Lose the Fannypack: Advice for Travelers

I have this friend, Billy. Billy is in China right now with a group of students from our college, including his girlfriend. How nice is that, right? In the fall, Billy will be spending a semester abroad in London. How crazy is that? Good for you, Billy. I’m a huge supporter of international experience. The majority of my friends during my first year and a half of college were foreign students. When I think of the international adventures Billy must be having right now, and how spectacular his fall semester is going to be, I yearn for a plane ticket to anywhere. I’ve been wanting to go to Italy; I’ve been studying the language. But let’s be real, at this point I’d take anything. I just want to get out of my little bubble  and escape Middle-of-Nowhere, Pennsylvania for a while.

I’ve traveled out of the country once. It was my junior year of high school, and I had this teacher, Mr. C. Mr. C was the kind of super laid back teacher that never really gave a student a reason to complain. His class introduced me to the Queen Elizabeth movies starring Cate Blanchett. I think Mr. C fancied her. There were rumors going around about him, but there were rumors going around about everyone nice – and not so nice – back then.

Mr. C had connections with a council in the only big city around in a 100 mile radius. This council provided a travel scholarship for high school students in the region. I know, what is a travel scholarship? I hear that a lot when I tell this story.

75 students from the region competed in a series of interviews and  essays (so many essays) over the course of one academic year. I was living with my grandmother at the time, and she made sure I was on time and present for every interview and dinner throughout the process.  By the time spring had rolled around, 5 students out of the original 75 were selected as recipients of the scholarship. I had never really tried to compete for anything this big before, besides a chess competition I failed miserably at when I was 7. I screamed a little into the phone when I got the call. I was being sent to Mongolia, a country I had never heard named before. I thought maybe I was being sent to Africa.

To be specific, Mongolia rests between Russia and China, east of Kazakhstan (because Kazakhstan is such a great landmark).The plane flight with Korean air was fantastic – free movies and I was fed every three hours. After 7 hours flying across the country, 12 hours soaring over the Pacific, an 11 hour layover in Korea (bear in mind this was my first time flying… and alone), and one last 3 hour flight, my group arrived in Mongolia and hopped in a van headed for Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. The Anujin hotel hosted my group and I at least 3 times during our stay in the country. Of all the places and people I saw and met and wished not to part with, it was the one place I kept coming back to.

I didn’t know what to expect from my month abroad. There was a lot that could happen in a month, and so much did. I hiked the mile-high slope of an extinct volcano. I learned to play traditional instruments and perform traditional dance (don’t ask me to try nowadays). I dipped into the ice-cold waters of Lake Khovsgol. I spent 8 shower-free days living with a wonderful desert nomad family that didn’t speak any English; but they opened their home to me and taught me how to live the life they had always known. Each day of the month was an enlightening experience. I honestly fell in love with Mongolia. I began constructing my dreams of returning before I ever left.

Zaisan Hill – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At some point during the trip, I saw a group of middle-aged to elderly tourists sporting fanny packs, noses deep in informational leaflets, listening to their guide tell them all about whatever it was they were going to see. Something was off about them. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. They was a different look in their eyes than I had seen if my group leader (who was fluent in the native language) that I had been able to relate with. I asked him about the group, my group leader I mean. I asked, how are they going to learn anything from inside their tour bus and behind those informational pamphlets.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be pampered the whole time,” he said.

I didn’t like that. It just didn’t sit well, like too much grease in a sensitive stomach.

So I think of my friend, Billy, and all the adventures he’s bound to have, and I have one wish for him: I wish that he doesn’t waste his time being a tourist. I’m sure he won’t. Billy is a smart kid with a good head on his shoulders and a big heart. He’s the kind of guy that hugs you on cloudy days and makes sure people feel welcome. He’s not the kind of person to waste precious time in precious places. Even still, the most beautiful things can be easy to miss, so I make this wish for my friend.

I haven’t traveled since Mongolia. I’ve thought about it, dreamed about it, wished it in the late hours of the night while watching the skies, remembering how the stars of the desert sky were so numerous and bright they lit up the desert in some surreal, fantastical way. The world is chock full of the kind of stuff dreams are made of. You just have to know where to find it.

It would be nice to be a traveler, to invest all my time and resources into roaming the globe, making connections and finding myself in far away places, reporting the thrilling details of my journeys on this very site. It’s good to have dreams, don’t you think? Right now, that’s not in the realm of possibility. There’s a degree yet to be earned and this and that and a little bit of that and this in the way, but one day. One day, I’m sure I’ll see it all right in front of my nose.

Mongolian Ger – Home of a Mongolian nomadic herder

If I never get to travel again, though, it would not be the worst fate. What I could not bear, would not stand for, is to see myself become like those people on the tour bus with their pamphlets and fanny packs and that look in their eyes like they were watching a circus exhibit. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with tourism. Sometimes I really do fancy the idea of a classic 18th-century-style grand tour of Europe once I’ve completed my first master’s degree and have gathered enough funds to go gallivanting across another continent. I adore travel, and I believe everyone should venture outside of their tiny-little-world at least once in their lifetime. But what’s the point of traveling if everywhere you go, everything you see, is viewed like a museum exhibit or some circus wonder? I’d rather break the glass, burn the tent, and get rid of barriers altogether. When I think of travel, I think of the nights spent under the glowing desert sky, singing in English while my host family sings in Mongolian; I think of dancing and learning the strings of the morin khuur, I remember treks on horseback through forest and the icy bite of the waters of Khovsgol. I remember Sainshand and its spraying fountain, and I remember the friends I made and the way my stomach felt heavier when I had to leave them all. I want to feel that everywhere I go, because when I left it felt like leaving home and I would like to know wherever I go in the world, I’ve built a home there – that I’ve become a part of a community. I struggle to think of any greater pleasure.

Good luck being overseas for the rest of the year, Billy. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with a foreign land and all its wonders. Don’t be afraid to feel your heart break when the time comes to a close – that means you did it right.


**All images retrieved from Google**


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