It’s been a while since I graduated college, but it hasn’t been a while since the new assistants at my company have graduated college. So, I guess I forgot about the two camps of young American travelers. Or, at least, it’s been a long while since I thought about them.
Let me set the scene: Work. Cubicles. The two weekdays after Christmas.
The players: Almost no one. Because everyone takes off the week of Christmas to laze about in their pajamas except: 1. Me, who uses all of her vacation days to travel and not laze about in my pajamas and 2. The two New Hires, who haven’t accumulated enough vacation days to spend the week of Christmas lazing about in their pajamas.
It’s not so bad. It’s quiet, and, as it turns out, it’s good bonding time. I learn that my new assistant, has a two-year (!) savings plan for a trip to Antarctica. I am intrigued, and find myself standing at her desk, doing what all people who’ve had love affairs with travel do, that is: talking about travel. We are joined by another group’s new assistant and soon the two newbs are engaged in a back-and-forth about castles, having both (recently) studied abroad in Europe. I’m lost for most of it, and find myself asking somewhere in the middle of Bavaria and Edinburgh: What the hell is a castle even? Is it a house? Is it a fort? Palaces I understand. Castles I do not. I mention I do want to see a castle, I think, but my travels in Europe have been somewhat limited.
Eventually we start talking about where we’d love to go next. My Antarctica-dreaming colleague mentions Bolivia, to which the other replies “I don’t know about South America. That is much too scary for me.”
It reminded me of that post on Stuff White People Like about the two kinds of people who travel. Because I instantly reverted back to the Traveler I was, the person whose formative first experiences out in the world were below the equator. I’d be lying if I said that traveling through South America, Africa, and Asia didn’t once make me feel superior to those devout to their travels through Europe. This was definitely the case upon my immediate return from my study abroad experience. I remember the year I got back to school, I gave a kid a ride across Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving break, and during the drive he said that Europe was superior to all places because it was responsible for all of civilization. I made him listen to my Bollywood musical CD the remainder of the way.
I’ve since traveled to Europe, and of course I think it’s swell. And, I like to think I’ve mellowed out of my Traveler’s superiority complex. But maybe I haven’t. Because, what I wanted to say to my new (and young) coworker was this:
Don’t be scared of South America. Go to South America. In South America, there are cities just as grand as they are in Europe. Go to those cities. And also go to the parts that scare you. The gritty parts. South America will push you to the edge of what you thought you could handle, what you thought you could do. Maybe you’ll go to Carnival in Salvador; maybe you’ll dance your ass off and get too drunk. Maybe you’ll need to pee in public; maybe you’ll throw up. Maybe while you’re making your way through massive, colorful, buoyant crowds you will feel children’s hands go into the pockets of your jeans; they are searching for money that you have smartly tucked into the bottom of your shoes or inside of your bra. Maybe someone with a gun will follow you on a cobblestoned street past fluttering Bonfim bracelets tied to gates, but maybe a woman will stop you on the street and tell you to be more careful. Maybe you will realize the world is scary but the world takes care of you. The next day maybe you’ll get lost taking a bus to a beach town and maybe the people on the bus will make fun of you for trying to communicate in Spanish instead of Portuguese. Maybe those people will tell you that you have glittering eyes and then point you in the right direction because you were going the wrong direction. Maybe you’ll go to a beach and see every beauty ideal you grew up with defied by big bulging Brazilian women in teeny tiny bikinis. Maybe for the first time in your life you’ll feel comfortable in a bathing suit without a cover-up. Maybe this will liberate you and cause you to question your own culture for the first time. Question who you are. Accept yourself. For the first time. After that, maybe there will be more dancing. Better dancing. Because you are alive.
Maybe, in this quiet office in your new life, the week of Christmas, almost seven years later, you can still feel the beating of those Carnival drums in the depths of the cavity of your chest, (the beating of your heart).
Or maybe you could stick with Europe. I hear they have castles.