It’s a sultry summer night in Paris. You’ve had a dinner of biftek-frites and Burgundy with friends in the Quartier Latin and while they’ve opted for the Métro, you impetuously decide to wander on foot instead to the apartment you’ve rented for the month. You amble through Île Saint-Louis, listening to piano music and laughter drifting from open windows. You pass the bookstalls by the Seine, stopping to lean against a building, the centuries-old stone grainy against your back. You have just graduated from college and life spreads out before you, unmapped. You look at the plane trees and, above them, the full moon, and your heart bursts with the wonder of it all. What else can you do? You open your arms wide to embrace the sky.
Now it’s a spring afternoon in Kyoto. The cherry trees are in bloom and you’ve been walking under them by a stream, following the venerable Philosopher’s Path. Children skip and young girls in kimonos stream past as you reflect on your first visit to Kyoto ten years earlier, when you were fresh from graduate school and beginning a two-year fellowship in this unfamiliar place. Full of hope and fear, you’d trod this same trail, searching the trickling stream and the rustling breeze, the swish of slipper on stone, for answers. What wonders await on life’s unpredictable path? Now you are on your way to your wife’s childhood home on Shikoku, bearing a precious new daughter whose name means “intricately woven threads” and marveling at how Japan has slipped its roots and tendrils through your days.
Now it’s a winter morning on Fiji. It’s Sunday, and you’ve joined the villagers in their one-room church. When the pastor welcomes the four foreign visitors in English, you and your wife smile and slightly bow as your two pre-teen children squirm, and the worshippers nod and smile and whisper, “Welcome.” You look around at the bright floral sulu skirts and recall the blazing bonfire and lithe-limbed dancers of the night before. Later, during the Fijian-language sermon, you glance out the window at the sun glinting on the sea as the scent of frangipani wafts in on a breeze. Your mind drifts to the Connecticut Congregational Church of your childhood, your mother beside you, your father singing in the choir. Suddenly the congregation around you swells into song, bringing tears to your eyes.
Now it’s an autumn midnight on Bali. You’re bumping along on a moto through moonlit rice paddies, beneath an infinity of stars. When you stop, all you hear is the frogs and the breeze rustling the rice shoots; all you feel is the pliant air. You were in Ubud three decades before and you’ve been wondering all night about time and change and how the Balinese reverence for the everyday feels even more densely webbed now. You think of the full moon ceremony two nights before, the high-pitched prayers and sprinkled water blessings and gleaming daggers. The moon illuminates the temple of the paddies as fireflies flicker around you like a benediction…
An aspiring young writer recently asked me what, after all these years, travel means to me. As I sit in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., ruminating on the subject, I know that it’s moments like these—those magic-lantern moments when the soul seems to fly out and the world rushes in—that keep me coming back. Travel brings us closer to that state where the thin tissue between inner and outer, self and world, disappears. It makes the world new again and makes us new, too.
Those of us who follow the way of wanderlust are wild romantics. When we encounter the pheromone of the unfamiliar, we feel, see, touch, taste, and smell more keenly. Our minds are on high alert, noticing and processing everything—from the geometry of cobbled paths and thatched roofs to the tones of stray dogs and wild birds to the smell of new flowers and old dust.
We fall in love with the world.
I know from my own wandering that embracing the unfamiliar in this way can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating, but I have learned to make the leap, to meet whatever the universe sends my way with a vulnerable and open heart.
Why? Because when we approach the places and peoples of the planet this way, some amazing adventure always unfolds, diminishing and completing us in ways we can’t begin to understand.
Just like love.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.