The Explorer Gene

I got the explorer gene, so when I was eight or nine and my mother packed me and my brothers on a train bound from Washington D.C. to Washington State to live on my Uncle Frank’s farm, I spent most of the three-day trip staring out the window wide-eyed without a worry about how we would transition from an inner-city hood to Old McDonald’s farm, or the life we were leaving behind. Looking back, it was the first time I felt the incredible rush of excitement from being someplace one day and someplace entirely different the next.

Seeking that rush again as a young adult, I backtracked to my birthplace, hyper-pace Washington D.C., for college, and switched that up the next year with a semester on exchange in laid-back Palo Alto, California, and chose exotic and far, far away Dongducheon, Korea—a tiny rural province forty miles north of Seoul—as my first Army duty station. There wasn’t a run on people itching to go, so I got it, no problem, and it was one of the best years of my life.

There’s no place like home, but maybe the lure of travel revolves around stepping out of my comfort zone, breaking up monotony, and making home wherever I am. My brother Sonny, who says I have a universal spirit, caught a hop from Japan to Korea to visit me, and bah humbugging my affinity for kimchi (a garlicky, pickled cabbage that I fell in love with, but was also probably pungent enough to ward off vampires)—took two steps back after hugging me, crinkled his nose and grumbled that next I’d be speaking Korean. Unfortunately, I really only mastered five words—hello, goodbye, please, thank you and, the all-important, “kimchi.”

No doubt my super adaptive, super curious, I’ll-try-almost-anything-once nature makes it easier for me to go native, which what I did in Korea, renting an off-base apartment and relentlessly exploring the sights, sounds and tastes whenever I wasn’t, you know, in fatigues defending the country.  I was a regular at bustling markets, haggling both for bargains and fun, chowing down on unrecognizable street food while unrecognizable music blared in my ears, and squeezing onto sardine-packed buses with locals to get where I wanted to go too.

As a soldier, I also had a taste of South Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, soaking up cultural and social nuances by befriending residents and seeing the sites DIY-style.

As a civilian, beautiful, evergreen Washington is home, although I’ve touched down in a lot of the United States, quite a bit of the Caribbean, as well as Mexico and Egypt.

Every eighteen months or so, I book a flight and hotel and wing most of my itinerary because the best stuff usually happens on the fly, wrapped in serendipity and serendipity is everything to me.

The one wish I make before every trip is to see something wonderfully unexpected. Like when I went hiking one day in Dongducheon, I got to the mountaintop and there, in progress, was a small wedding ceremony. I kept my distance, but watched with wonder as the luxuriously dressed couple took their vows sandwiched between birds wrapped in bright silk cloths and a backdrop of fancy tables brimming with Korean dishes, one of which smelled a lot like kimchi.

I’m grateful for unexpectedly cool connections too. Like the dimply little Egyptian ‘tween’ girl I bumped into at the Citadel in Cairo who knew more about American pop culture than I ever will and also had a better sense of direction since she helped me find my way back to my tour bus; the quirky Aussie woman—a sister purple lover—who  joined me for tea and chit-chat at Heathrow airport, me on my way back from Egypt, she on her way back from Johannesburg; and the nice, goofy millionaire in Negril who treated me to an amazing candlelit dinner on the beach.

Since vacations don’t grow on trees, in between trips, I save and armchair travel through episodes of The Amazing Race, the Travel channel and foreign movies. I favor Indian, Asian and Mediterranean food. I have friends with accents and passports and I flip through every last one of their vacation photos.

On some level, every place I’ve ever been is a part of me and the memories kind of roll together sometimes. On my drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon one spring, snow flakes started to fall, and I was suddenly transported back to my first snowfall in Dongducheon. When I saw the sunset over the Sphinx with the beautifully haunting speaker-call to prayer, I thought about the sunset in Grenada from the deck of a house high on the hills with steel drums playing in the distance. A bonfire on a local beach can transport me to one that has warmed me in Cabos or Trinidad, and I bet when I finally get to Provence, France, I will think of all the Julys I wandered through the lavender fields in Sequim, Washington. And so on and so on I imagine it will go as I continue to heed the call of my inner explorer.

To travel,

N. Shami

One thought on “The Explorer Gene

  1. Yes, yes and yes! Just back from the Grand Canyon — where the ever-shifting light reminded me of the Arctic and the red rock “temples” of stone reminded me of some Mayan temples I’d seen in Mexico.

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