Traveling Down the River

They called to us from the shore. We cruised through the Amazon in a large houseboat and watched and waved from the top deck. The villagers ran barefooted down the shore, holding up a frisbee. Our boat was about fifty feet away, but the leader of the pack ran ahead of us to stand on a downed tree and pulled his hand back to fling the disc. His body twisted and he popped his hips and tossed the frisbee, but it fell short–extremely short–and we watched the white floating circle pass by in the murky water.

Adios! we called, and the villagers replied in kind.

Then, to my great surprise, the man on the tree jumped into the muddy water. Would the current take him? What about the piranhas? And oh God, the bacteria! Everything we had been told about the dangers of going in the water was ignored by this man as he casually did the breast stroke, retrieved his frisbee, and returned to the shore.

This is a simple memory of a two week trip to Peru, but it’s one that’s stayed with me. I’ve other snippets in my mind’s photo album. Such as seeing the old ajummas squatting in the Korean streets, selling their vegetables and kimchi in red plastic dishes, or watching two guards armed with AK-47s march pink-suited prisoners through a village in Rwanda. Each of these memories represent a learning moment for me. They were doing something that I’d not seen before or expected, but to them it was quite normal. Looking back at my life, most of what I know about the world, I’ve gained through travel.

Lately, when my friends and I get together, we’ve discussed the importance of travel in developing one’s character. It’s a paradigm shifting experience. Recently on Twitter, a graduating high school senior asked Alec Baldwin if he had any advice for the real world. His reply: “Travel, in and out of the US, as much as u can.” This reminded me of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

In college, I was an English major. I found the study of literature to be one of the the most valuable endeavors anyone could engage in. Authors were observers of humanity and they portrayed their experiences with the power of fiction. Fiction allows one to explore the world in ways reality falls short. It doesn’t have to stick to the truth, but allows both the writer and the reader to explore concepts otherwise overlooked.

An easy example is that of Shakespeare. The story of Romeo and Juliet allows the writer to explore concepts of forbidden longing, death, revenge, love, and regret. The reader (or observer of the play) can weep along with characters, feel their pain and rage, or even study the way Shakespeare crafted his masterpiece. I’ve always believed that the study of literature was truly the study of humanity.

Up until my senior year of college, I had never left the midwest. I’d only traveled to South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa. I knew there was so much more to the world, but I’d never experienced it. I didn’t have Twitter (it hadn’t yet been invented) and couldn’t ask Alec Baldwin for advice. Instead, I learned about the world through books. I read Sandra Cisneros, Alexie Sherman, Louise Erdrich, Danzy Senna, and others that gave me a perspective wholly foreign to my own. The world around me began to change as I learned more about it and more about myself. My experiences were just that: mine. They weren’t universal. What I knew about the world–my truth–began to morph into something more flexible. I began to ask questions and examine the world around me. Sometimes the answers I found didn’t add up to what I’d grown up believing, so my mind changed to best coincide with the facts.

Books were once all I had to learn about the world. That is, of course, until I discovered travel. It may seem weird that one would “discover” travel, but it was something I always considered outside the realm of possibility. Travel was itself foreign.

Perhaps that’s why the memory of the frisbee throwing man has stayed with me for all these years. It was my first time outside the USA and his behavior, jumping (haphazardly) into the Amazon River to retrieve a plastic toy, was outside my comfort zone. But to him and his friends, a quick dive into the second largest river in the world was just another day. Never mind the strong current, piranhas, and Montezuma’s-Revenge-inducing bacteria, he was gonna get his frisbee back.

Literature is a powerful tool. Hemingway said that writing is an author sitting at a typewriter and bleeding onto the page. Words can change lives. They matter. A book can change your perspective in ways you’ve never before considered. It can make you weep, make you seethe with anger. But traveling, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing something foreign, will change your life forever.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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