“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
– Marcel Proust –
Over the summer, I did not travel — I returned.
In June, I flew out of Hawaii and arrived in California, elated to catch up with family and friends I hadn’t seen in months, ready to soak in the city life, and of course, ready to eat burritos. Just the idea of being at the edge of the expansiveness of the continental US was exciting and full of dizzying possibility. I spent a few days running around the Bay Area, visiting new places and favorite places, and seeing as many people as possible.
Less than a week later, I went to Mexico City. I hadn’t been there in four years and I was amazed at how it took no time to readjust, how going back to the Coyoacan neighborhood felt like going home, and how well my feet remembered the streets. I spent my days at murals, museums, markets, archaeological sites, and whatever street taco and torta stands looked the most popular. During afternoon downpours, I ducked into cafes and waited for the rain to subside. Breakfasts and hostel nights were spent talking for hours about any and every topic in the world with a fascinating group of people from all over Mexico.
I barely made it onto my bus to Oaxaca the day I left Mexico City, but once I was in my seat, I was overjoyed with a feeling of returning to an adopted home. When I arrived in Oaxaca, I saw old friends and met friends of friends and made new friends. I marveled at how much the city had changed, yet how much its essence had remained the same. I walked through the colorful streets for hours, wandering into galleries and street art collectives from time to time. I became a regular at the loveliest little cafe which provided the perfect atmosphere for me to finish writing an article and work on my grad school homework, or just have a cappuccino and postre after day of exploring.
As always, I reluctantly left Oaxaca. After an 8 hour layover in Tijuana, I spent another week and a half in California celebrating birthdays and holidays, hiking, exploring, and enjoying the company of family and friends. After about a month away, I returned to Hawaii, refreshed. Before school began again, I spent time with teacher friends and and enjoyed time by the sea, relishing the fleeting days of summer break.
As my break came to a close, it struck me that how although the places where I spent my summer are beautiful, it impossible for me to romanticize them. I see them for what they are: stunning, yet imperfect.
I know how San Francisco and its surroundings provide almost everything you could want from both city and nature, but I know how prohibitively expensive it’s become in the Bay Area and how so many people I know had to move out San Francisco or are clinging onto rent control. I know that as the rents have relentlessly risen, the free-spiritedness and soul of the city have dimmed.
I know Mexico City and Oaxaca are full of art, incredible food, passion for life, and creative and genuine people, but I cannot walk through streets or take a ride through the villages and not notice the extreme disparities. In Oaxaca, I cannot ignore the indigenous children who huddle on the sidewalks asking for money or selling cheap knick-knacks.
I know Hawaii has incredible places that make all of those exaggerated travel writing words seem appropriate. Like, you can literally be awe-inspired when you look down at a smoking, glowing crater of the world’s most active volcano. A glimpse of the northern coastline of Hawaii Island can actually be breathtaking. But Hawaii is not a vacation for me. It’s a place where I work, a place where I’ve been incredibly busy, and a place where on regular basis, I am confronted with the controversial and confusing implications of Hawaii being part of the United States of America.
This is the thing with staying, leaving, and revisiting places. They are familiar, yet you look at them with fresh eyes. If you’re willing to go beyond what you want them to be, you see them as they are. They become much more than guidebook pages, much more than the scenic pictures you post of them. They become much more than their pretty exteriors as you peel away the layers upon layers of complexities below. They are real and complicated and no longer just an idea. There are things about those places that may trouble you more than they did when you first saw them. There are things about those places that you appreciate much more deeply after some time away.
Perhaps it is not a bad thing to stay long enough or visit often enough to go beyond the fleeting oos and ahs and see places for all that they are. Perhaps an honest look at places is what drives people to want to change them for the better, to have their pretty exteriors match all the layers below. Perhaps moving beyond infatuation with places can lead to a more profound, lasting endearment.