“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”-Mary Ritter Beard
Before I can second-guess my decision to clamber on, the bike roars a noise like a broken lawnmower, shoots forward into traffic – and I close my eyes and hold on for dear life.
Oh god. I can sense the cars coming straight at us and our body weight ever so slightly shift around them, the craziness of the moment has me hanging on by a thread and fearing the worst. It’s reckless but at the same time intoxicating; I feel like the wind, everywhere yet nowhere.
I can’t look, can’t open my eyes for fear of what I’d see darting past us. So I retreat inwards, into memory…
Ever since I started traveling through Africa I’ve been racing from city to city, hotel to hotel like I’m a contestant on the Amazing Race. And just like those contestants, I’ve missed just about everything each country I’ve steamrolled through has to offer. Nearly 4,000 miles – but how many have I actually seen?
It’s one thing to say I’m going to live my dream and travel the world, but its another to be present while I’m doing it. Since I left for Africa I’ve had my head down and I’ve been grinding through each day, working like I’ve got a family of five to feed. My days are filled with writing short stories, filming beautiful sunsets, and photographing local cultures like I’d always hoped for, but I’ve been so focused on the end product that I tuned out everything else.
Last week was the perfect example.
I spent so much time talking myself into setting my camera down so I could stop, breathe and actually look at a rainbow that arched over Lake Malawi that by the time I had convinced myself to leave my lens behind…I missed the rainbow.
I’m not as good at this “being present” thing as I used to be. I need to remember why I’m doing this. I need to embrace the moment more often, but I for whatever reason I just can’t.
Embrace the moment, Eric. Do it NOW.
I peek my eyes open. The world blurs and roars by me just like it’s been doing. I shift on the foot-rests, looking for any kind of stability, as the driver I’m clinging to yanks the bike back into first gear so he can take on a pothole the size of Lake Michigan. Everything slows into focus like I’ve got my favorite lens up to my eye…
I arrived in southern Tanzania late last night when everything was inked in darkness, so I saw very little of the area outside the coffee plantation I’m staying in. This is my first chance to check the scenery out. The road we’re traveling along is erratically paved (hardly surprising for Tanzania) and mainly consists of two deep tire-ruts, the kind that snap your axle if you’re not totally focused while driving.
The lopsided streets are lined with wooden shacks that sell everything from hanging meats to haircuts. But as I scan the rooftops, I see the real magic of this tiny terraced town. For a second it feels like I’m in Bali’s beautiful rice paddies because everything here looks nearly as green. Beyond the town, the mighty Mbeya Mountains look freshly sprung from the earth, and the entire valley smells of a cocktail of sweet sawdust and strong coffee.
My driver finds a long stretch of somewhat evenly paved road, spins the throttle – and we peel away from the pavement like we’re giving chase to something. I seal my eyes shut again – but this time I’m enjoying it, finding a – a strange stillness.
Yes, that’s it. I’m on the back of a mud-spattered motorbike going as fast as these things go and yet a sense of peace is falling over me. I’m reconnecting with why I love all this. Why I love to travel. Why I’m here.
I remember the first time I felt this way.
It’s the fall of 1994; I’m 14 and it’s my first year playing for a traveling basketball team. We’re horrible, we lose every game – even losing once by a truly impressive 70 points. But the losses don’t matter, at least not to me and my rag-tag group teammates. We’re castoffs that no coach wants, but we’re finding ourselves because of it.
My teammates and I have piled into one of those nice minivans with bucket seats for a 7-hour drive from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire. We all know we’re headed for another weekend full of losses, but still we couldn’t wait. Half way through the drive I stick my arm out the window and feel New England’s Indian summer air stream through my fingers and across the sun-bleached hairs on my arm.
Then someone lets loose. No, wait – it’s a whoopee cushion. Someone has snuck one into the back seat, and as I turn to look, they squeeze it again and again and again. The oldest joke in the world – and now we’re all helpless with tears of laughter.
Inside one of those giant slow-motion laughs, the cranberry sun hits the horizon in such a way that the earth feels motionless around me. Everything stands still – and I suddenly feel anything is possible. I’m only 14 and I can’t fully process this feeling – I’ll need to be an adult, hanging onto the back of a beat-up motorbike in Tanzania to really know what it means – but I glimpse the significance of it.
For a split second, I feel it’s possible to be so present, so alive, and so surrounded by love that you really can attempt anything – including (as I’ll find out later) something as crazy as trying to travel across the entire world overland.
Time speeds back up. We make it to our hotel in New Hampshire right on time, and life resumes its normal pace – but I’m left changed.
A grinding of gears brings me back to the Tanzanian present. I start feel every bump, every reverberation, every tingle in the road move its way up and across my spine. Opening my eyes, I start seeing things on the side of the road that I’ve been missing, looking past. I watch a little girl with adorable pigtails no older than three or four year old share a glass bottle soda with her slightly older brother. She’s drinking it with the world’s greatest grin, and as she takes a sip I can almost feel the fizz tickle the back of my throat. Then, as we wind around a bend and rumble over disheveled train tracks, I see a group of tough looking twenty-somethings sitting atop a pile of lumber, looking down at me like I insulted all their mothers – but as we pull nearer and I look closer, they flash me a wave and a smile like they were in that minivan with me some twenty years ago.
I close my eyes one last time and stick both my arms out so the wind can fly up and over my body. I’m 14 again, and I know it’s cheesy (and I’m glad that no one I know is watching) but – this is why I’ve ended up here, roaring forward with no idea what’s round the next corner…and not caring, either. The world will undoubtedly speed up again, but for now, I’m here, lost in the moment, right where I’ve always wanted to be.