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The Excitement and Loneliness of the Far Way

I think I began travelling because I feared the world. I always assumed my father feared the world as well, that I had inherited the fear from him. But, perhaps I was projecting, always projecting, and if so I owe him an apology. Be that as it may, I have done a great many things precisely because they frightened me. If I hadn’t, I would never have left my bedroom.

Travelling, particularly by yourself, can at times be frightening. Wherever you go in the world, we are all doing the same things. We are speaking and writing. We are eating and cooking. We are serving and sitting in cafes. We are working and playing. We are learning and teaching. We are posting letters and sending emails. We are taking walks and lounging in front of the TV. We’re buying and selling. We’re worshipping and singing. We are loving and hating. We are embracing and striking. We are marrying and divorcing. We are laughing and crying. We are making peace and making war. We are getting old and dying. However, the way we do all these things can be radically, shockingly, different in different places. The greater the difference from your every day, the greater the excitement and the greater the loneliness when visiting.

When travelling the most mundane can become exotic. A newspaper. A train ticket. A toilet. A walk. Though more than likely surrounded by people all your life, they suddenly become more colorful, interesting, dangerous, inviting, friendly. What is more exciting than looking down a narrow road or alleyway with a bounty of cafes and bars, shops and businesses? It’s a canyon of amazement. How wonderful it is to be surrounded by people of a new and different tribe, none of whom speak your language, wear your clothes, share your history, bare your prejudices. Once in Shanghai an every growing crowd of people stood with me outside a movie theater as I asked in English and sign language if the movie had English subtitles and they tried in Mandarin and sign language, with increased laughter, to answer me. We finally succeeded amidst shouts of congratulation, handshakes, and back slaps. The moment will never leave me.

Grand Bazzar, IstanbulGrand Bazzar, IstanbulI once sat with a Muslim named Musti in a hidden café in the Grand Bazaar (the Kapali Cassi) in Istanbul drinking apple tea surrounded by men smoking nargiles. I once met a beautiful woman in a park in Managua, Nicaragua on a warm summer evening. I once sat all alone late at night on the Continental Divide in Montana looking at the Milky Way. I once was a guest in a family home in the mountains of Taiwan and was given muddy brown coffee by a young girl as her father looked on with pride. I once become violently ill in Harari, Zimbabwe and was cared for by loving people in their home. Talk about the good life. Try and tell me it hasn’t been good.

Many years ago the first country I visited by myself where the people did not speak my language was France. It was the only the second foreign country I had ever entered, Britain being the first (thank God they spoke English!). I was alone. I flew into Marseille, climbed into my rental car and headed for Arles. Shortly after entering the freeway, or motorway if you like, I saw a toll booth ahead. Thinking about it now I laugh and blush at the same time. After travelling around the world more than a few times and being in, what were to me, tight spots – the gunfire in war exhausted Angola, the late night military stop and search in El Salvador, the police intimidation in Zimbabwe, the prostitutes’ desperation in, well, everywhere, the malaria symptoms (thankfully all deceptions) in India – I’m amazed now to remember that I had to pull off the road and that I sat almost paralyzed trying to figure out what I was going to do about a French toll booth. Talk about tight spots. Don’t try and tell me I wasn’t up against it.

Somehow – I don’t remember how – I made it past the toll booth barrier where a French robotic voice demanded my payment. Further, without the aid of GPS, or Sat Nav if you prefer, I found my hotel in Arles, the Hotel de Provence on the rue Chiavary. It’s all child’s play now that the years have passed and the air miles have accumulated, but back then…

Arles, FranceArles, FranceMy room in Arles was on the top floor and from my window I could see the small narrow street on which the hotel was located. In the evening the small hotel restaurant spilled out onto the street which became closed to traffic. I could hear the clanking of silverware, the clicking of classes, and a cacophony of conversations and laughter while I sat in my room. Eventually I went down to dinner and there sitting at a table for two on a narrow French street I learned a valuable lesson about loneliness. I looked around me and I was surrounded by couples in love and families in a multitude of relationships, but most importantly I was encircled by people together. They were together. I was not. A loneliness suddenly settled on me like a weight. It was a loneliness of geography, language, culture, history, and tribe. It was personal. And this is what I learned. Such a loneliness is not to be ignored or dismissed. You cannot pretend it is unimportant. You cannot get up and walk away from it. You cannot foist it on to someone else. Such loneliness is to be endured and embraced, because it will eventually pass, but – and it’s a big but – while it resides around and within, it can profoundly fashion you. Talk about epiphanies. Don’t tell me I didn’t see with new eyes.

I am sorry if you have never experienced such far away loneliness, as I am if you have never experienced the excitement of distance and difference. I realized I am privileged to have had the experiences of both.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

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