Solo Adventures in Foreign Lands

My little brother is out of the country for the first time ever this week.  “Be sure to let me know you’re OK,”  I told him about fifty times.   “Text me on Messenger when you finish your first flight, and when you land in the Philippines.  And at least once day while you’re there.”

I know, I’m possibly a teeny tiny bit overprotective of him.  Sure, he’s a 40-year-old man, but I served as a stand-in mother for him and to me he’s still that baby whose diapers I changed and rocked to sleep.  Sometimes I look at him and still see him as that toddler who raced around on his big wheel brandishing his sword at me and screaming “By the Power of GraySkull, I have the power” when I tried to put him down for a nap.  How can someone who used to need me to tie his shoes be traveling the world?

As we’d discussed, when my brother got to China for his connecting flight, he texted me on Messenger and we chatted for a while.  Then he texted me to confirm his arrival in the Philippines.  I saw this post on Facebook when he connected with the person he went to visit. Thanks to today’s technology, I could see for myself that everything had gone OK on his trip over.  All of this got me thinking about my own experience traveling.

The first time I went out of the country I was 18 years old. It was 1986, the summer between high school and college, and I used the money I earned working at the neighborhood store to go visit my long-time pen pal in France.  I didn’t know a soul in France other than this girl I’d exchanged letters with via what we now call “snail mail”.

There was no e-mail or cell phones or texting back then, and the costs for an international phone call were prohibitive. The whole time I was gone, literally no one in my life knew where I was, or if I was dead or alive.  I was completely reliant on the kindness of strangers.

I headed across the world all alone in my Lee frosted jeans and Reebok high tops.  I had no experience traveling and no knowledge of foreign language or customs,  and was armed only with a newly printed passport, a handful of American Express travelers checks, and a giant can of Aquanet hair spray.

Now I’m kind of horrified about that.  The number of bad things that could have happened to me are too many to list.  I almost can’t believe I was ever that courageous, or that naive.  Of course back then I didn’t really know about things like sex trafficking and sexual assault and the myriad of scams that are run on unsuspecting tourists.  Or if I did I figured I was street savvy and Chicago-tough and no one would mess with me. Ah, the hubris of youth.

Fortunately it was an incredible experience and one actually did mess with me. My pen pal and her family were awesome. They were welcoming and fun and kind, and we had many grand adventures together.  It was a life changing experience that gave me a love for travel that stays with me today — although I have much higher standards of comfort and preparedness than I did back then.

If that first international trip was today,  I’d be connected to the people I knew back home via the internet and texting and all of our other electronic connections.   I’d post pictures of my adventures on social media.  I’d have text conversations with friends back home. People would post suggestions of places to visit and things to see. There would be a digital trail to follow if something happened.

But I also wonder how that would have changed my grand adventure.  Would I have been safer, or would it just have increased my illusion of safety?  Would I have missed out on experiences because I was focused on my electronics part of the time?  Without access to online maps and travel webpages would I have missed exploring the cool places that I found when I was lost? Would I have missed the thrill of getting my film back from the Photomat booth and reliving my adventures while thumbing through pictures after I returned?

Technology can be both a blessing and a curse.  It helps us stay connected, but it also distracts and isolates us.  I’m so grateful I can keep in contact with my brother while he’s gone,  but I also hope he’s able to enjoy his own grand adventure.  Because as Aesop said, “adventure is worthwhile.”

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