So yeah, I did a guided "matching t-shirts and name tags" tour of New Zealand and Australia after ninth grade with a school ground. Then, I spent my Isaac's earnings on a smaller school trip to Spain that allowed us a little bit more freedom after tenth grade, supplemented with a cash infusion of spending money from grandparents and emergency "travel money" from my mom and dad. I won a fundraising raffle for a trip to Italy with my sister and the Boston College Chorale in '97 and met the Pope by sheer dumb luck.
Then in '98, I dog-sat for an American expat family in Prague while they were on vacation in Spain and backpacked through Austria and Germany before heading to Venice. I studied abroad in London in '99 in a photo program where the academic focus was "shoot a buttload of pictures and, you know, take a bunch of artistic risks and get better at shooting and stuff and maybe someday we'll make a book about one small town recovering from an egregious act of terrorism and you know, why don't you go to France for a long weekend and then take a week off to shoot in Ireland and Scotland and since you have those frequent flier miles, Denmark has great Christmas lights and Norway is cold as fuck and the sun is only out for about four hours, but the light is COOL, so... go take pictures of THAT." So I did.
After that, I pretty much didn't leave the country again for about nine years, unless you count South Florida as a foreign country. (Many people do.) Things came full circle for me when Joel and I went to Australia on our honeymoon, only this time we were completely in control of what we wanted to see and do. Considering that my first trip abroad was one where an adult chaperone held onto our passports, renting our own cars and handling everything ourselves marked a move to the opposite end of the spectrum.
All in all, I've been to 12 countries in the past 16 years. In that time, I've met world leaders, fended off muggers, got myself lost and found again. My sister Amanda, Rome, 1997: "I'm going to put you on a leash." I've seen the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa and the Great Barrier Reef and the Eiffel Tower, and as of tomorrow, the Taj Mahal. I drank Guiness in Ireland and Chianti in Italy and this morning, I had chai by the Taj Mahal.
These things are as beautiful as you think, but while the experiences are transformative, they are very rarely transcendental. The postcard version you imagine you'll see is almost always marred by throngs of tourists from, oh, everywhere, with their own customs and norms and ideas about hygiene, how to wait in line, and what constitutes an appropriate amount of personal space.
Since I started traveling in 1994, I've been hit on, spat at, humiliated by street performers, and arrested. It is scary and hard and frequently smelly and oftentimes sad and depressing (concentration camps, bullfights, dead kangaroos and children in abject poverty, anyone?) but I wouldn't change it for anything.
The transcendental changes come in the in-between places. Tonight Hema and I ventured in to a Muslim neighborhood to see Nizamuddin, a temple where a Sufi saint is buried. Every Thursday night, musicians gather to sing and play music, preparing for the dawn of the next day, Friday, the Muslim holy day. You wind your way down through a labyrinth of side streets lined with stalls selling shawls, DVDs, scruptires and strings of flowers for offerings. You leave your shoes behind with someone who hands you a disk with a number on it, thinking- tetanus?- but holy places where thousands of people go barefoot are surprisingly free of pointy things and broken glass. If you squint your eyes and imagine candles and torches in place of the eco-friendly CFC bulbs, really, it feels like 2,000 years ago. A woman approaches me, begging for money, but she is particularly insistent and chatty. In Hindi. I look at Hema questioningly, and she says, "I think she has psychological problems."
As it turns out, the woman is saying that she has had a Bengali curse on her for years which enables her to turn into a snake. My presence at the shrine tonight has broken the curse. Ah. Well, then. You're very welcome. Glad I could help. Then, she goes to "soup kitchen" part of the shrine and tries to give me food, then tells Hema I owe her `10 rupees." When we refuse, she says, "By the grace of God, you should become Indian." Alrighty then.
I talk myself out of from trying to rescuing the world's saddest kitten, unsteadily lapping up water from the spigots where the Muslim men wash before they pray. Heart. Breaking. Small children crowd around my tripod as Sufi supplicants chant and sway, tying red prayer strings around the lattice walls surrounding the saint's tomb while nearby devotees light incense sticks by the dozen. An Indian eunuch sashays past.
But I? I am practically a sideshow exhibit. Dozens of people come to gawk at the white lady with the camera. I turn to the starers with a smile. "Salaam alaikum," I say. Some of the children reply, "Walaikum salaam," but several of the man ask Hema why on earth I would greet them? Women don't initiate conversation, as it turns out. Like, EV-ER.
She doesn't tell me this until later, so I feel warm and fuzzy when they nod in return. See how a smile and a warm hello translates in any language? I think dopily. I'm feeling all connected to every living thing in a Coke commercial "I'd like to teach the world to sing in per-fect harmoneeee" sort of way when two little girls ask H to settle a bet. One girl thinks H speaks English; the other is betting that she doesn't understand a word I say and is only humoring me. They ask then if I'm an Englishman, and when she whispers this to me with a giggle, and I'm hearing a Gilbert and Sillvan song instead of the call to evening prayer. "He is an Englishman, he is! Hurrah for the English man!"
We head for home, collecting our shoes from the pile and calling the driver on the cell phone, leaving behind the musicians, the gold tomb, the flower-sellers, the wet kitten, the schizophrenic snake lady and the castrated man in the sari with makeup a drag queen would envy. The small children with kohl-lined eyes run behind us, trying to touch my feet with theirs before I go, and in my mind, Pirates of Penzance gives way to David After the Dentist. Is this real life? It is.