“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
So I spent all my money, which I figured might happen, because before I left, I said to my brother, “I’m going to go out in the world and spend all my money.” I flew twelve-and-a-half hours to New York’s JFK from Budapest’s Ferihegy via a nineteen-hour layover at Kiev’s Boryspil (an airport whose inefficiency is exceeded only by the gloominess of its staff). I grabbed a shuttle into Manhattan, packed two pieces of fried chicken in my pack, and hopped on an overnight bus to Union Station in D.C. I caught the Yellow Line out to the Pentagon and then bus 7F to King Street. I hadn’t showered in sixty hours, so I doused myself with body spray, and at 7:02 A.M., positioned just before the King Street on-ramp to 395, I stuck up my thumb and my NORTH CAROLINA sign.
After a patch spent on the receiving end of a series of hostile glares and entertaining gestures, I realized I might cover those last 270 miles home quicker by foot than I would hailing a ride. I caught the 7E back to Pentagon Station and took the subway back to Union Station. Undeterred and still elated to be Stateside, I busted out my Visa to purchase a small mountain of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a ticket for the next train steamin’ south, vowing the entire time to pick up the very next hitchhiker on my path who didn’t look like he wanted to stab me in my jugular.
My boy Korey picked me up at the Durham Amtrak station and came at me with a sturdy embrace before I could pause to breathe a second sniff of my home state. By seven o’clock we were with my pops at his house in Chapel Hill, and ten minutes later, I started cooking dinner. We ate outside under the crispness of an early fall evening. The Great Vacation was over, and there I was. Sitting on the brick patio behind Pops’s modest residence, overlooking his elegant yet unpretentious garden, cocktails in hand, seven days before my thirtieth birthday. I had far fewer dollars but a much bigger smile than when I turned twenty.
I didn’t take this trip to meet myself. I was happy before I caught that first flight to Guatemala City. I didn’t take this trip so that I could grow up, become a man, and leave all those immature days behind me. I wasn’t unfulfilled when I left, and I didn’t reach enlightenment as a result of this trip. I didn’t find God, though I was told many times that He is out there to be found.
I read seventy-one books, including nine classics and one—slowly—in Spanish; I worked with poor kids in Honduras; I discovered that coger means “to catch” in Spain and “to fuck” in Latin America; I fucked three buses; I bungee jumped and scuba dived; doved; doven; went scuba diving; I learned about the reproductive organs of a chicken (and if you ever see a rooster violate a hen, you’ll be curious about them, as well); I spent a night with absinthe, and you’ll go a long way to persuade me to do it again. I took my comprehension of Spanish to the next level; I woke up early; I slept late; I got robbed; I survived a bull in Nicaragua and a pregnancy scare in Australia; I went to Rigoletto at the Státní opera in Prague and danced in the cage at a gay club in Barcelona at four in the morning; in Thailand I got a tattoo, rode an elephant, and then ate the best street food in the world; I grew a mustache and a mullet, although, as mandated previously, not at the same time. I clicked a number of items off of the List o’ Good Times, but in the end, my most memorable experiences weren’t even on it. I say I’d like to run a mile along the Great Wall, for example, and that’s merely a setup to get me to China to see what other kind of mischief I can dig up.
And after all of it, I still barely managed a dent in the things I’d like to do. Some things I still can’t afford, others were in countries I never got to, and a few just didn’t feel quite right. Firing an AK-47 in Thailand sounds awesome, but then an Aussie from Melbourne said to me: “You go in there. You pay your money. And then you’re standing around with a bunch of totally random dudes who also have loaded AK-47s in their hands. They say, ‘So, where are you going to go next on your trip?’ and you can only think about how completely mad this situation is.”
I just wanted to go investigating, and I wanted to do it before it was time to start paying down a mortgage and wiping asses. Just as my friends and family who stayed back in the States had unique experiences of their own while I was gone, this journey heightened my awareness. I visited Copán and Auschwitz and analyzed the difference between the historical treatment of the MÄori and the Aborigines. Still, I don’t profess to all of a sudden “get it” now that I’ve skipped the border for a year. Not only do I not think I’m cultured, this year proved that I’m totally bereft of culture. I don’t have solutions to any of the problems that politicians and pundits and nonprofits try to solve every day. Heck, I still don’t understand the function of seven of the nineteen straps on my backpack. I probably have more questions now than when I started a year ago.
What did I learn? What’s the big payoff? What’s the point?
I’m still figuring that out. Really, I had my little experience, and maybe I took away something completely different than you have by reading about it or than you would by taking a trip of your own. Maybe there aren’t one or two or five concrete answers to those questions anyway. Maybe, there are things I will learn about this trip in five, ten, thirty years, long after its completion, things I can’t conceive now but will as my education continues.
I’m grateful to have shared the company of some truly great people and witnessed the difference that one person can make in his or her own life and the life of someone else. America is the greatest country in the world, but the core reason we’ve fallen behind in a few places is because we chase certainty and shun nonconformity. Our aversion to risk increases every day. Fear takes over. This is a world that favors those who challenge conventional thinking rather than those who fall in line, and getting out into the world challenges us to think in different ways. It’s fascinating the perspective we can gain when we step out of our cushy bubbles of comfort, even just a little bit. And I mean that both ways: I know that I made a difference volunteering in Central America, and I’m telling you that those kids and their families and Loyd Miguel and René and Pastor Gener made a difference in my life.
“If you think you’re going to go out in the world to make a major impact, you’re insufficiently motivated,” Jim Palmer told me one sunny afternoon in Nicaragua. “But if you take it one step at a time, one family at a time, one meal at a time, one child’s education at a time, one water pump at a time, it’s amazing what can become of that.”
I knew Marginee Callejas for fifteen minutes, and I’ll never forget her. Flora I knew little more than an hour. There are good people in every town around the world who will lead you to the local swimming hole, just as there are jerkoffs who can’t be bothered giving directions. I’m thankful for the good people I met this year.
I’m grateful to have gained perspective, however little of it I might have gained.
Indeed, after seeing the poverty in the villages of Nicaragua and Honduras and in the cities of Jakarta and Manila and then the simple life of the Australian outback and the tranquility of Slovakia, I have a greater appreciation for many things, but this doesn’t necessarily make me more perceptive than my peers. It’s simply a different perspective. It means that I won’t bitch at the server the next time there is a hair in my tuna tartare and I’ll have increased admiration for my friends back home who don’t care what brand of watch they have on their wrists. I’m now moving forward with a heap of memories I’ll not soon forget. The next time I’m having a bad day, I’ll remember the happy, dimpled expressions on those kids’ faces in Honduras; when I’m feeling rushed and anxious, I’ll put myself on top of that platform in Slovakia, about to jump, and I’ll tell myself to just relax a little; and when it’s pouring rain, too yucky to go outside to play, I’ll pull up the pictures of that view from the top of the Indian’s Nose overlooking Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and that will make me smile.
The one and only thing I’ve learned to be an indisputable fact is that our lives are only as satisfying as the vibe we put out into the world. Good shit is going to happen to us, and bad shit is going to happen to us. How we react to these circumstances—rather than the actual circumstances themselves—will ultimately determine our happiness.
Maybe it’s not practical for you to get missing for a year, but I hope you have the cojones to do something uncommon, whether for a week, a month, or longer. The next time adventure extends an invitation, I hope you’ll RSVP with a yes, please. And I hope you won’t be deterred by the financial sacrifices you may have to make.
Critics cite years like this as playtime, an obstruction in the career climb. Wasteful, they say, asking how one will find a job when he or she returns. One of the volunteers in Honduras, Chris Hays, answered this blankly, “Even in an economic crisis, crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere. I had a crappy job when I left, and—if I want another one—there’ll be one waiting for me when I get back. My trip, however, won’t wait.” Is this irresponsible? I say no. After all, we spend a lifetime hoarding our money, and for what? Unlimited cruises in our seventies? Yes, a career is important, but don’t we sometimes spend so much time with our lips on our boss’s cheeks that we miss out on some primetime moments of exploration?
More than that, aren’t employers ravenous for innovative candidates with the ability to think critically? A classroom education is essential, but isn’t there also value in seeing the world as it really is, rather than just through a textbook or cocktail-party conversation? In this global economy, isn’t it important to actually get out there to investigate the globe? Am I not an improved American citizen now that I’ve spent a little time outside? Hasn’t this year imparted teachings that I maybe couldn’t get any other way?
Won’t lessons learned with the concert tickets in Guatemala or in that taxi in Managua or examining the financial intricacies of the Australian-Indonesian cattle trade apply to the business world? Won’t meeting Rafael face-to-face in a social setting, and seeing where he comes from, develop my professional relationship with him and other foreigners?
Am I now better equipped to embrace uncertainty?
At the very least, haven’t I improved my potential interview patter?
I guess I’ll soon see, but in the meantime, I just know that if I wouldn’t have left home, it would be the next on a very short list of regrets in my life. My seventy-year-old self isn’t going to look back on my twenty-ninth year and say, “Man, I wish I would have worked that year.” He would, however, be upset if I hadn’t caught that first flight to Guatemala City.
Everybody tells you that the BMW 6 Series is the car to have.
Everybody tells you that every year you delay grad school takes money out of your pocket.
Everybody tells you that you should be buying a house.
Everybody wants to tell you how to be a millionaire, and the idea is a sexy one, but maybe we spend so much time chasing shiny things that we forget that happiness also shows itself among those experiences that you can’t hold in your hand. I gave up a lot to take this trip, and I’m glad I did. I would love a pool in my backyard and pretty plants on the front porch and a new model in my driveway, but before I try to get those things, give me an experience I can’t adequately explain with words.
Moving forward, this trip has sharpened my awareness of my own mortality. At some point, I’m going to get brain cancer. Or multiple sclerosis. Or fibromyalgia. Or pneumonia. Or gout. Or have a stroke. No doubt there is something ill and debilitating brewing discreetly in my body right now. I don’t know what a pulmonary embolism is, but apparently it can strike you down without warning, young or old. There are drunk drivers and malpracticing doctors and crazy men entering movie theaters with assault weapons.
While I was in Prague, the government placed an immediate and total ban on all liquors with over 20 percent alcohol content after a wave of methanol poisonings killed twenty-four people. Twenty-four people! Just sitting in a bar, sipping their favorite cocktails. While I sat in a bar and watched their obituaries on TV, all shelves were immediately cleared. It turns out, unbeknownst to many (especially tourists), one out of every five bottled liquors in the Czech Republic—in restaurants, pubs, and shops alike—is brewed on the black market.
It’s always an early demise—“too soon,” they say—and in the meantime, my hair is going to continue to recede, my metabolism will continue to slow. My pace drags, my posture curls. My knees aren’t getting any stronger for athletic competition, and my lower back is already starting to ache on occasion. I used to be able to stretch for three minutes to get back to 100 percent; now I need ice packs and massages.
But we move forward. Marianne du Toit trekked from Argentina to New York with two horses. Peter Jenkins walked across America. Robin Lee Graham left port at sixteen to sail around the world. Philippe Croizon swam from Spain to Morocco, and that mother is a quadruple amputee.
At a hostel in Poland, I met Paul from England. “Yeah, dude,” I boasted. “I’ve been traveling around the world for just about a year. Been all over the place. Done some great things. Good times.” I went on and on about my exploits—mostly bullfighting—and then asked him what he was up to. “Oh, I’m in the process of cycling home,” he said. “From China.”
Thousands of other journeys going on right now, enriching experiences and happy memories. We continue to build on those memories—to create more—for the rest of our lives.
Before I departed, the biggest questions were, Why a year? Why not six months? Why not five years? What makes you so sure a year is the magic time? And now I can tell people that a year was perfect. For one, I didn’t miss much. I missed Dave’s and Brian’s weddings, but that just gives me an excuse to fly up to Boston to hang out with them for a weekend; I missed Christmas with the family, which I cherish, but I’ll catch up with all of them shortly; I found out about a series of current events long after they were current (the death of Muammar Gaddafi; blackouts in India that left 620 million people without power; flash floods killing over a thousand people in the Philippines after Tropical Storm Washi; and Curiosity’s landing on Mars); I missed the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, ESPYs, and every other award program that, now that I mention it, doesn’t really matter anyway; I skipped out on Carolina’s great year on the hardwood—underclassmen and injuries considered—and a truly mad NCAA tournament, but now I’m around to watch a new season; I’ve lost pounds and gained pounds along the way, and before breakfast this morning, I gazed into the mirror at a dumpy belly and fragile limbs that look as if they haven’t seen a weight room in just about exactly a year.
Ultimately, one year was perfect because now I’m hungry. I lost touch with my family and friends back home, and now I’m excited to reconnect with the life I set to the side: I’ve missed dinner with Ma, drinks with Korey, lunch with Pops, and board games with Easy. Tony and I are going to go sit in the steam room. I want to get the guys together to go paintballing.
Maybe I didn’t need to run off and find myself, but it feels good to return home armed with purpose. Before I left, my life was a little disorganized, my direction foggy. I was in a happy place, but my creative juices had run dry. No new ideas. I was just cruising. Now? I’ve got a couple concepts I’m eager to try out over the next five years. I’ve had a year to ponder and process where I do and don’t belong; I’m more focused; and I’m excited to start working hard again, hone a skill, save money, launch my own business. Failing that, I’ll go get a master’s degree. I’m energized. This year energized me.
This was the greatest year of my life, let there be no question about that, and just the same, I’m thrilled to be home and moving toward the next endeavor. I hope you are, too.
And then, there’s the girl.
I cannot overstate how completely fantastic this girl is. She is sharp and fun and funny and considerate and a hundred other characteristics.
Last September my family and friends gathered to throw me a going-away party and wish me well on my forthcoming journey. Halfway across the world, two nights before, Ivana’s family and friends did the same.
Forty-two days later, I arrived in El Porvenir via the wrong Antigua to meet up with the rest of the volunteers. I looked as if I’d recently been spit out the ass end of a typhoon, and Ivana was sucking on a plastic baggie of ice water. Not exactly a scene out of a romantic movie.
A couple months after that, from Honduras, she left with a group to go north to Guatemala for a visa run, and I was a day from departing for Nicaragua. We were to be separated for two months before reconvening in Nicaragua to head to New Zealand. I woke up solo on New Year’s Day and wrote her a note:
I want to tell you where I was last night…
I was alone, but I was not lonely.
Everyone went to La Ceiba to dance and drink and converse and be merry. They had fun. Carly, Liz, Christina, etc. So much dancing. Salsa. Meringue. Bachata. I stayed home. I watched a movie. You know I can dance, more or less, mostly less, but I was in the mood to relax on the recliner. I made a couple of drinky drinks, one per hand—keep ’em coming. 11:55 came. I went to the bathroom to pee. I exited the house, locked the door, and walked ten meters out to the beach. Ten meters! (It’s just right there, y’know.)
Midnight struck, and the sky was wide open. Not a cloud to be seen. A thousand stars in the sky. Okay, a million. Countless. Waves crashed to the shore. Lightning bugs flashed. Crickets chirped in the distance as they always do in these circumstances, although the wind was tranquil, rather than whirring about. No one in sight. Just me standing on a sandy beach.
Fireworks ignited behind me. I turned, head tilted back, chin to the sky. One after the other. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Then, more. Boom. Boom. Boom. Lighting up the night sky. Vibrant.
The fireworks stopped. But the scene persisted. The beach. The waves. The stars. You.
I laughed. I don’t know where it came from, Ivana, but I laughed. Where are you right now! Guatemala? Honduras? Ahhhhhh! Where are you! You don’t understand. I know you dig me, but you don’t understand how much I dig you. Do you? Maybe you do. I hope you do. Man, I hope you do.
Yes, you do.
We dig each other. And that is pretty grand.
So many girls I’ve dated. So. Many. Girls. Fantastic girls. But not The Girl.
You are The Girl, Ivana.
Life is great. Movies, books, kids to play with, strolling the streets of Raleigh with Korey and Tony, Easy inebriated and hollering for a taxi on a vacant road, relationship talks with Sana on I-40 from Wilmington, travel, mountains, skiing, snowboarding, pears dripping with juice, street food, gourmet food, cheap wine, fine wine (can we tell the difference?), lakes, rivers, sunsets, sunrises, no sun at all, pineapples with black pepper (if they say so), sneaking in for late-night swims in the community pools in Cary (you wanna do it?), brunch on the back porch, cookouts in the park, New England in fall, New Zealand in spring, North Carolina anytime (of course), working hard, going for broke, bungee jumping in Slovakia (you promised!), skydiving, white-water rafting. And sitting on a fluffy sofa, doing nothing at all.
But none of it means much anymore without you by my side.
I was alone, but you were there with me last night, Ivana. I raised my glass to the great year to come, and I raised my glass to next December 31, at midnight, when we’ll be together (in the flesh), and I can look into your eyes, wrap my arms around you, and touch my lips to yours.
That will be the happiest occasion of my life.
Until the next one.
And it’s important for you to know something: that when the newness wears off (as it soon will), when these wild notes to each other become progressively rare (as they do), when everything is normal rather than high (as it surely will be), in two years when we are simply standing in our modest kitchen together, likely in the ’hood (rent at a minimum), candles glowing, music crooning, a glass of white wine in the left hand and a frying pan in the right…I will want you just as much then as I do right now at this moment.
So, here I go, off to summon my girl to North Carolina for New Year’s Eve; beyond, if I’m lucky. Maybe the next time I see you and we’re swapping stories, she’ll be on my arm.
And you? Here you go to find your own journey in this world—near or far, a month or a year, solo or accompanied. Cheers! To your next adventure.