Monday, June 29, 2015

Celebrating Love

Lovers in St. Petersburg

        Some of you may remember that when I set out on my voyage last August, I decided to use "love" as the focus of my blog posts and explorations of the world. The idea came to me in London, when I walked along the Thames and saw an exhibit celebrating love in all its forms and inviting the passerby to enter the "tunnel of love." 

       I've never not been fascinated, even obsessed, by the question of love. Like many girls, I wanted to be Nancy Drew, but with one caveat: I wanted to be a love detective--to seek out the mysteries, secrets, wonders of love. I snooped and spied on everyone, strangers and friends, trying to get to the heart of what I considered the greatest mystery of all: why do we fall in love with one person, and not another? 

       I read romance comics--anyone remember those hoary, moralistic tales?--and devoured love stories wherever and however I found them. I wrote my first love story at age 14 and proudly handed it in to my English teacher. It was a terrible imitation of Colette and D.H. Lawrence (did I mention I was a very precocious reader?), a sensual realization by a woman that her lover has left her and will never return. The woman breathes in their sheets and pillows, still smelling of their lovemaking, and she knows she will never forget his unique scent and the love they shared. Keep in mind this was written by a girl who had been kissed a couple of times, but who gleaned her knowledge by following people, staring at them and eavesdropping on conversations, and of course imagining what exactly Lady Chatterly and her lover did without having a clear sense of the depths and heights, and even the humor, of passion. All I knew was there was a world out there I needed to explore. 

          The teacher ripped it to shreds in front of the entire class. She called my writing, "obscene," a word I'd never heard of before. After that, years passed before I shared my writing again. 

        Today I may have a clearer sense of the realities of love, but I'm still every bit as curious (my husband says, "nosy") as when I was a kid and picked up The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton, an early 20th century traveler and adventurer, simply because of its title. Little did I know it was the beginning of the merging of my two great passions: love and travel. I'm not searching for definitive answers anymore: there is no one true solution to the mystery of what is love or who we love. And there is no one voyage that will tell me: this is it, the final border, no more to see, nothing left to explore. There will always be more. Many great travelers have said that we travel in order to understand the landscape of ourselves. Love, like travel, teaches us to see with all our senses. It is a promise and a gift. 

       I believe love is the most profound form of travel: it teaches us to explore another human being with the same curiosity, humility, wonder and compassion with which we explore a foreign country. And to return to ourselves, hopefully, with a new generosity and tenderness. As we approach the 4th of July, our day of independence, let's celebrate the freedom to love and marry whom we choose. Happy Freedom Day, everyone! 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Entering the Woods

“No dawdling or daydreaming,” warned the mother of a school friend. “Go directly to school and come directly back home.”

Her words filled me with horror. To walk back and forth from school and not stop to notice the cornstalks bursting through sheets of ice. Not stand beneath a tree and puzzle at the cottony gray veils spreading between branches—a witch’s shawl, I thought, but later learned it was deadly gypsy moths. Not crouch over a brass key found on the sidewalk, and shiver, knowing it was a clue dropped by a spy who was watching right now to see who dared pick it up.

Every day was an adventure, a treasure hunt crammed with mysterious characters and wondrous sights, and how on earth could I get to the heart of the world if I didn’t dawdle, daydream, and step off the path? At nine, I already knew I’d be a writer and accepted my destiny: to always be late, to go off the clearly marked, brightly lit path, and to make it to my destination via the most winding route imaginable.

Today, I see my friend’s mother’s warnings echoed and transformed into time management software, templates and graphs offering shortcuts that speed you through the creative process. No pain. No wasted minutes. No blundering in the dark. Someone has already mapped your journey for you and connected the dots.

It may not be fair, but I kind of blame Little Red Riding Hood’s mother for our obsession with speeding to our destination while ignoring the by-paths that tempt along the way. Go directly to Grandma’s house, she said. Don’t go off the path or talk to the Wolf.

Even as a kid, I loathed this tale and its cheerless message: Complete your mission and do not stop to smell the flowers or acknowledge the danger that lurks at the side of the road.

It’s often tempting when we start a creative endeavor to follow the safe, clearly marked path. Others have gone before you and left behind signs and guideposts. You won’t get lost on that path, and you may get to Grandma’s house in record time, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, looking at his watch and muttering, Hurry, hurry, there’s no time to waste.

The forest of tall, narrow birch trees outside St. Petersburg—
trees like guards hiding secrets, maybe fairy tale monsters.

But you know what? I’m here to tell you that if you want to truly create a book, song, painting or magic illusion from your soul, you need to step off the bright-lit road and explore the deep dark woods. The roads are not marked. No dots are connected, and you have to hack your way through in order to create a path no one else has ever walked. Strange sounds accompany you, unknown creatures howl, and vines wind around you. You will be alone for a while. You will get lost. You will get scared. And you’ll hear the sound of your own voice crying out in the wilderness. It may seem the sun will never rise again and you’ll be lost forever.

That’s the time to gather your strength and courage for a final effort. Our ancestors, who told fairy tales around a fire at night or in a kitchen, understood one of the primary messages of the tales: a character must undergo a sea-change, dramatic and profound, in order to become the hero or heroine they are meant to be. Entering the woods—whatever form they take—is like entering the deepest, darkest part of yourself. If you write, your characters need to undertake this journey as well as you do. If you brave the woods and face the dark terrors that haunt you—your personal Wolf—you will glimpse light at the end of that long night.

And when you finally emerge from the woods, you may find yourself at Grandma’s house after all.   

Or a castle on a mountain.

Or ancient ruins by the sea.

Or your own backyard where it may appear you’ve been doing nothing but lying on the grass, while in reality you conquered dragons, saved (and taken) lives, discovered the cure to a dangerous virus, touched a star.

I confess that my favorite versions of Red are the ones in which she does it all: picks flowers, chats up the Wolf and gets his measure, and makes it to Grandma’s where she outwits him, and in the process manages to clear the woods of that dangerous beast. All in a day’s work. And then she, Grandma and the Huntsman settle down for tea and cookies. Now that’s a story that warms my heart.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
                           --Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

A note: In case you wonder, I do own a watch. Several months ago, in preparation for a three and a half month sea voyage spanning three continents, I bought a large, complicated watch that looked like it could do everything but navigate the ship. Sadly, it was so complicated I never could figure out how to change the time in each new port. Neither could anyone else. I’ve since taken it off and set it on my bedside table. I feel much more relaxed though it emits resentful beeps at unspecified times (5:39, 7:53) that remind me of my friend’s mother. Dire warnings, I’m sure, which I’m happy to ignore.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ruth's Tao of Travel

Antwerp Train Station

January 8, 2015

One month ago today I climbed down the gangway of the MV Explorer for the last time and set foot on land in the USA after four months away. During that time I traveled to 14 countries, a whirl of impressions and experiences that still dizzies, enchants and excites me.

I had many first experiences, including raking and harvesting salt (Cadiz), learning to create a stencil portrait with a graffiti street artist (Berlin), making delicious tapas (Barcelona), dancing salsa in a nightclub (Havana), studying percussion at a samba school (Rio de Janeiro), communing with a goddess (Kildare, Ireland), and attending a candomble ceremony (Salvador).

I tasted new foods, listened to live music of all kinds, danced my heart out, and talked to people with every language in my power-- words, gestures, smiles.

I asked myself and my fellow travelers questions: Why do we travel? To see the destination? To learn about the place? To search for truths about ourselves?

I realized that I travel to connect -- to connect with gods, myths and people through food, music and history. Even more, to find the myths, foods, songs and stories that connect us rather than divide us.

To that end, I've compiled a list of 10 travel guidelines, a Tao of Travel inspired by the great traveler, Paul Theroux. In homage, my #1 is the same as his. I hope they inspire you to create your own list ... and to take off on a trip yourself. Happy Voyages in 2015!

1. Travel alone. At the very least, find time to be alone-- an hour, an afternoon-- and explore on your own. Walk whenever you can.

2. Get lost. Seriously. Remember the art of wandering. Take a bus, subway or walk with no destination, and then gradually wind your way back to where you began. Be sure to ask directions and talk to people along the way. 

3. Eat where locals do. 

Outdoor stand in the Djma el Fna'a, Marrakesh

4. Browse a street market or supermarket. You can learn so much from the items that are (or are not) stocked. The empty shelves in St. Petersburg and Havana, the enticing windows and bursting produce in Barcelona and Naples ....

Storefront in Naples

La Boqueria, Barcelona

5. Keep a travel journal. You will never have a second chance to have a first impression of a place. Write it down while the sensory details are fresh in your mind. 

6.  Do something touristy. Splurge once, if you can. 

7. Connect. Talk to people. Ask questions. Not just fellow tourists, but guides-- they are proud of their city or country and want to share it-- and locals. Ask them where to go and what to do.

8. Pre-voyage: learn basic phrases for each new country. Read a bit of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by noted authors of the country.

9. Stop journaling and photographing. (I know, I know, but you need to look up and see directly with your eyes, too.) Sit for an hour on a bench or at a cafe and watch people. Listen to them. Absorb their rhythm.

10. When we travel, we take home impressions, souvenirs, memories. But what do we leave behind? Did we connect with anyone who will remember us? Traveling gives us the chance to leave a part of ourselves everywhere we go, not only to be touched by others, but also to touch other lives. 

Below, some of the wonderful people who helped make my voyage unforgettable. Thank you! Gracias! Danke! Obrigada! Until we meet again ....