We all have our sob stories in life, events that hurt us, traumatized us or even worse. Personally, I don’t have any one event in my life that was particularly awful nor was I ever really surrounded by bad, terrible, awful human beings. On the whole I’ve been lucky and mostly happy and healthy. But there have been instances throughout the course of my life that made me lose trust in others, to lose faith in them and, sadly, by extension everyone else that came into my life. I let a few people and their misdeeds color my entire outlook on life, I refused to trust, refused to be moved and lost some of the empathy that is a big part of my personality. Almost.
When asked I call my old, 9-5 job soul sucking; and it was. But it wasn’t the only thing that was sucking my soul. I had let myself fall into a malaise borne of repetition and predictability. I can tell you what I would be doing next Tuesday or five Tuesdays in the future because it was all the same. I found myself longing more and more for those treasured vacations; great adventures that I built up in my mind as the highlight of the year. And they were but not just for the adventure and the act of traveling (both of which I love) but because travel interrupted this dull repetition, it added color in an otherwise sepia-toned world.
I didn’t realize the overall effect that these two or three trips per year would have on my being, nor did I realize what would happen when I made travel my profession and a much bigger part of my life. It sounds silly and easy, Pollyannaish and overly saccharine but it is true – travel very much saved my soul and most likely my life.
It’s not what you think. I’m not here to say that hiking a mountain or seeing a sunset over the Mediterranean saved my soul. They were nice experiences, no doubt there, but they didn’t save me. No, what saved me have been the people that I meet on my travels. More than any famous site, delicious French pastry or crazy adventure travel stunt, it has been the everyday people around the world who have not only restored my faith in humanity, but in myself.
Let’s take a very recent example of someone who touched my heart, Mama Lily. Lily lives in Kayamandi Township in Stellenbosch as she has for much of her life. During the apartheid era black people were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. These areas were underdeveloped and the living conditions were, and are, not adequate for the needs of the residents. They still exist today, communities that have been around for a long time and home to many walks of life from the extreme poor to the middle class in some cases. Still, visiting a township is a powerful reminder that life isn’t all wine and chocolates, but Lily brought a different spirit to the exploration. Living in a house where every brick has been paid for, living debt-free as she says, Lily has always worked hard to provide for her family. From working as a debt collector to eventually baking scones out of an impossibly small oven, Lily now serves as guide and cooking instructor to those who wish to visit. More than that, she never once let life knock her down. Has she gone through some rough patches, yes, of course. But once I saw the twinkling spirit in her eyes I knew that she had won; that she had beat down whatever tried to get to her first and Lily came out on top. Looking at my life and what has brought me down before I was ashamed. Ashamed because what events and trivialities have affected me immediately seemed so silly and so frivolous. I saw in Lily a determination and I knew that if she can win at this game called life, so can I.
The Violet Lady
But inspiration doesn’t have to come from sadness, as was the case when I met someone at a pivotal time in my own life – the Violet Lady of Toulouse. Hélène Vié, or the Violet Lady, runs a violet-infused empire from a permanently moored boat in Toulouse, France. She is the force behind the shop and it’s her warm and electric personality that makes the visit an experience. Hélène isn’t just a local celebrity though, she’s traveled the world sharing not only her love of the violet, but serving as role model to women small business owners everywhere. Her outgoing nature makes her the perfect ambassador and she is often called upon to serve in a number of outreach roles be it for agriculture, tourism or business. She’s quirky, a little odd but undeniably passionate about violets and everything that can be concocted from them. When I met her I had left my job just days before and felt unmoored, without direction. After talking with her though an idea, a spark erupted. She identified her passion in life, pursued it, did it better than anyone else and thanks to that honesty with herself was living a happy, successful life. Why couldn’t I do that? Why did I have to go back to Washington, DC and look for another pointless job to pay the bills? What was stopping me from pursuing my dream of travel and exploring new cultures while paying the bills at the same time? As Hélène taught me, I was the only thing standing in my own way. I left her boat with a new sense of purpose, a spark of my own that while may not be violet colored, is no less exciting.
I could write a hundred of these vignettes, moments when other people touched me on a very personal level. Some are silly stories, others much more weighty and meaningful. But over the years they have had the net effect of taking a sometimes cranky, often suspicious person (me) and turning him into someone who enjoys life more than ever before. The amazing thing about it all, to me at least, is how regaining this innocent belief in other people has impacted every other facet of my life. I find myself being more healthy and less self-destructive, I find myself waking up with a smile instead of a scowl and for the first time in my life I can actually see that damned glass as half full and not half empty. Long time friends will tell you that these are no mean feats – they are incredible changes in who I am as a person. And so, that is why I say that travel and more importantly meeting other people has saved my soul. More than any flashy dinner or fancy hotel room could ever have turned me around, it has been the remarkable individuals met along the way who have done it. And you know what? I can’t wait to meet more of them and to continue growing as an individual.
Who has made an impression on you during your travels?