As I’m packing to get ready to fly for the celebration of the Kerlan award, I’m thinking about the always surprising aspects of travel. When I was in Nice, France, speaking at a conference for international teachers, I ordered a seafood salad, and it came with these teeny octopi in it. I did not want to eat the octopus. I did want to take a picture of it.
You know you’ve been on the road too much when a TSA agent looks at your ID and at you and compliments you on your new haircut.
The family I grew up in had all kinds of travel adventures. My mom remembered what it was like to go to Ethiopia with a 4, 2, and 1-year-old. The airlines gave her a questionnaire to fill out because they wanted to encourage more families to travel internationally. (She marked that they needed a bigger size of diaper. Airlines provided diapers?) Later, when we were on one of our every-five-year visits to the U.S. I remember finding my way back to the tiny airplane bathrooms and finding teeny bottles of hand lotion and soap. Thrilldom! I also remember panic about whether the agents were going to weigh our heavy hand luggage and the time my older sister tried to order an extra plate, in France, and got an egg.
An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” When I’m talking with those writers who are stretching to use words in ever-more powerful ways, I point out the joys of observation–and good observation starts with paying intense attention. Sometimes it’s hard to be curious, attentive, focused, around things you’ve seen and experienced every day. Probably that’s why travel writing is such a strong genre. We go other places and we open our eyes, our ears, our taste buds.
I’m interested in the effect of words everywhere I go. Walking where I understand none of the conversation around me makes me feel off-balance and humble–and makes me pay acute attention to body language and context. Changing just one tiny set of black marks ever so slightly sets off a whole ripple of that’s not right in the brain and gives a sensation of delicious surprise. Ever since I started to work on the Lanie stories, I’ve paid more attention to birds and flowers and trees everywhere I go. I also pay attention to what the people around me are doing in relationship to those birds and flowers and trees. Do they (as in Japan) tend and treasure a neat, tiny sidewalk box with flowers? Do they eat birds? Do they cut down enormous trees because the sale of one tree allows the buying of a motorcycle? What do they have to say about such things?
It’s fascinating to look at the pieces of a place that are at the very heart of that place–things that everybody knows about but things that inevitably have surprises when one looks at them up-close or with a stranger’s eyes. The cherry blossoms in Japan were that way for me.
It’s also fascinating to look at things that are hybrids, not originally part of a place but now knitted into the life of the people who live there. For a while, I took pictures of McDonalds everywhere I went–and also studied the menus to see what kinds of items popped up (or didn’t) depending on food tastes and taboos. People who haven’t grown up here are often astonished at the concept of free books in libraries.
One thing that’s interesting is to see bits of America through the eyes of people who have only glimpsed our icons from afar. We actually know so little about each other, all around the world. And yet stories…music…art forms of all kinds…are ways that people do build shaky bridges. We offer each other little peeks into “here is what it’s like to be a human being in MY world” through the ways we shape our worlds into stories and songs and paintings and dramatic renditions and dances and all.
Travel in Ethiopia was often uncomfortable, uncertain, and full of challenges. When we got into a Jeep on the savannah and started to climb (32 miles…all day) up the mountain roads, we never knew what kinds of pains and fears lay ahead. That was good training for the tough days of traveling around as an author and as a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads. One tough thing when I travel today is that I have to face just how uncertain and uncomfortable travel is for most of the people in the world.
Ethiopia is gorgeous and amazing, but I don’t know if I could bear to travel there if I weren’t doing something to share what I love and think is important, something to invest in making the future at least a bit better for some people who worry about clean water or whether they will ever own a pencil. I’m grateful for the many travelers (thanks, Davis Moon, for your help) who make their way to Ethiopia carrying books with them. After all, readers travel widely even when they never leave their chairs.
Thanks, too, to the traveler who shared this picture of 170 children in a classroom in Ethiopia. It made me remember why my more horrid travel days are still worth the effort I put into volunteering for Ethiopia Reads.