Chacos column: How I became an impetuous traveler
I was a conservative traveler when I first put on a backpack 25 years ago and trekked through Europe with my husband. We were awkward and clumsy. We’d break a sweat stuffing luggage into overhead bins and break our backs wearing expedition-sized backpacks. Furthermore, our type of travel proved unrealistic because we soon discovered city hostels more our scene and never once used our backcountry camping gear.
What became obvious to us years later, is that we were too nervous to explore the unknown and much too lazy to figure it out. Our biggest adventure took us to southern Spain for a month where we brought home a souvenir of intestinal worms.
My husband will say our travels in the beginning were extremely cautious and contained minimal risk. I agree with him. So much so, that a couple of years later, when I had an eight-hour layover in Paris, I didn’t dare leave the airport for fear I’d miss my evening flight.
Luckily, I was traveling with a friend who insisted we leave our luggage at the airport and go make memories. We ended up spending a whirlwind day seeing all the famous sights, and although my swollen cankles complained endlessly, I don’t regret being pushed out of my comfort zone.
Days later, we found ourselves at a house party in a remote part of Hungary, and my friend almost had us traveling through what was once Yugoslavia by canoe. Needless to say, this is where I learned the art of spontaneity.
By the time my first child was born, I became overly concerned that I would have to give up my adventures. Believing my husband and I would be forever subjected to domestic routine and boring activities I recklessly booked the three of us on a flight to Italy. We didn’t have much of a plan, just a baby carrier and a mantra that was given to me by a wise, well-traveled woman, “Just put that baby on your back and go!” We did, and I was hooked.
Since my husband and I no longer have to schlep car seats or even ponder about using one of those safety leashes on our children, travel has taken on a more carefree vibe again. I don’t pack three novels because I can now freely admit I won’t read any of them. My husband won’t let me pack the cozy, cotton sweatshirt or bring the impractical, leather booties. And I don’t let him buy the oversized straw hat on the beach in Mexico and then stress who is going to carry it home.
Instead, I’ve learned to travel efficiently. After subjecting my family to a one mile walk over the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua a couple of years ago, their complaining peaked. Since then, we all learned to travel lightly. We can pick up at a moment’s notice or change plans if needed because we confidently wear the same travel outfit for days, knowing our clothing could probably walk solo to the nearest laundromat if necessary.
I’ve also been schooled on the patience required while traveling with others. I’ve adjusted my expectations.
For instance, when I’m with my mother, I bring durable sneakers and snacks because she likes to visit every single thing listed in a tourist book. She can go an entire day without food or water, just like a stubborn camel. She rakes you over cobblestone roads with her marching orders, “Move faster. Let’s go. It’s just around the corner!” She even had me spend a night on the side of the road cramped in one of those tiny euro cars because she didn’t want to waste one hot minute driving during the day.
So, in homage to my mother’s spirit and leaving no stone unturned, I recently made my family ride a chicken bus through Nicaragua, so we could all get an authentic experience.
My own experiences, acute observation of how others travel and listening to their advice, helps me navigate the wanderlust in me. A friend once said, “Have a plan, but don’t wear blinders when you travel. Be ready to go anywhere, anytime.”
This was a woman living near Amsterdam who let my husband and me stay with her for weeks and then happily let us dump useless camping gear all over her living room. Her philosophy is part of why I was able to go from Israel to Jordan via a barbed wire tunnel tracked by snipers. Petra was the unique reward on the other side.
When I ran into a friend the other day who mentioned she won the lottery for tickets to the Women’s World Cup finals in Lyon, France, I knew she must find a way to go. What I didn’t anticipate was being asked to go with her. Twenty-four hours later, I found myself on a flight to Zurich, with my husband’s blessing, and a Cotopaxi backpack small enough not to annoy anyone while walking down the aisle of an airplane or a busy train station.
I had to find my way to Lyon, France, by Sunday and decided to take a train through Switzerland, a country I’ve never visited. I sat on the train, taking turns looking out the window and listening to a language I didn’t understand. The gentlemen sitting next to me struck up conversation, and one eventually said, “Americans are so friendly. Wherever I go, I can tell who is an American. They’re always smiling.”
When the train stopped, the men turned to me and said, “We hope you make many memories while you are here.” They waved and got off the train.
I was struck by the simplicity of our small conversation and genuine, human connection a thousand miles away from the relative comfort of my own country. Who knows how this adventure will go, but I have a backpack and the spirit of others to guide me along the way. Unexpectedly, I now have the 2019 Women’s World Cup finals, too.
Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor and some flair.
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