“If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.” – Roland Gau
This is a comforting sentiment because I’ve had this thought nearly a dozen times over the past three weeks. The first time I thought this was when I turned away from my parents and walked through the first TSA line. Suddenly, waves of uncertainty and doubt washed over me. Without anyone beside me (for the first time in weeks – when you’re about to leave the country for six months, everyone wants a piece of you before you go), life seemed quieter. At first, this silence jarred me, but as I settled into it, I realized that being without anyone I knew allowed me freedom from distractions. I could adequately observe my surroundings for what felt like the first time in my life. The hustling of people catching planes, talking on phones and to others in English and other languages. The bored expressions on terminal employees’ faces. The smell of overpriced lobster rolls and other airport food. All of these details that had I been with someone, I would have missed completely, suddenly seemed so vital.
I remember one moment from my first few hours of travel distinctly. When I got off the plane in Newark and caught a shuttle to the other terminal for my Tel Aviv flight, I sat in a seat pointed inward on the bus. I caught my reflection in the window across from me, it was a girl with one overstuffed carry on bag and a fully packed backpack slung on her shoulders, sitting alone. And instead of being uncertain or scared, she actually looked like she knew what she was doing, this whole ‘traveling’ thing. I saw a person in that window that I hadn’t encountered before in myself, but she was me, alright. It was in that moment that my faith in where I was and what I was doing was restored. I liked seeing that new person in the reflection; she was alone but she wasn’t really alone because her companions were her observations and the people, places, and objects around her.
I met the true spirit of traveling on that shuttle. That is not to say that there haven’t been moments when I’ve lost track of the spirit, times when I’ve asked, “What have I gotten myself into?” and “What am I doing here?” The thing they don’t tell you about traveling is that as you experience new sights, sounds, and people, you simultaneously grow a newfound appreciation and perspective on your familiar sights, sounds, and people. Traveling is missing things you never used to think were special, like going to Grimey’s, a show in East Nashville, or walking around Hillsboro Village. More than that, it is missing the people you used to do those things with. It is craving a Poptart, even though you really never wanted them when you had access to them back in the States. Above all, it is wishing you could share every bit of what you are experiencing now with your loved ones back home. Telling them about it just doesn’t do it justice; you wish they could see what you are seeing in real time.
But traveling is also waking to a beautiful view of Beit Sahour’s* hills in the distance. It is walking up a nearly vertical hill in the already blazing morning sun to arrive next to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, and you’re only ¼ of the way to work. It is the smell of baking pita and shrak along the square. It is saying “Sabah al khair” to people you pass on Star Street. It is meeting new friends from Finland, Germany, and Bethlehem. It is refilling paint for your kids and swapping Arabic and English words with them as you watch them paint over cement blocks in the garden. It is picking figs and eating them right off the tree. It is the taste of fresh labaneh, olive oil, and thyme. It is listening to your Bethlehem friends talk about their experiences with the second Intifada and the 40 day siege on Bethlehem during their childhoods, about losing family members and friends, about how they used to hide from bombs and tear gas, about how all of this still affects them, and you go home and cry yourself to sleep because you don’t know what it all means. It is participating in an Arabic wedding, holding lit candles with the other women and watching men with canes and tarbooshes celebrate on the dance floor. It is walking home against the chilly night breeze, carrying Chinese leftovers, and laughing with your new friend group, some of whom you only just met the day before. It is sitting on top of the monkey bars on Wi’am’s playground at dusk, sipping luisa (lemon grass) tea while watching the last pink glow of the sun as it sets over the refugee camp next door.
Traveling doesn’t feel perfect all of the time; it is rarely comfortable. But it is rewarding to the soul. It stretches you to your capacity and makes you grow in places you didn’t know you needed expansion in. I feel that I cannot describe it quite adequately yet, and I haven’t got the tightest grip on it either. But I’m figuring it out.
Here’s some pictures from this week:
*Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour are three towns that pretty much blend into one another.