Norway • Switzerland • USA
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
I remember the trip vividly. We had planned to take a MAC (Military Air Command) flight from Dover, Delaware to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there travel the remainder of the journey by train. Taking a MAC flight is a nice benefit afforded to active duty military personnel (at that time, my mom) and their family members: an inexpensive flight to just about anywhere in the world, complete with a cold fried chicken box lunch. The only catch is that unless you are traveling on official military orders, you have to fly “Space-A”, which means that you can very easily be bumped from your planned flight if there is no space available.
For days leading up to the trip, I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. My six-year-old concept of the world was very abstract. I knew from reading books and seeing the news that there were people in the world who did not live in the United States, yet I couldn’t quite imagine what it would be like to see those people in person. I wondered what they would look like, and what they would eat. How would I be able to speak to them?
I packed my little backpack full of books, puzzles, my dolls, and the Walkman my grandpa had given me as a present. I had one cassette tape, recorded from a couple of albums. It had Michael Jackson’s Thriller on one side, and Madonna’s True Blue on the other. I must have listened to La Isla Bonita at least a dozen times before my mom came in my room to share the bad news that we had been bumped from our Space-A flight scheduled for that night. I was so disappointed, wondering if that had been our only chance to go to Switzerland and see my great aunt and look at all of the things that were different from my own life. I worried that I had missed my chance to present my brand new passport for a stamp.
Of course, we managed to get on a flight to Frankfurt at some point in the following days and visit my great aunt and uncle on one of the many picturesque hillsides in Lugano, Switzerland. That trip changed me in a way that I wouldn’t come to appreciate until many years later. The houses in Switzerland were different. So were the cars. And the language… I couldn’t understand a word. The money was different, and so was the food. Yet at the same time, so many things were the same. People went to work and to school and bought food from grocery stores. My great aunt had cats whom she adored. There were bookstores and buses and department stores where I even heard Madonna singing through the speakers. I was seeing for the first time that in spite of our many differences, people are more or less the same, even six thousand miles from home.
Our trip to Switzerland was the first of many trips to come. Three years later, my mom received military orders to move us all to Germany for three years. While there, we again had the opportunity to visit my great aunt, among other places. Each trip taught me more about the world, about people, and about our simultaneous differences and similarities.
I took my first solo trip the day after I turned twenty. I went to Utah intending to complete a through-hike of Zion National Park. I flew to Salt Lake City, took a Greyhound bus to Cedar City, and then arranged for a private ride to the park’s entrance. I began my hike, carrying everything I had brought with me on my back. I took photos, stopped at natural springs to collect water in my canteen, and camped at night. With a couple of books and again, a (newer) Walkman, I took in the peace and quiet, not seeing another soul for days as I hiked through the park on backcountry trails, cooked dinner over my little camping stove, and watched the stars at night through the mesh opening at the top of my tent. I lasted a few days out there before I lost my way and, after hours of trying to get back on track, eventually made it to a trailhead, where I was able to get a ride to the south entrance of the park. I felt a bit defeated, having not reached my goal, but made the most of my remaining time in Utah by staying in a campground and taking shorter day hikes and bike rides. I met a family from California there and spent some time with them over meals and in the evenings. Although I had essentially failed at my initial goal, I viewed the trip as a success. It taught me the importance of being flexible and open to change in the face of unexpected circumstances. And though I was happy to be home once the trip was over, I knew I would travel again, perhaps even alone.
Traveling has contributed to my life in a way that is difficult to describe in words. It has taught me about culture, history, and language. It has taught me patience, flexibility, and understanding. It has deepened my appreciation for everything that I have and for all of the differences that exist among people. And most importantly, it has shown me the importance of tolerance and compassion in a world where no matter how different we are from one another, at our cores, we are the same.
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