Why do we travel? – Inspired by Erzsébet Best
If you are American, meeting another fellow American far away from home isn’t much of a rarity. Perhaps it even happens too often. But the chances of bumping into a fellow Hungarian in Ecuador are one in a million.
I’d been in Quito no more than a few days and didn’t know a single soul. If you want to get to know people in that situation, your options are limited. You can try and see if your friends might know somebody in the city, chat random people up in a bar or go to an Internations event and chat random people up there. I took this last option and knew from experience that I shouldn’t expect too much, other than a few business cards destined to end up as roaches.
Not speaking any Spanish I couldn’t just talk to anyone. I approached two pretty ladies who didn’t seem to be locals and started conversing in English. I assumed both of them were Russians after one of them said a few words in a distinct Russian accent. I couldn’t really guess the nationality of the other one, and for some reason the inevitable where are you from didn’t come up for a good while. When it eventually did, and I said where I was from, her eyes lit up and she said “Nem mondod!” (you kidding me?).
Erzsébet, or Zsike as she likes me to call her, had lived in Ecuador for almost 3 years when we met. That was enough for her to make good friends, get used to crazy driving, get to know the city and feel at home. She had everything I didn’t and she was happy to share it all with me.
Having grown up in the countryside, the idea of a trip to the wilderness is not something that scared her, quite the contrary. She invited me to join them for a hike to the Cotopaxi national park after a few days we met, which I gladly accepted.
On the hike I noticed her speak fluent German and when I asked, she admitted to speaking some Russian too. With English and Spanish, it adds up to four languages on top of her native Hungarian. I was thoroughly impressed especially after my half-hearted attempt of trying to figure out how Spanish worked. You might think that the almost two decades Zsike spent living in foreign countries might explain her multilingualism, but I assure you that just living in a foreign country doesn’t make you speak the language. It takes a huge effort that you’ll only make if you have a deep enthusiasm for languages.
“Every language has its unique flavor and allows me to express my thoughts and feelings in totally different channels.” – as she put it.
Long term travel – or relocating every now and then if you like – is a way of life that you either hate or love. Working for the US embassy, Zsike had no choice but learning to love it. Having lived in Austria, England, Honduras, Kazakhstan, the United States, Costa Rica and Ecuador, she has had the fortune of getting to know a huge variety of places and cultures, but she was also left to sink or swim in them.
“I’d arrive in a new country, unpack and make a temporary home as if only traveling through. I’d also make a nest that reminded me of my Hungarian origins. I’d hang dried paprika chain on the kitchen wall, play Hungarian folk music all the time, exhibit pieces of traditional embroidery and so on. One day in Ecuador, I realized that I’d better settle down as if it was for a lifetime. In doing so my connection to these objects and nostalgic feelings changed. I opened up and allowed more space for all things local. It was like destructing an artificial bubble I created for myself. Funnily enough, the people around me reacted to that shift straight away. I believe that I feel most at home here in Ecuador because I did not isolate myself as a stranger but I was willing to become an integral part of the local society. And they welcomed me.”
I sometimes think that long term travellers are a bit similar to ants. They make huge sacrifices to build their sophisticated ant-hills only to start over when the weather or some idiot destroys them. Long term travellers build a home and relationships that they can’t take with them as they move on. But they do it anyway.
“There is nothing easier than keeping in touch with friends via modern technology, but if I can’t keep eye contact and feel the other person’s presence, somehow everything remains a bit superficial.”
Superficial and less efficient. I was bluntly made aware of that a few years ago when I was working on a project with my good friend in Belgium. We had regular skype sessions to keep each other updated and discuss future plans. There was something we couldn’t agree about for weeks. Until he came over, we had a chat in person and found the solution literally within minutes.
I’ve been in South America for four months now, which is not a long time, but I thought it would be enough to change my rhythm so to say. I was obviously wrong as I get just as pissed off when I have to wait an hour for someone as I did 4 months ago… and I’m not sure if that’ll ever change.
Zsike shares my view on this: “People in Latin America have a different definition of time, efficiency and other work-related concepts.” But she also adds: “In turn they place more importance on human relationships and family values. It’s refreshing to see that they live their lives as if time did not exist and go through it with a lightness unknown to most of us in the Western world.”
So maybe I just need more time to discover the upside of the Latin way of life as Zsike did: “I am extremely structured, a perfectionist and too serious by nature. Living in Latin America, I started allowing more flexibility and imperfection to enter my life and finally I acknowledged that it’s normal. Instead of going insane when things go wrong, I laugh and make a joke of it – not always but more and more often :)”
No matter how long you’ve been on the road, there is always home. I have no idea how to define home, but I always know when I’m home because I get this unmistakable feeling that I’ve arrived. More than anything, it’s this feeling I miss when I’m not at home.
Beyond the intellectual joys of speaking her native language and understanding cultural references in a theatre play, and beyond the obvious such as food and people, Zsike said something remarkable when I asked her what she missed the most from home.
“What I miss the most is the way men look at women. In some countries men don’t do it anymore for being afraid of sexual harassment issues. In other countries the look is too vulgar. In Hungary, it conveys the right message, as if a subtle reminder that you are noticed as a woman, that’s all.”
While I only have first-hand experience of the opposite perspective, I do understand how the way Latino men look at women may be somewhat too much. And I also think that the possibility of ending up in court for a misinterpreted look is insanity itself. At least there is one thing we Hungarians seem to have found the golden mean for.
St. Augustine said that “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page”.
When I asked Zsike about the point of travel, she said something very similar:
“Travel forces you to step out into the unknown, which requires you to pull up all your courage and to make an effort. It shapes and stretches you and expands your view of the world. It makes you grow without aging. Ultimately and most importantly, you go through an inner journey that will enrich your life forever. And it’s a lot of fun.”
It is, no doubt. But it’s also a lot of pain. On bad days I wonder why I do it and why some people never stop doing it. Are they escaping from something? Am I escaping from something?
“They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ’Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.” – says Seneca.
Not the fault of the places but of ourselves.
Sure, if you are unhappy in the first place and take your unhappiness with you wherever you go, moving places will make no difference to you.
“I think unconsciously we travellers are putting ourselves into situations that challenge us to bring out something, change something at the deepest level of our identities. As if by going to new and far locations helps us disconnect, let-go, move-on and see what else we may find in ourselves.” – says Zsike.
What might seem like an escape from the outside feels like a transformation on the inside. Every single new person you meet, new place you visit and new experience you have shapes you in a profound way.
It would be very difficult to put this more adequately than Marcel Proust did, so I will thank Zsike for everything she did for me and wish her bon voyage with this quote:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”