I’m home, unpacked, laundry done, and my own towel drying in my own bathroom after a long hot shower. Home sweet home, indeed.
Traveling is a privilege, gives one an eye-popping look at the world, and is utterly exhausting. What train do we take? Is there a train? Is there a metro to this stop? How far do I need to lug this suitcase? How long does it take to get there? What did he just say to me? And how can I piece together what words I know in this language to get my questions answered?
In another country, the wheels of the mind whirr and crank, sometimes befuddled by simple things — how does this toilet flush? — and sometimes simply captivated by the beauty of a new and unexpected landscape.
One of my good friends says, “Travel keeps you young.” Yes, though I wonder if it’s balanced out by the stress and strain. Have I aged by being in alert travel-mode or have I gained a few months time by walking so much and filling my head with new information?
Well, some questions have no answers. What is certain is that the world is a grand place of diverse human experimentation on how to live, what to eat, and how to think. A few observations on my weeks away.
If I put aside, for the moment, the amazing landscapes I experienced — from the barren rocky slopes of Cephalonia and the stunningly-blue Ionian, to the canals of Venice — my most notable moments were in conversation with people I met along the way.
There is nothing more enlightening than finding out what other people think is going on in the world. One memorable encounter was with a gentleman from Cape Town, South Africa, a distinguished fellow about my age who was in the foreign service and, therefore, had traveled the globe widely. Since we met in Greece, we spoke mostly about the immigration situation which is the biggest problem facing Europe today.
Both Syrian and African peoples are finding desperate ways to travel to Europe by paying exorbitant fees to traffickers who, for example, boat them the relatively short distance from Turkey to the Greek islands in the Aegean. Just today another seventeen refugees died locked in the hold of a small boat that capsized. It’s only one of thousands of incidents in which people with aspirations like yours and mine are attempting to better their circumstances. The difference is that our risks pale in the face of what they are undertaking — drowning, asphyxiation, hypothermia, dehydration and starvation — all to live in a place that is domestically safe, gives them the opportunity to work, raise their children and deal with the simple pleasures and annoyances of life. The alternative for them is unpredictable violence, ruthless and corrupt governments and carnage. Syria is mostly destroyed.
Regarding the immigration crisis, this well-informed traveler feels strongly that we in America have not done enough to stabilize the situation in Syria. He put his finger on the root of the problem, or, really only one root, as there are so many places in the world where unstable governments and terrorist activities are forcing the people to flee.
We argued a bit about this. Why is it America’s responsibility to be our brothers’ keeper all around the globe? Is it our wealth, power and reach that carries this burden? Obama’s decision to take in 120,000 immigrants is admirable, but it’s a drop in an ocean of suffering. France and the US have finally agreed to limited military intervention in Syria; but can we continue to solve our global problems by military means? We have centuries of proof that it doesn’t work.
Here’s what I brought home with me — 1) a more comprehensive understanding about the current immigrant crises, and 2) incomplete understanding about strategies for solution. We are at the beginning of process of being one people on the earth. It’s an exciting and challenging time to be alive. And easy answers are illusive.
The same goes I’m afraid for the environment. There was lots of talk about global climate change everywhere I went. In Greece this summer temperatures reached 117 degrees in June and July.
At the Venice Biennale International Film Festival, I met up with a film crew promoting a documentary about a tiny Italian island in the Sicilian Channel off the coast of Africa. Pantelleria has a unique and fragile ecosystem. Its volcanic geology gives an unprecedented view into the early origins of the earth.
Because of its remoteness, agricultural and fisheries practices have evolved in unusual ways that have been basically unchanged for centuries; and the types of fauna and flora on the island are unique. These conditions have created, among other things, a rich environmental and cultural heritage of people relying on the land and sea. Their challenges eerily echo our own. For us, encroaching LNG terminals, toxins in the water, spoils dumping, loss of fisheries habitat, invasive species, sea level rise.
Though their island is remote, its geology has now come to the attention of commercial forces. There is probably oil to be had if drilling rigs are allowed, but even the smallest rig problem, leak or accident, could cause irreparable damage there very quickly. In terms of its agriculture — capers and olives — there is no possibility for mechanical means of harvest; everything is sown and picked by hand. And their fishermen still harvest offshore in small vessels. How can they complete with the forces of global economy?
Balancing out this human strife, I came away from my travels with countless images of earthly beauty. Myrtos beach is a place where the chalking cliffs have fallen away and been ground by wave action into rounded egg-like stones gleaming in the sun. They are eventually pulverized into a fine white sand which reflects up through the Ionian Sea creating undulations of liquid turquoise.
The reflection on the walls of Venetian villas, ripples of light off the Grand Canal on pink and apricot stucco, is nearly too delicious to describe. I was stopped in my tracks several times, tears in my eyes. Such splendor sensitized me to the beauties we have in our own backyard. I came back alive with ideas and grateful to live where our liberties are intact and our wild landscape is still breathtaking.
In terms of cultural learnings, my Cape Town acquaintance put it well when he said, “For Europeans, everything is impossible until it’s proven to be possible. In American, everything is possible until it’s proven to be impossible.” I’m glad to be home in my can-do country.