I remember when I first learned the meaning of the word community. My grade school teacher instructed the class to draw a circle on a piece of paper. Then she told us that our neighborhood was our community, our circle. We each belonged to our own community, while other people belonged to different ones. When I asked the teacher if I could belong to more than one community, she said no, I could not. My friends and I looked at each other sadly. Not one of us lived in the same neighborhood and according to our teacher that meant we didn’t belong to the same community.
Today, I doubt if anyone would define the word community in such narrow terms. We may have a community that looks much more like a Jackson Pollock painting, with dots and splashes of color all over the globe rather than a simple, isolated circle on a child’s paper.
So when I set out with my daughter on a European trip, I wanted her to experience what dedicated, globetrotters already know: our community is as big as we want it to be, and we really can belong anywhere. Staying at airbnb’s seemed like a natural fit.
“Aren’t you nervous about staying with strangers?” my friends asked me. I had to admit that I was and I scoured the airbnb website looking for places that came highly recommended by others who had already been there. I chose locations that were close to the sights we wanted to see. I also looked for amenities like kitchens, washing machines and WiFi.
When I finally made my choices and requested bookings, the hosts and I emailed back and forth several times. Some of them asked me questions about who I was and why I was traveling and I had lots of questions for them too.
Our first stop was Vancouver and we spent one night in Chan’s Richmond home with its immaculate en suite rooms. Chan was a charming host and we enjoyed several conversations with him at his kitchen table. Pleasant encounters like this one were repeated many times with other hosts.
In Dubrovnik, our host, Maro came to meet us at the Pile gate and helped us carry our luggage. We stayed in his ‘sweet, modern studio’ in what had been his grandmother’s home in the center of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It turned out to be a perfect location to explore the city and Maro and his sister, Kate were the perfect hosts, giving us great advice on restaurants and sightseeing.
In Venice we stayed at ‘BnB Vale’. This bnb is one of my favorites as it is located in a Venetian palace right on the Grand Canal and is close to all the sights. The palace is an elegant building with marble staircases and fresco paintings on the walls. We even had our own terrace and boat landing right on the canal. Valeria, our host was a wonderful person with a generous, lovely spirit. She served us a delicious breakfast each morning and when we lost a passport she helped us fill out the police report. We couldn’t have done it without her!
Our pleasant, two-bedroom apartment in Verona was the largest bnb we stayed in. Our host, Andrea calls his bnb, ‘Maria Callas’ in honor of the opera festival where Maria Callas made her debut. It’s a five-minute walk to the Roman arena where the festival is held each summer. It’s also an easy walk to Juliet’s House and other sights in Verona.
Next we stayed in Marco’s ‘comfy flat in the center of Milan’. Marco even came to get us at the subway stop when we got lost and he helped us with our bags. The apartment was very comfortable and within walking distance of Milan’s Gothic Cathedral and city center. It also had something that I quickly learned was a novelty, an elevator!
Silvia’s ‘Da Baranin BnB’ in Cinque Terre was worth the climb, but then everything in Cinque Terre is uphill! Da Baranin BnB has lovely views, private patios, nice rooms and a fantastic breakfast with homemade cakes and excellent coffee. Top it all off with a helpful staff and it made for a wonderful stay.
The most adventurous place we rented was in Florence. It was Noel’s artist studio with a beautiful, rooftop view of the Duomo. The studio is in a five-hundred-year-old building that must have been newly constructed when Leonardo was painting his masterpieces. This bnb is not for the faint-hearted, (think camping in the middle of Florence). The studio is up six flights of stairs, the floors are dusty from the plaster walls and the bathroom is tiny. It is however, very charming and historic (the kitchen sink is a roughed-out stone slab) and the view is breathtaking. Oh yes, remember to bring your own towels.
In Paris we stayed in Gilles’ ‘flat in the heart of Le Marais’. This location could not be more picturesque and convenient. We loved Gilles’ compact and efficient studio with its exposed beams and winding staircase. Our window looked down on the cobblestone courtyard with its wide doors leading out to the street. Originally the doors were built large enough to allow for the carriages of the aristocratic noblemen who lived in this neighborhood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In London we stayed in two different places and the experiences were completely different. Manthe’s Chelsea studio was much nicer but Glenn’s private room with a shared bath in Soho was a better location. The Book of Mormon was at the Prince of Wales Theater just around the corner and it was a two-minute walk to Piccadilly Station. I was initially nervous about sharing a bathroom with strangers but it turned out fine. Be forewarned, the water didn’t always work well in the mornings.
At the end of the day, did we have any negative experiences or safety issues with airbnb? Not one. Would I stay with airbnb again? Absolutely. What I learned was that while the locations and amenities of airbnbs are important, the most important thing by far are the people, the hosts who made us feel right at home. We experienced firsthand that we weren’t just renting a room. We were making local connections, making true friends and expanding our community one bnb at a time.
After many years of dreaming about it, my daughter and I finally take a summer trip to Europe together. For months, this trip has been all I could think about. Along with trying to stuff as many things as possible into a tiny suitcase, I try to cram as many cities and events into our schedule as possible. At some point though, I did stop and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we travel? Why pull ourselves away from the comforts of home and familiar habits and allow ourselves to be thrown happily and sometimes recklessly into the unknown?’ On this trip, I hope to find an answer.
In Italy we are charmed by romantic Venice and we spend a lazy morning feeding the pigeons in the Piazza San Marcos. As I watch the birds surround my daughter, I can’t help but wonder how much history the thousands of generations of pigeons have witnessed. Maybe they saw Casanova escape through the roof of his prison cell or witnessed Lord Byron swim the length of the Grand Canal. They must have seen Marco Polo’s ship sail into the harbor, bringing his exotic tales from the east. Maybe they witnessed Michelangelo’s disappointment as he lost the contest to design the famous Rialto Bridge. They may have even caught a glimpse of Hemingway as he sat writing or drinking whiskey at one of the glossy, walnut tables in Harry’s Bar.
In Verona, the city that inspired Romeo and Juliet, stands a Roman Arena once used for gladiator fights and for throwing Christians to the lions. Walking down the darkened stone corridors into the belly of the Arena we can still feel the overwhelming power that was Rome. We enter the Arena in our finest clothes, just as the Romans must have done to watch their entertainments, but instead of bloody combat, we are here to watch a lavish production of the opera, Aida. Everything is larger than life here: massive, glistening, gold pyramids, blue and gold sphinxes and giant pharaohs tower over the stage with the arches of the arena lit up against the night sky. Despite the sweltering heat of summer, the emotion-filled voices singing of love and despair give me chills and bring me to tears.
Milan is a peaceful, pleasant city. Here, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is housed in what was once the Dominican monk’s dining hall of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. The price of our ticket allows us fifteen minutes. I envy the monks who saw Leonardo’s masterpiece at every meal. The painting is serene and resilient but doesn’t give up its secrets easily. As we are leaving, we learn that Leonardo da Vinci had a house and garden just next door and he lived there for twenty-three years. Now on the site of his garden, they are cultivating the variety of grapes he grew five hundred years ago. They hope to produce the very wine Leonardo drank. ‘A good reason to return to Milan,’ I think.
On our way to Florence, we find the five tiny, fishing villages known as Cinque Terre. The houses are built into the sheer rocks and cliffs with thousands of terraces of grapes and olives beyond. It’s a magical, colorful place, a good place to rest.
Finally in Florence, the rooftop terrace of our five hundred year old building, now an airbnb, offers an incredible view of Brunelleschi’s dome. The seven flights of stairs are worth the climb and I sit on the terrace at night with a bottle of wine. I’m even serenaded from the street below. One night it was carnival music, another night it was classical from a nearby concert, and on the last night it was drunken love songs sung in Italian accompanied by an equally drunk accordion player. Beyond Florence, we love Tuscany with its fields of sunflowers, rolling hills, wine tasting and food. Despite being certain that we will tire of pasta, we never do.
We take a side trip to visit beautiful Dubrovnik in Croatia. How surprised the medieval builders would be to learn that the city with its massive, sea wall and splendid views has been turned into a giant stage for the filming of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. From the battles of Blackwater Bay to Queen Cersei’s walk of atonement, the fantasies of today and the historical events of the city sometimes mirror each other. At the end of the day, there’s even a chance to sit on the Iron Throne.
From this point on our trip is mostly about art (and occasionally shopping).
We try to see it all: from Leonardo’s lovely faces to Botticelli’s fantasies, from Monet’s gardens to Cezanne’s oranges, and from Picasso’s experiments to street artists hoping someone will discover them.
In Paris we visit the rock star of the art world, Mona Lisa. After hurrying down a long corridor of ignored masterpieces, we find her surrounded by an international mob. Some tourists stand and stare at her. Others push and shove to get to the front of the crowd and take obnoxious selfies. A few pull back and look at the painting from afar. I work my way through the crowd and have a brief moment at the front before the overworked security guards, who look more like bouncers at a posh, European nightclub than museum guards, make everyone move. Some visitors refuse to budge. I can’t blame them. After all, Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s beloved creation with a thousand secrets and he carried her with him until the day he died. My daughter and I give up fighting the crowd and move to the side. Reluctantly, after an hour in her benevolent gaze, we leave.
Our trip is nearing an end and I’m beginning to understand why we travel. After five weeks on the road, we are not the same people we were when we left. Travel allows us to fill our lives with adventure. It gives us unlimited opportunities to experience a dream. We have a chance to reap the world’s riches for inspiration and return home to create something wildly different and new. We take the kindness, charm and humor of the people we meet along the way and bring the memories home with us. We leave some of ourselves behind too. And despite the money we spend, we are far richer towards the end of our travels than we were at the beginning.
We still have a few days left, so after leaving Paris, we head to London. We take in everything we can, from a five-hundred-year-old comedy at Shakespeare’s Globe to Sherlock’s fictional haunts, from the gold-encrusted gates of Buckingham Palace to Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs. And London serves to remind us that sometimes, travel is just about having as much fun as possible.
I didn’t expect my life to change when I entered the sparsely-furnished, literature classroom at the Universidad de Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico. The long-haired, political-activist professor who arrived late was a bit of a surprise, but that would pale in comparison to the stories and novels he was about to introduce us to.
We didn’t have any books. Instead the professor handed out faint, mimeographed pages containing the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of magical realism and literary journalism. We read them aloud while our professor became increasingly animated in his enthusiasm, pausing only to push the hair from his eyes. As the stories came alive, we realized that this level of learning could not be contained to a bare and dusty classroom. Some of us accompanied the professor to a series of cafes around town, drinking beer until we were tipsy, talking for hours and filling our hungry souls with the delicious adventures of shipwrecked sailors, old Caribbean soldiers, ethereal beauties and the ghosts who coexist with the living only because they are too stubborn to succumb to death.
The world of magical realism was an epiphany and I suddenly realized that life was not the black and white, cut and dried reality I had learned in hometown America. A whole new world opened up in which the supernatural, the spiritual and the physical all coexisted in an exotic mélange that changed my view of life forever.
This epiphany was to set me on a lifelong pursuit for adventure, travel and opportunities to experience different cultures; a continual thirst to see the world through different eyes and to write about it. For the first time I had been given license to be the person I really wanted to be. The magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez had given me the freedom to soar.
When I ran home after class and told the senora in the house where I lived about my discovery, she handed me a succulent plateful of carne de res, arroz and the bright red flower petals known as colorin. I told her how wonderful it was to read about a world that was turned upside down but that made so much sense at the same time. She looked at me with a dry expression, “Es normal,” she said. “That’s how we all see the world.”
Her comments made me smile. I borrowed an antique typewriter and with senora’s blessing, I started writing my first, full-length novel on her kitchen table. The family’s elderly, maiden aunt, Tia Pilar showed up even before I was finished with page one. “I will keep you company while you finish your task,” she explained. “We will be like sisters every afternoon.” True to her word, she showed up each day to sit nearby fingering her rosary, while my own fingers tapped on the typewriter keys. She only stopped coming when I had finished the last page.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened my young mind to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, creativity and diverse cultural experience. It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and in a very real way it changed the course of my adult life forever. So today, as I pay homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I dust off my tattered copies of his books, open One Hundred Years of Solitude and begin to read. Here once again is the band of ragged gypsies who arrived in the mythical, Caribbean town of Macondo, bringing with them the learned alchemist, Melquiades. In turn, Melquiades brought the first magnets that anyone had ever seen in Macondo.
The gypsy dragged the enormous magnets behind him through the streets of the town while “pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumbled down from their places,” and followed him down the street.
“‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’”
My ancestors hail from eight different countries and three separate continents, yet my Irish ties have always held a special fascination. Maybe it’s because my Irish relatives are so colorful and they tell such good stories. Whatever the reason, I’d always imagined that my Irish ancestors were somehow bigger than life. On my first trip to Ireland, I’m hoping to find out if this is true.
Upon arriving in Dublin, the first thing I am aware of is that I am the foreigner here and I’m not comfortable with that. I wanted to feel at home, to be welcomed by the somehow familiar faces of ghosts. Instead, I see retired Americans fulfilling a life-long dream and young parents proudly herding their red-headed offspring through museums and castles. I’m surprised to discover that they have come for much the same reason I have. They are all a little sheepish and apologetic about it. They have no explanation for the strong pull that Ireland has always had on them. Seems my journey is not so unusual after all.
I drive across Ireland alone, something which is viewed as not only strange here, but downright shocking. In the countryside, the dominant colors are the emerald green of the rolling hills and the comforting blue of the Irish sky. My eyes ache from straining to catch sight of every thatch-covered cottage and meandering stone wall. I pass ring forts and round towers, monasteries and castles.
Contrary to all predictions, it does not rain. The whole country has a clean, smoky smell from the peat fires. It reminds me of my Irish grandmother’s house. Am I making this trip for her, I wonder.
I stop to visit the crumbling stone walls of a “famine village.” A man in a tweed coat and cap explains to me that everyone in this village perished during the great famine. Even though the potato famine occurred more than 150 years ago, he makes it sound like a current event.
“Many also died on the coffin ships trying to cross the seas,” he recalls. He pauses, then adds, “We keep their blackened cooking pots, out of respect for those who died.”
I thank him for the information and travel on to the next hotel. The woman behind the desk seems more curious than most. She asks me the usual questions: “Why are you in Ireland…and why are you alone?”
She immediately begins talking about the living relatives I must have somewhere in Ireland. I had not been thinking about the possibility of relatives in the present; all this time, I had only been searching for my past. She asks question after question but I have few answers.
“Don’t you have any old letters? Don’t you know what county your family came from?”
“No,” I admit, mumbling something about some letters that may exist with some distant relatives back east. How can I explain to her that we were the transient ones who moved west and then west again and again, each time leaving behind little trace of ourselves?
“You must find out,” she says. Finally, she pauses and then continues, “I didn’t want to say anything at first, but you are the spitting image of my great-great aunt. You even have the same name. It’s even spelled the same way. And she had three brothers who emigrated to America. We may be cousins!”
We exchange addresses and she promises to send me a photograph of my twin who she claims even had similar interests, mannerisms and gestures. “Your voice sounds just like hers and you even walk the same way,” she says. I have to wonder, Is this the ghost I’ve been looking for: a mirror image of myself?
With my trip nearing its end, I reach the Cliffs of Moher. I stand on the precipice and stare out across the Atlantic. I think of my ancestors leaving the land they loved, saying goodbye to families they would never see again. I think of their dreams and their promises to return one day. In that instant, the reason for my trip becomes clear to me. Along with my Irish hair and Irish eyes, I have also inherited my ancestors’ unfulfilled promises. This is a journey I have made for them.
I return to Dublin and spend one final night. Then on my final taxi ride to the airport, the driver asks me about my trip. I tell him that I drove around Ireland by myself.
“You must be mad! A woman shouldn’t drive around Ireland by herself” He ignores the whizzing lanes of traffic in front of him to turn around and look at me. “You must be mad,” he says again.
When he’s recovered from the shock, he tells me about all the places I missed, places that do not seem to be in any guidebook.
“You’ll just have to come back,” he says and he doesn’t let the matter rest until I have promised to return.
Traveling is often an unintentional pilgrimage. This was especially true of my trip to Amsterdam several years ago. On the first day, I went through my guidebook and checked off all the tourist sites I planned to visit: the museums, the flower markets and oh yes, the Anne Frank House. I had almost forgotten about that. I made a check by the entry. Then I underlined it and decided to go there first.
As I set off in search of the house, I realized that Anne Frank’s diary was one of the most important books of my childhood. I remembered the photograph of Anne on the front cover. It was Anne’s favorite because she thought it made her look like a glamorous, Hollywood movie star. And I remembered Anne’s bright, optimistic vision for the future.
The tall, narrow houses on Prinsengracht canal all looked the same, but the Anne Frank House was easy to spot. A long line of people waited outside. As I took my place at the end, I realized that most of the people in line were women. None of us spoke the same language, but all of us had read Anne Frank’s diary and all of us were on this unintentional pilgrimage together.
Finally the line moved. We entered the building which housed Otto Frank’s business. He sold pectin for jams and jellies and spices for meats and sausages. We climbed a steep Dutch staircase, stepped through the revolving staircase and we were in the “Secret Annex” where Anne, her family and four others hid for over two years.
Traces of the family remain but there is no longer any furniture in the rooms. The Nazis took it all after the family was arrested and shipped it to Germany. On the day the Dutch police discovered their hiding place, the arresting officer grabbed the bag in which Anne kept her diary and schoolbooks. He dumped the contents on the floor and filled the bag with money and jewelry. After the family was arrested and taken away, Miep Gies, the helper who brought them food from the black market, saved the diary, planning to return it to Anne after the war.
In the living room of the Secret Annex there are some faded marks on the doorframe where Anne’s father measured her height. She grew several inches despite the moldy beans, preserved kale and potatoes, which was often all they had to eat. A map on the wall marks the advancing Allies as reported over their secret radio. The space above Anne’s desk is still decorated with her favorite postcards: Hollywood movie stars and a young Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain. Through a crack in the window we could see the Westertoren clock and a chestnut tree, Anne’s only view of the outside world.
My fellow pilgrims and I huddle around a glass case which contains the original diary bound in red-and-white plaid cloth. The fragile lock is broken open. Many women are tearful. Everyone is moved. No one speaks. We feel grief over the tragedy of Anne’s life. But we are also in awe of the power of a single voice, Anne’s voice to reach countless millions across several generations, and in over one hundred languages with her vision of hope and compassion.
On the wall is a list of “Judentransport,” which names all the people on that last train out of Holland bound for Auschwitz. Halfway down the list we find number 309: Frank, Anneliese. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where her mother and the other occupants of the “Secret Annex” were killed. Anne and her sister were later moved to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen where Anne died in March, 1945, just a few weeks before the Allies liberated that camp.
My fellow pilgrims and I leave the Anne Frank House trying to comprehend the contrast between the unimaginable horrors of Anne’s final months and her powerful, unshaken faith in humanity when she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank died sixty-nine years ago this month.
Daniel Defoe’s novel, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was based on the real-life adventures of Alexander Selkirk, a Scotsman who was a sanctioned pirate, capturing and plundering enemy merchant vessels for the Queen of England. This swashbuckling privateer dreamed of returning to England a rich and admired man, but life took a strange and unexpected twist for Alexander Selkirk.
In 1704, Selkirk was First Mate on her majesty’s ship, the ‘Cinque Ports’. The unfit Captain, William Dampier, was determined to round the dangerous waters of Cape Horn in a stormy sea. The worm-eaten ship was badly damaged when it finally limped into the Pacific, barely making it to a tiny uninhabited island sometimes used by pirates.
Captain Dampier, who had made every wrong decision, made yet another one and decided to set sail without repairing the crippled ship. Rich merchant vessels sailed these waters and Dampier dreamed of the loot they could capture.
Rather than risk his life on a ship that was sure to sink, Alexander Selkirk decided to remain behind on the island and await rescue. The Cinque Ports left him, finally sinking off the coast of Peru with all hands drowned, save eight men, seven of whom spent the rest of their lives in a Peruvian jail.
Nighttime was the worst time as he heard strange howling noises coming from the beach. Fearing that they were sea monsters come to shore, he hid in the rocks, screaming in terror until he fell asleep from exhaustion. He didn’t sleep for long. Soon he was awakened by the sharp pain of island rats gnawing at his feet. Eventually he discovered that the howling noises came from sea-lions and not monsters.
Selkirk thought he wouldn’t have long to wait for rescue but weeks turned into months and he resigned himself to making his home on the island. He had brought only a few things with him from the ship: his bedding and clothing, a rifle, a pound of powder and bullets. He also had a hatchet, a knife and a kettle. And to pass the time he had a Bible, his mathematical instruments and a few books.
Without human companionship, his loneliness consumed him and on many occasions he was close to suicide.
He explored the island and found freshwater springs as well as wild goats and cats left behind by Spanish ships. There were fat turnips and sweet cabbage trees, Jamaica pepper and Malagita for seasoning. He found sweet black plums which were difficult to get; they grew on high trees in rocky terrain. He also ate tender turtle meat and rich crawfish which were as big as lobsters. At first he found it difficult to eat meat and fish without salt and bread, but in time he grew accustomed to these simple tastes.
Selkirk built a hut out of fragrant pimento wood, covered it with long grasses and lined it with wild goat skins. Almost out of powder, he began running after the goats to catch them and soon wore out all of his shoes. His bare feet became hard from running on the rocks.
The big rats that gnawed on his feet at night were still a problem, so he tempted wild kittens with goat meat until he had tamed a hundred cats. They slept in his hut with him at night, keeping the rats at bay. A few of the cats even followed him like dogs on his hunting expeditions. He also tamed goat kids. Sometimes in the moonlight he danced with his cats and goats for company.
Vigorous exercise kept him in remarkable shape and in time he began to find joy and tranquility in his solitude. He practiced devotion with prayers, meditation and reading the Bible, his cats always close by. In time he gave up speaking altogether and relaxed into a blissful state that he had never known before. His adventure became an inner tranquil journey that few ever experience.
Four years and four months later, he was found by an English ship but Selkirk was indifferent to being rescued. The sailors had to talk him into returning to England and even stayed for some time with him on the island before he was ready to leave. They knew Selkirk was a good privateer and they wanted him to help them capture rich enemy vessels.
Selkirk worried most about his hundred cats. They were so tame that they were semi-dependent on the goat meat he fed them and he knew they could not all survive without him. When the sailors finally convinced him to leave the island, it broke his heart to leave his cats and he cried like a baby until the island was out of sight.
Selkirk returned to England a rich man from his pirating but he never adjusted to life in civilization. Without the vigorous exercise, he lost both strength and agility and he frequently voiced regrets about leaving the island. He was never able to get used to drinking alcohol again and the food did not agree with him. For a time he lived in a cave in Scotland. And at the time of his death, he was planning to return to the island. He once said, “I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin
When I was nineteen I went to Mexico for a year. I thought I would learn a little Spanish and return home the same person I was before. But living overseas changes the traveler and I returned home a different person.
I lived with the Lorenzo family. Senor and Senora Lorenzo were school teachers. They worked hard all week but every weekend there was a party to attend. There were weddings, Quinceanera and family parties. When the music started, grandparents, parents and children all danced together. And they often danced until 3 am. When the children were tired, the parents picked them up and continued dancing while the children dozed on their shoulders. For the Lorenzos, any celebration was an excuse to dance. I couldn’t imagine my family in America dancing together for any reason.
The first words I learned in Spanish were cantar, bailar, disfrutar, Sing, dance, enjoy. And I learned to celebrate life with abandon.
Next I went to live in France and I learned to enjoy the simplicity of eating and conversing with others. I learned to never talk about politics or anything upsetting at the table. The French believe it’s healthy to only talk about pleasant things while eating. Consequently, they spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about food and its preparation. Not too surprising, the first words I learned in French were les miette or bread crumbs and the names of various kitchen utensils.
In Japan, I learned the grace of living in a crowd. The first words I learned were Sumimasen, Gomen nasai, Arigato Gozaimasu. Excuse me. I’m sorry. Thank you. And eventually I found the stillness within, necessary for being at peace amid the chaos of Tokyo.
When I finally moved back to American soil, I chose Hawaii, the most exotic state I could think of. At first, personal transformation happened much more slowly in the familiar American setting.
But Hawaii has a generous spirit and it is here that I learned about courage. Not just the courage to take my young daughter and move to a state where I knew no one, but the courage to find true happiness by joyfully anticipating change.
Twenty years ago, I traveled through Nepal with some friends. Even though we were traveling on a shoestring, prices were so low that we were able to hire a car and a driver and tour the entire country. Along one narrow, treacherous stretch of road, men were working to widen the road by blasting away rock from the mountain side. We had to stop while they worked.
As we waited, I looked out the car window and saw a young woman working in the rubble. This caught my interest immediately since I had seen very few women working in any capacity since I arrived in Nepal. Her back was to me and her long skirt and hands were covered with dust. As I watched, she filled a large basket with rocks. After she filled the basket, she took a long strap-like handle attached to the basket and put it around her forehead so that she could carry the basket on her back. I thought to myself, this is the worst job in the world! I was beginning to feel very sorry for this young woman who was doing such back-breaking work, when she turned to face me. I was shocked to see that she looked extremely happy, almost euphoric, as if she was the most successful woman in the world.
I’m not sure why she felt this way.
Maybe she was providing for her children or helping out her parents.
Or perhaps this job gave her the freedom to do things that she wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
This got me to thinking about what success really is.
Most Americans feel successful if they have a lot of money in the bank, a beautiful house and a nice car. But I have never seen anyone look as successful as that young Nepalese woman.