You Just Have to Be There

Pending a successful fundraising push, four LMCJ scholars will go to Johannesburg, South Africa and Swaziland for a week over spring break. Having been to both places and being me, obviously I am pretty excited for them. This pieces derives from that excitement. 

Dear Young Ladies,

It’s me again. Ms. Eby. Always talking too much, doin’ too much. I’ve got more to say, got more things to do. Most importantly, we have places to go. How can I express to you the value of going somewhere new? How can I explain how much an opportunity like this will change your entire worldview, your whole perspective of your country, your limited yet honest understanding of Baltimore, your acceptance of the neighborhood you live in as “the way it is”? How on earth can I make you believe that this chance is worth every fiber of your being? That you should vibrate with anticipation for the next 4 months? That you will look at your mere existence with a critical eye when you come home? That your world will shatter and be glued back together even stronger in one fell swoop of a 747? That the most important thing you will learn is that your way, our way, the American way, is not the only way and the globe keeps spinning in places where they do not have a flusher, where they eat mush for breakfast, where they live in the shadows of trees called ceroxylon quindiuense, where they sleep on the floor with 8 family members in the same room, where they cook outside on a fire, where children chop off the heads of goats because that’s dinner tonight? That after 15 hour plane ride people still love Beyonce? And they know as much about American politics as Americans even if you never knew their country existed?

Girls, you must know that travel is expensive. But more importantly, it’s priceless. I’ve been to 18 countries in 30 years and even though I know how lucky I already am, I’d go to 18 more next year if I could. By learning about others, you learn to look inward and question and say things about yourself. You feel feelings for strangers you’ve never felt before: awe, empathy, admiration, a desire to just ask questions and really look them in the eyes when they answer. You will finally put down your stupid cell phone and you’ll be so glad. Because you’ll be present. You will smell things you’ve never smelled, some you never want to stop smelling and some you wish you never smelled. You will hear songs you’ve never heard, maybe in English, maybe not. And you will see ways of life you had not imagined could be.

I wish for you and for our whole society that we valued travel, real authentic walk the streets and talk with gestures and smiles travel, search for a spot with no other tourists travel, eat things you’re not sure of travel, find the highest point in the city travel, pretend you’re a native travel, afternoon-nap-required travel, wear down your shoe soles travel, find the tiniest, friendliest restaurant travel, realize how much you have in common travel, high fives for social justice travel. I wish we valued those things more than we valued new cell phones, more than we value TV, more than our little comfort zones. I wish I remembered this all of the time too. I’ll give it a go.

 

May you

Giggle at monkeys on the tip of Gibraltar with the promise of Northern Africa in the distance,

Learn how to say “thank you” in several languages,

Know the power that rain can have in the middle of a Colombian jungle,

Splash and play in the white-ish teal Pacific Ocean off the coast of El Salvador,

Feel the temperature drop by 40 degrees within an hour of hiking Yosemite,

Witness a marriage on a windy Mexican beach at sunset,

See the remnants of New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain from the ground and then from a peak,

Know the peace of a lake by an empty roadside in suburban Michigan in late summer,

Walk into the church where your great grandfather may have had his First Communion and feel something unexplainable,

Hear what absolutely nothing sounds like in the mountains of West Virginia,

Eat delicious, unidentifiable foods in the middle of the Indian Ocean after rushing to a restaurant that closes at 3:30 in the afternoon,

Sleep five nights in a row in hammocks using blankets with questionable origins,

Experience the vastness of a volcanic crater on Mount Etna,

See where a zebra’s stripes come to an end behind its tail,

Admit that you understand why people move to places like San Diego when you watch the sun descend over the Pacific with your cousin,

Watch the tide of the Indian Ocean rise from dry-land-nothing to really-something from the window of a $30 a night room,

See all angles of Paris from the roof of a department store,

Marvel at the same two seals for a half hour waiting for one to move more than just its fat face,

Be the only one in Orioles Orange at Fenway Park in Boston,

Breath deeply after 8 minutes of climbing outside Boulder, Colorado,

Sprint to chase down the last bus of the night out of Sperlonga to get back to Rome,

Wear touristy and American-give-away white sneakers as you walk Greek islands,

Pose for photos with boisterous men in kilts in Dublin,

Drink cider on a sunset safari in rural Swaziland while elephants graze yards away,

Ski the Alps of Switzerland–know their magnitude and at the same time the gentleness of their snow,

Count the tiles in Park Guell,

Pass up torture museums in Prague in favor of walking streets straight out of a Disney movie,

Look back and laugh at the cheap hostel you shouldn’t have chosen in London that was actually priced quite fairly because you were scared and it was terrifying,

Call a foreign city home, even if just for a few months,

Fall asleep to the constant coqui coqui coqui of frogs in El Yunque,

Marvel at the procession during Semana Sancta in Sevilla under the yellow glow of hoisted candles,

Polish off a fat book on a quiet beach where the elderly retire,

Barely catch any sleep in a rented tent on the island of Culebra at the crest of Playa Flamenco,

Sing along with an imperfectly translated church song in a tiny Swazi church,

Belt out “We hold you nothing, We hold you nothing, We hold you nothing,” beneath a tin roof with 40 new friends,

Vomit off the side of a boat after seeing four whales,

Pass the driving duties off to someone else who can figure out the road rules of another hemisphere so you can stare out the window,

Swim in Lake Huron in August and swear it’s January,

Ride bikes around Amsterdam and pretend like you understand the traffic patterns,

Get lost in the Arab neighborhood in Brussels only to stumble upon the most perfect tabouleh and fattoush,

Fail to capture the majesty of an old wind mill in a photograph,

May you wander,

May you stay safe,

May you say yes.

 

I know my words and images will fall short but that simply proves my points above: that you just have to be there. 

 

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