It is three years since I left my last corporate position, determined to launch into a less predictable and more adventurous lifestyle (*). Extensive traveling was not part of a formal plan – I did not have any plan anyway. I ventured into the unknown with a taste of fear in my mouth and a flame of faith in my heart, mustering the courage to dive into an intangible flow and let the current take me to vast oceans and new shores. Little did I know that I was about to turn into a modern (female) Ulysses, landing on several exotic countries and filling my travelogue with experiences I never thought I would have. And, as months passed by, traveling became not just an integral part of my identity (even though I had been a frequent traveler since childhood), but, mostly, an indivisible part of my consciousness. On a perpetual quest for Ithaca – the mysterious home which is permanently luring the voyager deeper into the corners of the psyche – I do not travel anymore for recreational purposes, nor for business: I travel to keep exploring myself through the heartbeat of the lands and the eyes of humanity.
Here are some of the lessons and understandings I collected during these first years of my conscious traveling adventures:
- Traveling is a process through which I recover long-lost parts of my soul
There are some countries, cities, or regions with which I instantaneously develop a special relationship, while with others, our connection remains at the levels of a mere acquaintance. There is no rational reason behind this inexplicable chemistry – as there is no way to predict with whom we are falling in love. But, just like there are some individuals who play a unique role in our lives helping us to shed light onto the obscure corners of ourselves, there are also regions in the world that hide – in a fairy-tale kind of way – secret tools and archetypal messages offered to us as keys to unlock doors that have been firmly shut for several lifetimes. I have often imagined that during the original moment of universal birth when, with a Big Bang, a sphere of energy expanded into an immense cosmos, the old souls of our beings also exploded into several fragments which we are called to collect and reassemble over the course of our existence. Some of these fragments are hidden in people, others have settled in various lands and are calling us – when the time is right – to rediscover them. So, traveling helps me to become the “whole” person I am supposed to be, extending far beyond the limitations defined by my passport or my upbringing.
- Every trip is a full cycle along the Hero’s Journey
There is a consistent pattern in every trip that follows the stages of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. By stepping onto the path that takes us from our everyday world to our perceived destination, we have already answered the call for adventure and entered the mysterious realm where all powers are enhanced, and everything is possible. Our initial adjustment to a new place is our crossing of the threshold, and, as the days unfold, we move, consciously or subconsciously, through a series of experiences that prepare the psyche for the ultimate revelation of the journey. By the end of the trip, we are not the same person anymore: we have evolved into a new being that returns to the ordinary world carrying knowledge and gifts that are to be our precious inventory for any next undertaking. Ultimately, trips are not a way to spend the holidays, a collection of photos, or a ticking-off of destinations: they are cycles of learnings within the bigger cycle of our life’s adventure.
- I have grown to appreciate the importance of returning home as a grounding process
Often, the return to the ordinary world – the end of the trip – is perceived with sadness, since a long-anticipated and enjoyable experience has reached to its end. However, I have discovered that this return to the physical home is not a necessary evil but an integral part of the learning process. Without the grounding forces that the comfort and familiarity of my home represent, I cannot decode the messages of the trip and risk remaining lost somewhere in-between the mysterious and the ordinary world, like a soul that did not complete the passage.
- I have discovered that we are more alike rather than different
Despite the efforts of many forces to highlight the differences among various people, the things that connect us are far more than those that keep us apart. Human beings make similar wishes, fear similar disasters, look at the vastness of the universe with the same awe, and tell almost identical stories. The closer one looks at the history of distinct regions, the more the boundaries that separate us fade away and the borders of eras or intercultural influences become difficult to distinguish. We are, after all, a universal tribe with common origins, still reverberating the echo of the Big Bang, our human biography perpetually blending and interweaving.
- Traveling renews my hope towards the kindness and humanity of people
In every country, I have been greeted with small acts of kindness and generosity that come from the heart and do not aim at any particular gain. In Oman, a taxi driver helped me for no fee as I had run out of Omani rials; in Paris, a bus driver and several passengers, noticing that I was a foreigner, tried to translate for me in English an announcement made in French; in Thrace (Greece), a farmer stopped his work and, at his own initiative, took me with his 4-wheel vehicle closer to a lake so that I could take better photos of the flamingos; in Isfahan, a young Iranian girl – a tourist herself since she was living in Shiraz – was keen to exchange contact details and invite me with broken English to her house next time I would visit her hometown; in a Berber village in Morocco, an old woman allowed us into her home for tea and bread; and in Lebanon, a lady was keen to invite us for lunch just because we peaked through her open door and said “hello.” Despite some minor bamboozling incidents that may be unavoidable while traveling, people never cease to surprise me with their inherent kindness, continually renewing my hope and faith in the goodness at the heart of humanity.
- I learnt that empathy and understanding could only be experienced, not taught
When meeting face to face with people from different countries within the context of their homeland, sharing for a while the same paths and challenges, eating the same food, and listening to the details of their history, it is impossible not to see through their eyes and get an understanding of their point of view. People are rarely aggressive or extremists in mass. Usually, their side of the story represents the difficulties they have faced (which, often, remain unknown to a foreigner), or, may even be entirely different from what is being projected globally through mass media and political propaganda. It is only through personal experiences and interactions that fear or hatred can be diminished and a feeling of peace (both internal and external) may be restored.
- I have been taught to find beauty in small things and details
When being out of the comfort zone, nothing is taken for granted and every little detail matters. A clean toilet, the possibility for a warm shower, an unexpectedly comfortable bed, a sign with the right directions when feeling lost, a welcoming smile, a breeze, sunshine, the shadow of the clouds, a bench by the side of the road, the song of a bird: everything takes enormous proportions and becomes joy, a memory, a landmark on the journey. Appreciation and gratitude get honed, and we are reminded that life is not a series of carefully planned and controlled incidents but a rosary of gifts and surprises.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)
(*) More details about my story are included in my book “The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other“