Sometimes, particularly when I’m hot and bone-weary and I’ve just done something like lose a passport, it occurs to me that I might have a slightly perverse desire to get the best of weird situations.
Because when I travel, when I overcome the barriers of my own shortcomings and whatever happenstance is flung at me — fatigue, strain, the wrong bus route — I feel powerful. I am alone, and hence in a real way I am the only one who can protect and look out for myself. I am not always in control, but, I tell myself, I always have power.
Power is not the same thing as control. As a woman, especially as a comparatively small-framed woman, sometimes you may feel that, if you’re not careful, control of your own body or your well-being will be taken from you by force. This fear is reiterated in a thousand ways large and small to us as women, and yes, there is danger in being small and alone, and it should not be underestimated. But neither should it be overestimated or given inordinate weight. Your vulnerability should not be, and is not, your defining characteristic.
Because however large or numerous you are, sometimes things will be beyond your control. At a bare minimum, if you travel enough, at some point your plane will be delayed and you’ll miss your connecting flight. You’ll get sick, you won’t always be able to find a taxi, and you will get blisters. The train workers will go on strike, thunderstorms will catch you in the open, the TSA will change their regulations.
These are things that are impossible for you to change. But you are far from powerless: your power lies in how you react to them, how you rise to the occasion, and on a larger scale, the steps you take to be vigilant for, and advocate for, yourself.
I travel, I think, because at home I tend to forget how much power I have over myself and my surroundings, even when they are difficult and unpredictable. Certainly, it is not the only reason that I travel. But it does tend to break things down into concrete, immediate goals: go here, do this, figure this out. It’s like solo boot camp. It’s like going out to hike a mountain by yourself, only with more psychology and cross-cultural analysis. In its own way, it can be a form of therapy, because when you are finished, not only have you seen and done something new, you have done it on your own initiative. You are the one who has birthed success or failure from your time and effort. Well, you and the hospitable strangers who have welcomed you.
People watch Eat, Pray, Love and other such movies not because they are about blossoming in some safe, well-known environment, but because they’re about challenge, adjustment, forced growth — an exotic blossoming. The movies often feel contrived, but we still admire and even envy the women who do this sort of thing in real life. We often think they are strong to even attempt such journeys, and thus we think we should feel this same strength before we could ever attempt something similar. But as someone once told me, “Feelings rise and fall like the waves on an ocean. Rather than feeling powerful, how about knowing that you are powerful? Knowing so deeply that nothing on this earth or in the heavens could wrest that truth from your soul?”
In order to set out on a journey, I need to know just how strong I am and just how strong I am not. And so I set out on them to remind myself, to flex the muscles of my understanding and my independence, to feel the earth sing in my blood and to move past its many obstacles.