blah-blah. She’s a lovely person.
I took one short business trip to a conference in Denver. Beautiful downtown and perfect weather in September. The hotel and conference couldn’t have been nicer.
As those things go. They go like conferences, don’t they? I got a great Eddie Bauer jacket in my swag bag, though.
The best part of the trip was the extra day I stayed to hike and rock climb in Red Rocks and drive into the Rockies. At last I was somewhere, watching the sunrise from atop a huge boulder, dangling off a cliff to get a selfie. Eating second breakfast at a small-town cafe that I suspect put weed in the coffee. Since when does coffee have a grassy smell?
On the Amtrak ride home—yes, Amtrak. I’d never tried it. Everyone should do it once. The seat is better than a first-class plane seat for sleeping and Denver’s Union Station is in the middle of its picture-perfect downtown. You have to not be in a hurry. Bring something to read or write or binge-watch. The shinkansen in Japan is over 50 years old, fast, and a pleasure to ride and it makes you wonder why Americans are forced by their government to endure slow trains. It’s not really more expensive, in the big picture, to build a high-speed train system in the US. Sure, politicians would lose the money they get from the airline lobby. But I’m sure the train lobby, which gave us Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan in the 19th century, would bounce back with high-speed bribes.
Anyway, on that train ride, after finishing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (the books, not the movies) I still had time left to think about where I wanted to go next and why. Where is a long list. Why is an urge both basic and complex. I think each person’s wanderlust is as unique as fingerprints.
I’ve had a quirk since I was a baby: I feel as though I should already know everybody and get this vague frustration when I realize most people are still strangers. It’s not a desire to be famous—to be known—necessarily. Though fame would make it easier to introduce myself: “Oh hey, you’re that guy from the thing!” “You saw that? Yeah that was me.” “Ooh, that had to hurt. The YouTube is hilarious, though! Still limping?”
I treasure the close relationships I have and know how precious it is to have people who know what toppings you like on your pizza and why you’re running late and what you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about at parties (the time I drank sake with yakuza members in Tokyo–man, do I milk that story). You’re lucky if you have even one or two people who will visit you when you’re sick. Many of us don’t. But for some reason, I have never been able to accept that I’m not going to know how my bus driver spends his weekends or what music my dentist rocks out to while jogging or whether the couple at the table next to me are silent because they’re just tired or because they are headed for divorce.
Unless I help them reconcile their differences by intervening with a quick role-playing exercise! No, not my business. Or is it?
When I was a baby, my mother tells me she would carry me most evenings to the Golden Bakery in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, where I was born. There the baker would sit me on his counter and give me an orange Fanta with a straw. I hadn’t mastered sucking yet (insert joke) so I mainly chewed the straw with my new teeth. Then he would give me a fresh one. I’d finish part of the bottle and a dozen straws and we’d head home with fresh bread. On the way, I would wave my elbow (I hadn’t mastered waving yet, either) at everyone on the street. I don’t remember this, but I remember since childhood the thrill of seeing people wave back.
It’s the thrill of hello, of knowing and being known, a chance at friendship, of just saying you’re happy the other person is here with you on this earth. A wave is not a middle finger, not a back of the hand, not a shaken fist or turned back. When the tour boats on the Chicago River pass under the Jackson Street bridge I cross to get to work, a few people (not just children) will wave. I always wave back.
We gain a little something from waving hello at one another that the others on the boat won’t gain. I don’t know that the others lose anything, not that they’ll notice. But amid tall buildings and strangers on the bridges and riverwalks, you get a moment of acknowledgement. I’m here, you’re here. Chicago is real.
That’s what it is. Chicago and Arusha, Tanzania, and every other place on this blue speck in a vast dark cold space are real. Our blue speck is itself vast and filled with mysteries and home to 7 billion people who are like me and yet each unique. I’m here, and so are they. And before we start building walls against each other and firing bombs and bullets and sales pitches and credit default swaps at each other, the decent thing might be to say hello first.
So long story short, I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to watch the sunrise from Uhuru Peak, 19,300 feet up, on my 48th birthday. And to motivate myself and say thank you to the hospital that saved my life 4 years ago, to do it as a fundraiser for Edward Hospital’s Care Center for sexually assaulted and abused children. More on that soon.
I figure a big trip is as good as a little one. One of my best birthdays was the 22nd, on top of Mt. Fuji. So instead of a weekend in Mexico or a hop over to London, I’m going to get my first stamp on my new passport in Nairobi. Then, after a 10-hour bus ride through villages and savannah (“Are those zebras? I’m totally tweeting that.”) I’ll get another one when I cross into Tanzania.
And yes, I’ll be acting as though everyone wants to meet me, just to mask my shyness about wanting to meet them. I’ll be waving a lot. I’m learning Swahili with a great phone app. And I got Google Translate, which is awesome. You say something in English and a droid voice from Star Wars says it back in Swahili. Just now it said, “Idiot ambaye mawimbi katika watu.” The idiot who waves at people.
August 9th you’ll find me, insha’allah, walking into the rainforest looking up at a mountain I’m fixin’ to climb. Nine years is a long time not to smell the pollution and cooking aromas of a place you’ve never been before, not to fall asleep with the rhythms of a different language echoing in your head, not to see stares burst into smiles as you walk down the street wondering if strangers are welcome here, and not to have that exquisite moment when you realize that strangers, in fact, are welcome. And really, you were never that much of a stranger to begin with.