[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.
To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Granted, some of her decisions were a bit questionable. She and I started traveling together when I was three, but I flew as an unaccompanied minor for the very first time at the age of seven. I was headed to California for my sister’s wedding, and in those days, the route from Manila to San Francisco involved layovers and refueling in Tokyo and Vancouver (and lord help you if you were still on the leg to LA). I have no idea why I was traveling alone, since my mom also flew in for the ceremony around that time. I have memories of an immigration officer pulling me behind closed doors for an interview. He looked very concerned after I’d mentioned that not only was I traveling alone, but also living without my parents. Eventually he came to understand that my mom and dad traveled frequently and regularly left me in the care of household staff and extended family. My sister later told me that Immigration was fixing to call CPS until I finally informed them that my siblings were at the airport to fetch me.
Shortly after I turned eleven, Mom (in a decidedly more brilliant move) sent me away to tour Europe and attend summer camp in Sweden through CISV (Jag arbetar för freden / I work for peace). What an adventure! The first time I ever crossed the street unaccompanied by a grown-up was in Frankfurt. With the permission of our group leader, my friend Maria and I left our boarding house to buy souvenirs for our families. We clasped each other’s hands, hearts beating in anticipation of the walk signal. It was such a thrill to make that passage on our own that we positively squealed when we reached the opposite sidewalk. That moment filled me with this tremendous feeling of being capable, and I look back on it as the very first time I truly asserted my growing independence. When camp ended and my delegation returned to Manila, I boarded a plane to visit family in the States. The flight across the Atlantic was a cinch compared to the long haul over the Pacific.
The real test of my independence came many years later in the form of an Argentinean sojourn, an idea I owe to my friend Bill (who, incidentally, also introduced me to the man I eventually married—I’m forever in his debt). The dot com bubble had just started to burst and I found myself laid off from a job that I hated. I knew I was just biding time before applying to grad programs, and I really didn’t want to get another desk job. Frankly, I had a case of the blues. Apart from feeling beaten down by meaningless work, I was also drained from a bad breakup. Bill—a consummate interlocutor—listened patiently to my complaints, took a breath, and looked me straight in the eye. —What do you want to do?
What do I want to do? I don’t think anyone has posed a question to me quite so significantly before or ever since. Looking back on our conversation, I’m struck by how easily I blurted out an answer. —Travel to Buenos Aires. I said this with a conviction founded only on the fact that Argentina had a very rich literary tradition, and the perception that Buenos Aires would be South America’s answer to New York: a port city that owed its cosmopolitanism to successive waves of immigrants (which, unfortunately, ended up being a grave misconception).
Ultimately, my bad times in Buenos Aires are of little consequence. What matters is that Bill led me to see that a seemingly outlandish idea will begin to solidify as soon as you take concrete steps toward realizing it. It turned out that he had a friend who had recently made a move from NYC to BsAs. He put me in touch with her over email and she gave me the address of a reputable boarding house. Once I knew I had a plan for lodging, I applied for a visa and bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Then I began wrapping up my life in New York. It was easy in my early twenties: I didn’t have much in the way of household items. Apart from my futon, the furniture I did have had been scavenged. My upstairs neighbors were happy to take my desk and chest of drawers. I let go of my sublet and moved the rest of my things (books, CDs, my computer, and clothes) into my mom’s place. Right before leaving, I called my undergraduate advisor, who was happy to pass on the contact information of professors he knew in the University of Buenos Aires so I could immerse myself once more in an academic environment.
It’s amazing how quickly you can set up a new life for yourself in another country. When I got out of the airport, I hopped into a gypsy cab that took me to the boarding house. I immediately called Bill’s friend Carlyn, who invited me out to dinner and gave me practical tips on where to shop for groceries and how to navigate the public transportation systems. In the days ahead I met with professors who welcomed me to sit in on their courses as an auditor, and I started taking long walks around the city to get my bearings. Pretty soon, I was hanging out with Carlyn’s friends and making new ones at the boarding house and the university. I even got several gigs teaching English with different language schools. On days when I didn’t teach or attend classes, I’d head to one of the city’s many green spaces or museums. I especially enjoyed the free classical music concerts at the Museo de Bellas Artes.
It was, in short, a full life. And although I didn’t stay a whole year as planned, I returned to New York with a sense of empowerment: I was a woman who could make a life for herself on her own, with scant resources, in a foreign country.
About a year later, right after my first two semesters of grad school, I traveled to Brazil on a summer grant for language study. (When I say that I didn’t know a word of Portuguese, I mean I literally did not know the words for yes and no.) In some ways my Brazil experience was significantly more structured than my life in Argentina: I stayed with a host family for my first six weeks in Belo Horizonte and I attended language classes in UFMG. I also had a built-in social life with other students from the States attending the same program.
In other ways, though, this trip was a much more carefree adventure. Part of the reason that Buenos Aires got to be such a drag was that I ended up over-scheduling myself and replicating a lot of what I disliked about my New York life (i.e., not having enough free time to soak in the cultural offerings of the city). It’s so cliché, but in Brazil life really is beautiful. The people are friendly, there’s live music and dancing everywhere, and it’s easy to fall into sweet, fleeting romances. When the program ended, a bunch of us decided to take a few more weeks to explore more of the country, but we traveled at our individual whims, often together, but sometimes apart. If Argentina had turned me into more of an adult, Brazil reminded me to seize the pleasures of youth before I buckled down in my career.
Travel reveals the self
Traveling around and living abroad revealed to me new and surprising aspects of myself: whom and what I missed about life back in New York, the particular way in which I felt very American, and an urgency to make connections solid enough that someone would notice should something happen to me. Most importantly I discovered that I was capable, adjustable, and (who knew?) sociable and adventurous. After my trips to South America I was brimming with confidence, filled with the certainty that I could make a good life for myself anywhere I went. Living and traveling abroad showed me that I was resourceful and self-reliant, traits that are so very important to cultivate in our girls. (We don’t, I believe, instinctively push them toward independence early on they way we do our boys.) If I had a daughter, I’d do the same as my mother: encourage her to see the world on her own because I believe she can.