In 2006 I stepped on Irish soil for the first time. As an inexperienced traveler, I was anxious about all manner of things. How much currency should we bring? Did we pack enough socks? How do we get from the airport to our hotel? Will our debit card even work in another country? Smartphones weren't much of a thing, and there were no YouTube videos to give you a preview of that "on the ground" experience. Leaving home felt, absurdly, like heading to the moon. Our backpacks crinkled with the sound of our printed itinerary.
We spent nine glorious days in Ireland on that trip, hiking sections of the Wicklow Way, sleeping in rural B&Bs, and marveling at the glorious green vistas. I was burned out from my workaholic ways, overweight and out of shape, and even though I struggled with every step of those hikes, for the first time in my life, I understood what Irish music seemed to be longing for.
Travel no longer feels like going to the moon. I don't much worry about my debit card and if all else fails, there's a computer in my pocket. And does it matter if I brought enough socks? I've traveled enough to understand that "foreign countries" aren't all that different from home; they have department stores just like we do. Gone are the days when Patrick and I scoured a train station, jetlagged and weary, hoping to buy a sim card after arrival. Yesterday I bought a bucket of international data using an app, topping up bits and bytes like I'm filling up a gas tank.
A lot has changed in seventeen years.
The risks of travel feel different now. Pandemics. Social unrest. Weighing your impact on the planet and the communities you visit. Everything feels existential. More fragile. One year, we spent a month in Santiago, Chile. The next year, tanks rolled down those same streets. It was impossible not to think about the people we met; to worry about them, to hope they were okay. In a way, this is the whole point of travel. Your world shrinks. Lines of empathy fling outward from your heart, connecting you to everyone, everywhere.
One hot afternoon in Greece, Patrick and I were wandering around with no purpose other than to enjoy the sights. We crested a dusty hill, our legs burning with fatigue beneath the glow of a white hot sun, and I paused to look at an olive orchard. The trees looked so dry! Pale silvery sage with spindly branches. I'd never seen that kind of agriculture before. My eyes traveled along the plot of land and met the gaze of an elderly farmer leaning on his rake. He smiled and waved. I waved back.
I noticed that when Greece showed up in the media, the stories never seemed to talk about the farmers. Maybe an image of a plume of smoke where a protest turned violent. Snapshots of ugly moments. Just like the American media never talks about the ordinary people I know, or the things we value, or what our daily lives are like. Rarely do we see humanity reflected except in what is deemed "newsworthy" by the most ghoulish standards.
I struggle with the selfishness of travel in a time of existential threats. Yet without travel I'd never have seen the Greek olive farmer, or petted the purring cats sitting watchful outside Scottish Highland cottages, or smirked at that one old guy who flirted shamelessly with my mom in Dublin. I wouldn't have understood the seeds of political unrest in Santiago Chile or had a laugh with the Peruvian fast food worker who pulled out her smartphone to translate durazno for me, yelling "PEACH" in such a strong accent that, for a second, I thought she'd called me a bitch. 😂
Travel is the best way I know to see the world as it is. To make tangible connections made through my own senses, unfiltered through the lens of some commercial call to action or pixelated spectacle. Last month, Patrick beckoned me toward his laptop, saying he'd found a great price on tickets to Ireland. Direct flights, too. This almost never happens, so my response was pretty much:
My clothes are folded on the countertop, waiting to be slipped into my backpack. We've spent the last week nibbling away at pre-travel chores; cleaning out the fridge, installing useful apps on our phones, running through our pre-travel checklists. The world has changed since the last time we visited Ireland. Political insanity. Brexit. A global Pandemic. Now, a war in Eastern Europe. I'm curious about what the Irish experience has been like. Will the Ireland I see be the same one I remember? Probably not. And that's okay, because I'm not the same person I used to be, either.
Still, I can't wait to see what's there.
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