Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: A Sense of Place

I've been thinking a lot about how my sense of place affects me when I travel. When I first arrived in Niamey, Niger, for a few moments, my physical surroundings overwhelmed me. I found myself searching for something familiar-anything similar to something I knew.

Within a short period of time, I found it. I noticed that the buildings had a similar shape and construction to many buildings in the Philippines (where I once lived). Most of the buildings had a cube-shaped, low profile and were made of blocks. In the Philippines, many buildings have a similar shape and are made out of cinder blocks.

We also passed several piles of burning trash along the road. As that smoldering smell reached my nose, I felt myself relax a little more. I know that may sound weird, but to anyone who's lived or traveled in the developing world, roadside piles of burning trash are commonplace. I had lived in the Philippines long enough to make that landscape my own, so while I hated the burning trash when I first arrived in the Philippines, it had become weirdly comforting- a reminder of my second home.

Erg Zhigaga, Morocco

Certainly places that inspire awe in us can make us feel somehow more calm. But not all beautiful scenes do that for me. The giant rolling dunes of the Sahara are certainly beautiful. I know our friend who grew up there feels serene in the desert. But for me, as much as I enjoyed the beauty, I never felt the sense of serenity that I feel in landscapes that are more similar to the one where I grew up.

After leaving those giant sand dunes of Morocco, we headed toward the coast. About 30 minutes before we reached the shore I looked at my husband and said, "Ocean! Did you feel that?" We could literally feel the moisture in the air and knew the ocean wasn't far. Until that moment, I didn't even realize I had that ability.

When we eventually reached Essaouria, I instantly loved the place. I mean, I really loved it. And what made me love it? For starters, the ocean runs right up against the town, just steps from our hotel. The town, which is known for it's blue doors, also employs a major fishing fleet. You can watch them come in at sunset every night.

For someone who grew up in New Bedford Massachusetts, a city that hosts one of the largest fishing fleets in our country, that's a familiar scene. The circles of gulls overhead waiting for scraps. The slightly unpleasant odor of fish being off-loaded or cleaned. While I might call parts of that unpleasant, they're also comfortable and familiar.

Hyderabad, India
But here's what I've also learned. My most transformative travel experiences are those that happened in places where I felt the most uncomfortable, or downright uneasy. I was overwhelmed when I first arrived in the Philippines. I was living in the city of Cebu. I had grown up in the country surrounded by trees and farmland and lakes. But that experience was easily the most transformative of my life.  The city of Hyderabad, India completely overwhelmed me, too. Yet I can barely put into words all that I learned and gained from that one short trip.

For me, overcoming the barriers of culture and language are not as difficult as overcoming my own internal discomfort in places that are so physically different from where I grew up.

How about you and your kids? What kinds of travel are most transformative for you?

You Might Also Like:
Travel Tuesdays: Morocco
Travel Tuesdays: Awakening in a Strange Place
Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor
Travel Tuesdays: India

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