I have always been a big believer in the number 5. Not only was I born on April 5th, but my parents, my sister, and both of my boys have a 5 in their birth dates. So when I realized I was only one country short of having visited 50 countries, it felt important to do it before my 35th birthday. Luckily, we were already in the process of planning a trip to India, which seemed like the perfect place to celebrate such an important and meaningful milestone. Not only has India been on my bucket list for awhile, but it is such a diverse, vibrant, and beautiful country that I knew even before I arrived how special it would be.
In addition to being a big believer in the number 5, I am also a believer in signs, and I got a big one on our first day here. As our guide Sanjay was taking us around Delhi, he said, “There is nothing to see in India….but everything to observe.” This really resonated with me, because I feel that so many people forget to experience things when they travel. They focus instead on checking a place off their list, or getting the perfect instagram photo and in doing so, they forget to actually observe and experience a place.
My first trip out of the country was when I was 12 years old. I was a student at the French American School, where it is a tradition to take the 5th grade class (note the number 5) on trip to France following graduation. We flew to Paris and then spent time in Montresor, a charming village in the Loire Valley, where we each lived with a local family. Having my first trip abroad involve living with the village cheese maker and immersing myself in the life of Montresor taught me the importance of trying to go deep when you travel. While you don’t always have the time or opportunity to see and experience everything a city or country has to offer, I believe you should take that chance every time you get it. After our trip to France ended, my parents and sister met us in Montresor and we continued to travel around France as a family. They also value the importance of immersing yourself in a place and so we continued to do so every summer in countries as diverse as Sweden and Turkey.
Years later, when I met the man who would become my husband, we connected over our love of travel and seeing the world. We began to travel together long before we were married, with Michael’s curiosity and sense of adventure taking us to all corners of the globe. From hiking in Patagonia to Gorilla trekking in Uganda, from dining in Greece to celebrating New Year in Japan and everything in between, it has been an incredible 11 years together.
Before we left for India, a number of people admonished me to be prepared for the extremes…extreme beauty and extreme poverty. In fact, several people said the reason they had not yet visited India was because “no matter what you do you can’t avoid seeing the bad stuff there.” It reminded me of a conversation I had with a mother and daughter traveling through Uganda. They were at the lodge where we were and complained that they had to travel though the slums to get there. “Couldn’t they find a way around all of that?” they asked. I replied that they shouldn’t. Bad parts of anywhere exist whether you see them or not, and it’s important that you not avoid them. Do I purposely venture into the most upsetting or dangerous situations when I travel? No. But I don’t avoid trying to get a complete picture. To me, seeing all aspects of a country or city doesn’t take away from my experience, it only adds to it. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” I want to be a traveler, not a tourist.
As I sat down to write this post, I realized that my goal of 50 countries by 35 took away from what I enjoy most about travel: the inspiration; the exploration; and the time to really absorb as much as I can while I am there. Urusula K. Le Guin said it better than I ever could, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Trying to reach a certain number, check off a place, or get the perfect selfie aren’t important, experiencing a place is. So, while I have so much more to see, I am grateful for every moment I have had experiencing as much of the world as I can, and I can’t wait to see more. Because, “every one of a hundred thousand cities around the world had its own special sunset and it was worth going there, just once, if only to see the sun go down.” Ruy Murakami