I’m a travel geek of the highest order. When I decide I’m going on a trip I collect and read guide books, memorize phrases in the native language and study maps. I learn about the history and culture of the country and cities I will visit. I stuff my head with trivia about the locale. I study up on etiquette, lest I unknowingly make an obscene gesture. (In some countries our ‘OK’ sign, which is the forefinger and thumb making a circle, is a gesture equivalent to calling someone an a-hole, just so you know.) I learn as much as I can, desperately wanting to be polite, respectful and to fit in. I make sure that I don’t wear a fanny pack and white sneakers which are neons signs that blink “American Idiot. American Idiot.” Yes, I’m terrified of making a faux pas, which I count both as an asset and a liability.
My upcoming trip to Peru is no different from my other travels in some ways. I’ve mapped, I’ve studied, I’m learning some Quechua (oh so poorly) and I’m brushing up on my Spanish. I’ve studied the weather patterns and the terrain, so I’m ready for the cold and rain and steep hikes. My duffel bag is packed with appropriate clothing. (But no fanny packs – they are still and always will be a no-no. Seriously, people, it’s not the 80s.) In other ways it’s completely different. I am co-chaperone to 21 students, about the furthest you can get from solo travel. Being responsible for all those kids ups the ante, for sure, and has put my geekdom on high alert – preparedness is key. BUT, I’ve decided to practice the art of letting go because here’s the truth: the beautiful thing about travel is the unknown and the unexpected. Any frequent traveler will tell you that the best experiences are those for which you are unprepared. It’s useful to be oriented to place and time, but it’s also useful to be lost, to encounter a place or a person that wasn’t on your itinerary. Letting go also means embracing the ability to say yes to something you might not otherwise do, ceding control, and getting out of your comfort zone.
That’s really my job with these students, apart from making sure they have their immunization papers and don’t wander off into the Andes: to model openness. When you are open, you discover. And there is no map to discovery. Discovery is what happens in unplanned moments -it would be called ‘REcovery’ if you knew what you were looking for and where to find it. You discover yourself and others by missteps, accidents and serendipity, by things happening in spite of what you knew or planned, by getting a little lost.
I learned last year, while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with students, that kids (and adults) have all kinds of different responses to being far outside their comfort zones, to being challenged and uncomfortable. Some faced it with verve and spunk, some faced it with reserve and anger. But all of them were resilient. All of us discovered something about ourselves. All of us learned something new. All of us were transformed. And, yes, this transformation and learning arose out of wildly unexpected experiences. It was difficult in the beginning, but we gave into it. That made all the difference.
So I embark upon this trip with those kids and that experience in mind. I will depart with my heart and mind more open. I will challenge the students to say ‘yes’ and take in all that they can, even the things which make them uncomfortable or squeamish. And I will do the same. Forget the maps, the weather predictions and the guide books. I’ll be letting go.