I love traveling. And I hate traveling. I hate packing, leaving a place without knowing whether I’ll ever see it again, and I hate that feeling of sudden emptiness right after a goodbye. I also hate going through airport security. I’m pretty sure they change the rules every time I fly and deliberately schedule the snarkiest employees for the graveyard shifts. But it is truly the dark before the dawn if you travel like I do. I feel like I have learned a lot about traveling in the past few years, and I’ve gotten it down to a science. First, travel light. Travel lighter than you even think you should, travel so light people will make fun of you, and then travel lighter. You don’t need a different outfit for every day. You don’t need more than one pair of shoes, and your personal hygiene kit should fit inside a regulation quart-sized plastic bag. It’s best to go without checked baggage entirely: you don’t run the risk of the airlines losing your things, you zip through check-in and security, and you don’t have to wait around for baggage claim when you arrive. Plus, if you’re a student or a person with middle-of-the-road income, you’re probably going to be using public transportation at some point and you do not want to be lugging large suitcases on and off city buses and trains, especially if you don’t know the area. Trust me. So how long is too long of a vacation to go with a single bag? Three or four weeks. If you have a vacation longer than that you’re probably wealthy enough to have someone deal with your bags for you anyway.
Second, take the earliest flight you can get, even if you have to spend the night in the airport. Airport overnights are great opportunities for people-watching and general philosophizing—you never feel quite as alone with yourself as 3am in an airport. It’s a great time to just sit and think, read, have a coffee. You can’t be expected to get any work done, and no one’s around to judge you on your reading material or whether you choose to play games on your tablet instead. It’s a special sense of freedom, a time that is completely removed from the day-to-day realities of life. You can do anything, you can be anyone. You can go anywhere. I think that’s what draws me to this time–the knowledge that at any moment I could board a plane to anywhere in the world, and no one would know me. I could be anyone I want. Sitting there alone at the junction of so many different worlds, you realize who you are. It’s what’s left after you subtract out who you would be, if you traveled to everywhere else in the world. And you leave the airport with a sense of purpose and self. Once you’re through security, grab a coffee and treat yourself to something with a lot of calories. Nothing tastes sweeter than a stale cinnamon bun and some burnt coffee at 6am.
I have a philosophy about bad coffee, by the way. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely a coffee connoisseur. I know that I like my crema thick and my Columbia with floral notes, and I take all coffee strictly without sugar. But for making memories I love really bad diner coffee, the kind that you get at those dim, dirty truck stops in the country. It’s so thick and dark you know it’s been sitting there for days and no one’s ever cleaned out the bottom of the pot properly. The steam coming off the cup is acrid and burns your nostrils, and the coffee leaves a curling, ashy aftertaste in the back of your mouth. I love bad coffee because it’s the most honest thing on earth. Bad coffee says living it week to week on quarters and dimes to keep papa’s greasy spoon going because your trucker friends need a pick-me-up in the middle of the night. Bad coffee says you can’t afford a cappuccino machine and wouldn’t know how to make one if you could, because you’ve only ever learned how to do things if you had to, yanking yourself up by your bootstraps to keep going every morning. Bad coffee says you’ve got heavier things on your mind than breakfast beverages. No one ever remembers the very best cup of coffee they’ve had. There are millions of decent coffees and very good coffees in your life, but nothing very interesting ever happens when you’re drinking them—that’s the personality of the decent cup of coffee. It’s the treat-yourself coffee, the relaxing-with-a-book coffee. The brunching-with-friends-in-a-posh-part-of-town coffee. Bad coffee is for all-nighters, red-eye flights, adventures, misadventures, getting lost, treating hangovers. Bad coffee is for travelers.
Once you’ve got your bad coffee and your stale cinnamon bun, find a perch with a window. Somewhere cozy, in a corner where you can see people walk by and watch the runway. There’s a strange existential sort of empowerment that comes from watching the sun rise at the airport. It’s an intimacy of sharing the last hour before night becomes day, the shift in consciousness that comes when the glass turns transparent and the world suddenly reappears, big and terrifying and receptive. This is why it’s so important to travel alone, to really feel the intimacy of being one of one and one of many at the same time. Watch people walk by, wonder where they’re going and where they came from. Fill in their stories in your mind. Are they travelling for business, for a family vacation? Are they afraid of flying? Did they bring chewing gum? Will they have someone waiting when they land? How do they spend their time on the plane? Are they readers, nappers, gamers, daydreamers? Do they hog the armrest? These little stories, however fictional, connect you with the travelers of the world; we all have hopes and fears, we all look forward to new adventures. Our ears all pop, because we’re all only human.
Travel alone frequently. Challenge yourself to take every opportunity. Go somewhere you don’t know the language, you don’t know anyone. Make new friends. Take chances, get lost. Say yes to (almost) everything, even if it seems silly at the time or you’re tired or you’re not in the mood. Just do it. Who you become in these situations will teach you more about yourself than you thought there was to you, and that’s kind of the point of it all, isn’t it?