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If you are following this blog, chances are you have either caught the travel bug- that ailment that makes you salivate at the thought of heading somewhere, anywhere that is treated only by hopping on a plane, train, ship, or moving car and treating the madness, but one for which there does not seem to be a permanent cure for those with insatiable wanderlust – or you know me already and are trying to figure out how the heck I got “this way”.
July 6, 1989… or 25 years ago today. That’s an important date. But we’ll get back to that in a second.
In some ways, I was probably born this way. My parents met in Southeast Asia (my mom was in Laos, my dad was – well, it depends on which version of US history on events you follow – *somewhere* in that region) and I was immersed in other cultures from a very young age. I spent my childhood in Texas with my nose in a book always reading about other countries and living a vivid fantasy life where I was someone else, somewhere else. At home I ate with chopsticks and tried to teach myself French by listening to my mom’s language emersion records. And I liked my Barbie’s airplane as much as I liked her clothes and liked to pack my play suitcase and imagine I was headed somewhere. The wanderlust was always there – it just needed a match to light it.
That match was lit during the fall of 1988 when I found out I’d been chosen from hundreds of applicants to be a part of a youth delegation visiting the USSR the following summer. I had been inspired to apply after tracking the journey of Samantha Smith several years prior – to me, it was the ultimate way to be an international pioneer before adulthood.
In the wake of Gorbachev’s glasnost (“openness”) movement, limited numbers of US citizens were allowed official travel to the USSR to participate in carefully constructed itineraries designed to both showcase the best of the Soviet Union to visitors as well as to allow closely monitored interaction with handpicked Soviet teens. I was ecstatic – it would be the furthest I had traveled and my first significant trip away from family and friends – and my travels would take me (via Finland) to Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Estonia.
And so on July 6, after months of preparation (during which I learned to “only pack what you can carry through a train station yourself”), hundreds of pages of required reading, and two days of intense briefings at the United Nations, our delegation headed to JFK to board our transatlantic flight. I remember still that my heart was pounding fast. I felt a bit dizzy and there was a feeling of something stuck in my throat that I couldn’t describe.
We boarded our Finnair flight (a DC 10, I believe) – and then promptly took a five hour runway delay. As I sat in my center seat towards the back of coach (aka the “smoking section”) surrounded by many passengers who had decided to start the party early (drinking from their own duty free bottles), I had no awareness of frequent flyer miles, no understanding of better seats (let alone business class), no privilege, no assumptions. I was just a voyager headed out to see the world.
And then those engines finally roared to life and we went barreling down the runway, the lights of New York flickering in a speeding blur past our windows. And that lump in my throat eased into a feeling of exuberance that relaxed into a sense of homecoming. In an instant, I knew I’d finally found the place where I belonged.
Ah, that travel bug. It mutates within and changes us. Over time, we condition ourselves to believe that it can only be satiated with a first-class redemption, a suite upgrade, a five-star luxury fix.
But sometimes it’s nice to go back to the beginning… when the smell of jet fuel and the rev of the engines was all it took. And in that recaptured moment, the possibilities are magical.
Do you remember YOUR first time?