Chapter 08: The Why Of Understanding

Uncle Jimmy!

Here in Barcelona, you see a lot of tourists. And I mean, a lot of non-locals strolling about. Semi-lost and heads on a swivel. They are very easy to spot, especially the Americans. So as I was watching a bunch of them the other day, I got to pondering the differences between those that wander and those that don’t.

There are people, let’s call them Almost-Travelers, who mount up upon their mighty tour buses, snap a picture or two from their open window, and call it an adventure. And to them, I say … bravo! (With a small b, of course). For at least they did make an effort to leave their neighborhoods and well painted fences and venture out to see something new and novel.

A few years back, Nikki and I traveled to Costa Rica. We did something semi-touristy ourselves that resulted in some very pained and twisted muscles. (Ever been Canyoning?) So much damage to one of us, that in our quest the next day to find medical help, we somehow entered into a completely awesome freaking adventure that was the opposite of ‘tour bus’. Sort of a Where’s Waldo quest, coupled with pain medication and a nap in a strangers front yard, staring up at a volcano.

The point being, when Nikki and I travel, we somehow seek and find the strangest of things. (And the tale above also included getting vague directions to a doctor from a one-legged American war veteran at a roadside novelty stand on Memorial Day).

Touristy things are good. No question. One doesn’t go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, right? But for us, we also need to understand everything around that monument. The people who live there. What are they like? What is their day? What do they eat? Can we play with them?

I think this is why we mostly stay in AirBnbs when we travel, and rarely hotels. To talk to the hosts. To shop at the neighborhood stores. To try to get a feel for what local life is really like.

I (usually) love people. We often use them instead of maps. Asking a stranger where such-and-such is. Them giving you a partial direction and hopefully a fun back story. Then moving on the path and asking another person for the next leg. Going to Meetups and making friends, who can steer you to the best of locations that no tour book can ever hope to surpass. Telling your taxi driver to pick your dinner for you, and having them eat there as well. (Best freaking fish and chips ever by the way, eaten out of a paper sack in some back alley, while squatting on the curb of some random building).

We also try very hard to pick the lowest and slowest form of transportation. Walking is key, obviously. But so are things like city buses and subways. They are how the locals travel, so to get into their world we want to mimic how they go from A-Z. Yep, it can be scary trying to decipher a bus route in a language you will never understand, but even if it takes you somewhere other than where you hoped for, there is a good chance that it might be interesting too. At least so we believe.

For instance, we once hopped on a train in Italy, not knowing if we were even going to the right destination. We were hoping for Venice, but weren’t sure until we walked through the station and eventually saw the Grand Canal. Which was a seriously funny and happy moment, because right up until that instant, we were completely positive that we had failed in our quest.

We’ve also found that fluency in a language is not required to explore. Sure, in some places it’s harder to move about without knowing the popular dialect. But usually, it just becomes a game. Pantomime. Finding someone who speaks English and French and then another who speaks French and German.

And yea, we’ve done that. In a laundromat in Cologne Germany. Took about eight people, in who knows how many languages, to help us get detergent from an automated dispenser into a washing machine. And everyone had a hoot of a time doing it.

I think the trick is not to try too hard. To be open. Which doesn’t always come naturally to me. I tend to have a planner’s soul. But I also have this incredible need to understand. To know the background of something, and to follow the trails wherever they lead.

I think these thoughts are leading me to something else I want to share with you. My “why”.

I have this passion that I find hard to explain. To bring to people a basic principal. That even though locations change, that clothing and accents become something else, life ain’t so different wherever you are. People, places … they all do have a similar thread and common needs. I find it horrific that we humans draw these little lines on maps and declare what’s inside them to be so great and wondrous that we are willing to kill others who dare to state that theirs is better.

In exploring cultures, I want to bring what I discover to those that did not make the trip. I believe that if we all choose to look outside of our dotted lines, the world will become more peaceful. It’s so easy to destroy and to ignore suffering when you are oblivious. It’s impossible when you are not.

Now, having written all that, I’m sure you felt the same way in your travels. Then again, maybe not. I don’t really know how you experienced it. Growing up, we never really talked about your going overseas. You were just this mysterious person who sometimes left the only world I knew for long periods of time. And then came back with zebra-skinned conga drums.

My dad never really spoke of your escapades either, perhaps because of who you worked for. Or maybe because he didn’t really understand.

Back before I left for this latest jaunt around Europe, I was talking to him about his one and only trip outside of the States. He had visited both France and Germany, and said he hated it. Apparently just about every moment.

He stood in front of the Eiffel Tower and refused to go up. Was annoyed that the food and language wasn’t “American”. And don’t get me started on the fact that they had to foam the runway on his return. (Seriously. Didn’t he tell you about that? It’s his favorite story. 🙂

I used to get so annoyed at him. I tried so hard to convert and convince the man of the error of his ways. Wanting him to be more like you. Then after years of my failure to do so, I decided to just feel sad for him. Well, as expected, that failed too. Because now I finally understand that we are simply different, yet also somehow alike. And neither of us has “the answer”. Sure, his level of risk tolerance is far from mine. But his finding comfort in sameness brings him the same joy that my searching for newness does me. Two sides of the same coin, I guess. Both equal. Both correct. Just not correct for the other.

Anyway, I’m preaching. And I should be telling you stories. Next letter, more adventures for your reading pleasure! But for now, I must go and experience them first.

Love, Rick

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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