I intended to give myself a break from work today. No writing, no researching acting gigs, no scouring the Internet for animal opportunities. But I’m not very good at doing nothing. So I started cleaning.
While sweeping, the broom brushed out a rolled up scratch off map my sister and brother-in-law had given me for Christmas. I’d been putting off hanging the map on my wall because I wanted to be reflective during the time I spent scratching off the countries I’ve visited, the cultures I’ve experienced.
Today, I made time for that. And then, naturally, it inspired me to write so here I am at 9 AM on a rare day off that turned into not a day off because, well, I’m writing.
Writing is like an extension of my being. It’s hard-wired into my soul. I was born a writer; I can’t not write.
And just like writing, I’m a born traveler. The world is literally my stage (and I am literally a vagabond actress gallivanting across it, collecting parasites and scars and countless memories).
My first taste of international travel slammed into my heart 10 years ago when, college freshman year, I went with my roommate and a handful of girls from our floor to her home country in the Dominican Republic.
That original passport has since expired, but I was quick to renew it six months prior to the expiration date. I had no set travel plans, but when you’re a nomad at heart–well, you never know.
Today, I continued researching flights for my next international excursion, and I couldn’t help looking at Panama on my map anticipating using a penny to scratch it off. One of my flight options routes me through a layover in El Salvador, and I thought, okay, so I stay a little longer and see El Salvador.
But I don’t want to just see a country. I don’t want to just visit. I want to immerse myself. I want to jump head first into the unknown. I want to get lost and trust my gut and the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. I want to eat foreign foods and struggle to explain veganism to a waiter that can’t fathom it. I want to sleep on lumpy beds fending off cockroaches and humidity that make me toss and turn. I want to hitch hike and swim in new waters. I want to hear laughter and see smiles in a land that is so different from my own, full of people that are simultaneously unique and just the same as me.
As the years have passed and turning 30 looms closer, I had this little checklist in my brain, pushing me to hit 30 countries before I’m 30, so that I could feel like I knew a good chunk of this world. But I’ve stopped counting countries.
When I look at a map and see the big countries I’ve embraced, like Brazil, and then itty bitty ants of a country, like Luxembourg, they are of equal significance to me.
When I scratched off Brazil on my map, I remembered my first trip to the Amazon, something I’d dreamed of since childhood. I could see the faces of the children who helped me build their school. I pictured Bruno’s smile as he stole my bright green hat and taught me “Happy Birthday” in Portuguese, which I still sing a decade later. I felt how sore my muscles got mixing cement by hand in 100+ degree heat.
When I scratched off Luxembourg on my map, I remembered getting caught in a rainstorm and taking refuge in an old museum with a new friend I’d made from Australia. I could see the blood moon hovering over the capital city, brighter than I’ve ever seen it before. I remembered turning down an alley and running into a Serbian I’d met in Germany.
As I scratched off each country, my brain was flooded with memories–the good outweighing the bad, and the bad being mere life experiences that I learned from and laughed at–getting robbed in Ecuador, getting stalked in Canada, getting locked out on a third story terrace in Peru. (Oops, didn’t tell my dad about all of those…)
Scratching off my vagabond adventures, my gypsy life, my nomadic wanderings, I reflected on how many lifelong friends I’ve made all across the globe.
I notice the scars on my legs. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach with my inaugural adventure alone in a foreign land. I taste the salty tears dripping into my mouth the first time I set off with a beginning and end but no middle. I see the teenager I was and the woman I’ve become.
And I’m so damn proud of that woman.
She is the woman I’ve always wanted to be but needed to find the courage to become. She is someone who knows herself better than she ever thought she could, who believes in herself, who will try and fail and consider that succeeding. She is someone who knows how to plan and how to be spontaneous, who never stops dreaming and doing and dreaming and doing. She is the type of person who values face to face conversations and snail mail and nostalgia and blasts from the past and out of the blue honesty. She is the woman who loves humanity and this earth and will always do her best to spread love and happiness and the greater good.
Travel made me that woman, the woman I am today.
Looking up at my scratch off map now hanging above my bed, I am humbled. I’ve worked hard to experience so much of this world, yet this map reminds that I’ve still so much to experience. I’ve still so much to do, to learn, to see, to live.
So I’ve stopped counting countries, because I’m the kind of woman who chases meaningful experiences over fleeting moments, who values time over money, and who knows that no matter how small this world sometimes seems, it really is a great big world out there.