Two experiences from yesterday: reading Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan Slaght, and watching a few episodes of “World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals” on Netflix. The former stirred longing in my soul. The latter did not.
First, the latter. The locations three Millennials bop into and out of are exotic (whether in the USA or in any part of the world), unique, offering beauty and unusual experiences. This is travel as entertainment and consumption: eat, sleep, look, devour this place and this experience. This kind of travel asks nothing of you except your money, your sense of adventure, your stamina, and your need for something new. There is much to be said for it.
I know. I have been there, done that. A lot. I have been a tourist all over the world. However, I do not have a great desire to see more of the world in that way, especially as I am getting older and travel of any kind is more taxing. It had better be worth it if I am going to give up my bed, get on a plane, and plunk myself down in a new city or landscape and look, eat, navigate, and experience a new place. I know my husband would like to go more places. New Zealand? China? Scandinavia? I know he looks with longing at some of those exotic vacation rentals, both budget and luxury. And I’m not saying my travel days are over.
But my soul does not respond to that call. Why do I say this? Because the contrast is so strong between that and what my soul did respond to as I read Slaght’s account of looking for members of an endangered species in the wilds of eastern Russia. Halfway through the book I had the thought that if I were younger, male, strong, and a trained scientist–admittedly a lot of ifs–I would do something like that and write about it in that way. I identified just enough with Slaght to recognize things his project had in common with many of my own undertakings over my lifetime. I will describe his experience in outline and then my own in more detail in a subsequent post.
They add up to a concept that I am calling soul travel.
It starts with an outsized sense of adventure. This can lead a young person to backpack around the world or sign up for a work assignment in a foreign place. In Slaght’s case, he began by serving in the Peace Corps in Russia’s Primorye Province on the coast of the Sea of Japan.
You might have to learn a foreign language to do what will eventually become soul travel. In his case, Russian.
Soul travel is propelled by love. In his case, a fish owl swooped into his view and he became curious, fell in love, and was forever changed.
Opportunity combines with purpose. He followed the thread of the passion that began in that experience and went on to a Ph.D. study of fish owls that built on his previous experience in the region, his knowledge of Russian, and his ability to navigate the roughest edges of Russian culture.
It requires a willingness to endure hardships and push the envelope of one’s abilities and tolerance.
It results in moments of joy and a lived relationship with people and places.
I can go down this list and check off similarities with experiences I have had in three areas of the world: Japan, Africa, and Russia. It was some superficial things about my Russian experience that clued me into how much I shared with this younger man. I, too, developed an affection for crazy, intense Russians. I learned to drink vodka and how to opt out of drinking too much. I remembered the extravagant feasts of zakuski and conversation around the kitchen tables. I experienced hair-raising drives with Russians at the wheel.
But in the end, my Russian experience didn’t lead anywhere. I hate to call it a dead end because my response to this story shows that something of that connection never died completely. But I remember asking myself in the mid-90s, as Russia was rushing into the post-Gorbachev/Yeltsin opening to greed and capitalism, whether there was a future for me in those connections. My work with a magazine had taken me there. Could I continue to be part of shepherding new authors as press freedom opened up? And my answer was that I was not quite cut out for that, that I was too much of a middle-class wife and mother for the rough and tumble of a society that was ripping apart. (One of my acquaintances in Russia was assassinated a few years later as a member of the opposition party in Parliament.) So, no. But the longing for some taxing-yet-rewarding foreign venture, fueled by love, remained. And it took me back to Congo nearly 20 years later.
Before the Russian experience was my first Congo experience, and before that, Japan. It was in trying to define what all of these experiences had in common that I began to call it soul travel. My soul wanted to travel. My soul had to travel. I couldn’t say why or where; I could only recognize the call when it came and seize opportunities that presented themselves. This desire was not satisfied by straightforward tourism, as I learned through much experience with both kinds of travel. To be continued.