The other day I was thinking about my passion for travel. Namely, I was trying to figure out when that started and how it became a passion. Where wanderlust began…
I was born in Chile, and when I was five, we immigrated to the Midwest. Unfortunately, my memories are few and limited to my parents’ stories and a handful of faded photos. In my old home, now my ex’s house is a cassette tape of a five-year-old talking to her dad in perfect Spanish the morning before departing that fateful day.
I guess at the time, and for some time after, my only concept of travel was found in magazines and school books, with an occasional class video. They were almost always exotic locations, where the people or natives were typically dressed sparingly. For me, secluded in my little world, there was no pull in this exposure to the world beyond.
Even when I finally did travel outside the US, it didn’t leave me with a sense of awe. Instead, I laid a foundation that would eventually trickle to my consciousness with unexpected zeal.
Our family eventually made a trip back to Santiago, Chile, when I was in fifth grade. What I remember from the trip was spending most of my time at my grandmother’s house. Though one memorable touristy experience was visiting San Cristobal near the downtown part of Santiago. Part of the fun was taking the funicular to the top. The top had a huge, easily seen statue of the Virgin Mary for miles. Which was cool. However, the panoramic view of the Andes and the city of Santiago held me spellbound for quite a while.
I only remember parts of the trip, but the emotions connected to those are pronounced and warms my heart. Like breakfast on the back-yard patio among the apricot and lemon trees while having Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) and crusty bread and butter purchased hours after it came steaming from the ovens of a bakery that morning, right around the corner. There was also the time I helped in the kitchen, and I could feel the breeze coming through the windows with no glass, only decorative grills, cooling the room just enough to be comfortable. I watched the adults move around each other in what had become a tight space. Gracefully avoiding one another, as if in a choreographed dance. And then there was the night my grandma Emma hosted a large family meal. My Spanish was no longer perfect like the little girl who had immigrated to the US long ago but instead had a clear American accent. Or, as the locals said, I spoke like a ‘Gringa.’ Consequently, I, in a wallflower manner, enjoyed the fluid conversations and banter, shyly engaging when prompted. The highlight was watching my grandma, who would shed her standard serious disposition after a couple glasses of wine and become animated. This was particularly true when she played an enthusiastic number on the piano. She was a true patriarch, and in retrospect, my favorite memories are when she let loose a bit, letting her less composed self come out.
For many, even as a kid, when you do travel, you don’t get its specialness. I was one. Just as it was with hiking. Hiking, to me, was simply walking for a long time and dull. As an adult, I appreciate the beauty of nature around me and know myself well enough that the best hikes have to have a payoff, goal – rugged/challenging terrain, fantastic lookout, waterfalls, etc. I came back and immediately started school after that trip. Getting back into the schedule and rhythm just as quick. The trip fell to the far corners of my mind, shoved aside by the priorities of a tween. There was no travel fire lit. Not yet.
When I finished high school, I had almost half a year before heading to boot camp in the Marines. That gave me the chance to visit my father and sister in Cali, Columbia. At the time, she was in med school, and my father taught at the same university, Universidad del Valle. I even attended one of his classes. It was all about cocci (bacteria, apparently), I may have fallen asleep- lol! Shhh. My Columbian travel education started as soon as we left the airport. On the ride to my father’s house, I immediately began to see clear and distinct poverty street after street. My father pointed out some wealthy neighborhoods noting how almost all were gated. I don’t remember seeing any middle-class-type communities on that drive. I’m sure they were there, but I think I was in a bit of shock.
In eighth grade, I took a class trip to New Orleans on Amtrak with the school band I was in. The eight hundred and thirty-five miles (two-plus days) it took to travel from Chicago passed many small towns. We usually passed through centers or main areas but not always. A couple of them were legitimate shantytowns. I was shocked! I hadn’t even realized those still existed. My middle school brain had thought that that kind of poverty only existed in third-world countries.
The car ride from the Cali airport to my father’s home was the same scene of shanty homes I had seen on the Amtrak years before, but exponentially so. Santiago was my only reference for what a third-world country looked like, and this was nothing like Santiago. In talking to my father and sister, I understood that Columbia, like many third-world countries, has quite a small middle class. For most, you’re either wealthy or poor. Theirs, my father, sister, and my other grandma – abuelita Blanca, were part of that tiny middle class.
isiting the university campus and attending some classes with my sister was entertaining. It was exciting to meet her friends and hang out with her and them. The drinking age was lower, so clubs, bars, and enjoying the freedom of youth were at my fingertips. I soaked it all in. Over the two months, I was in Columbia, we visited other areas. My father took me on a long drive high into some mesmerizing mountains. The road at times felt like it barely clung to the steep hillside, and looking down was to feel your stomach lurch. I watched the vegetation change as we traveled higher in altitude, and we added to our layers of clothing. The little villages got smaller and appeared less often. We stopped at a plateau with a large lake on the way up. The sense of the place was surreal. Clouds hung low that much of it touched the ground. The vegetation had continued to shrink, looking like a miniature of their normal counterparts. Much of it glittered, dappled in ice crystals. It felt like I had walked into a mystical winter fairyland.
On a much warmer trip, my sister and I went to one of the little islands off the coast of Columbia, considered the Caribbean. As expected, we found pristine beaches, clear blue waters, equally clear skies, and lots of young people. We parked ourselves on one of the beaches each day and enjoyed Latin dancing at the local clubs at night. It was a fun, decadent trip.
Although my childhood trips had been limited to two very different countries on the same continent, already I could see common and uncommon threads among humanity. People in Santiago and Cali were very much alike as they were in the Midwest. The languages changed, yes, but the behavior, the family connections, the struggles, and joys were really no different from others. Not that I philosophized about these things then. Not at all, not then. Today though, it’s part of the fabric of memories that gives rise to my need to meet people, experience other cultures, and see history. To come face to face with people from far away, to soak in the traditions and, time after time, feel the awe of landscapes whose beauty continues to steal my breath.
I’ve always thought of passion as coming in strong and staying hot. I now know that passion can quietly take residence in your brain. It cleverly but unobtrusively takes a back seat to other interests while building over time. Occasionally peeking its head out to inspire a trip here, a break from everyday life there. Eventually, I had somehow adjusted life (on the regular) to include travel. It has become as necessary as breathing. A passionate love of and lust for putting one foot in front of the other and seeking out new and unknown places.