“What the hell am I doing?”
I silently berated myself with this thought as I boarded my plane in Dubai bound for Tunis. This wasn’t the first time that this thought had crossed my mind, as I had the joy of a nearly sleepless 9-hour flight from Manila to Dubai. I sat in the aisle seat during that flight, which as we know can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse. Whenever I was about to nod off and enter the blissful embrace of time-warping sleep, ever so hopeful that the next time I opened my eyes, it would be at Dubai, my seatmate would then choose that moment to suddenly decide to go to the bathroom, prying me from the sleep I was about to partake of. I was able to tolerate this as the call of nature is indeed a powerful one, and I would be a hypocrite to admonish someone for something that I myself would be guilty of with if I was in the said person’s shoes.
It was this potent combination of lack of sleep, my mind’s tendency to wander, and the small bladder of my seatmate that kept on making my worried mind ask questions.
“Two months in a country where you don’t even know a single person? Why would you do this Zach, why?”
“Why are you diving head-first into this? You have no idea where you will be sleeping, what you will be doing, or how to speak the language!”
“Why couldn’t you have just gone to Cambodia instead where you will be with people you know and won’t be in a land so foreign and far away from home?”
“Okay big guy, let’s be honest with our self, one of the reasons why you chose Tunisia as the country of your two-month long internship is just because it sounds really cool. Many people haven’t even heard of it, much less been to it. Well I hope getting the reputation of being an adventurer is worth it, you pretentious SOB!”
The list of questions my scumbag of a mind asked went on and on. I was practically tormented during that 9 hour flight. Indeed, travel is harrowing. Everything is taken away from you; nothing is truly yours. At least, not in the same way they are yours at home. When traveling, you have no bed, you have no shower, you have none of your friends, you have no family, no backyard, no car, no video games, nothing. Of course, you can rent and find these during your travels, but they are different from the comfort and security that these things normally provide at home. This sudden dispossession of everything I have in exchange for the uncertainty that is travel is what was gnawing at me incessantly, triggering fantasies of moving my return flight back home to the soonest possible date.
Instead, I stepped on the plane bound for Tunis and thankfully I was able to attain the ever-so-precious gift of time-traveling sleep. I awoke 7 hours later in a completely new world: the Arabic nation of Tunisia in North Africa.
I took a deep breath, forced the negative thoughts into the back of my mind, and looked out the window of my taxiing airplane.
It was raining. I had two prevailing images of Tunisia: one was of a sunny Mediterranean paradise and the other was of sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. My first actual view of Tunisia was neither.
“Well,” I thought to myself. “One of the best parts of travel is having my preconceptions shattered, so I guess now is as good a time to start as ever.”
The airport was small, but I like small airports. There is no need for endless walking and navigation such as in the sprawling airports I have become all too accustomed to. The beauty of small airports is that all you have to do is follow your fellow passengers out of the airplane for 30 seconds, and then you are at the customs checkpoint. As I was lining up, I had the opportunity to observe the people around me.
For the most part, they weren’t in traditional Arabic attire as I thought they would be; some of them didn’t even look Arabic at all. I even checked their passports they were holding to see if they were foreigners such as myself, but they were not. The green shade of their passports indicated that they were indeed Tunisian. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn they were European. Perhaps Italian. Yup, my preconceptions definitely needed to go straight out the window. I remember how many people I’ve met in other countries who assume that Filipinos live in mud huts along rivers in the middle of the jungle. I found myself guilty of the same kind of thinking right now. It was time to stop.
I was able to get through customs quickly and collected my bag from the carousel without any problems; albeit with a long wait. It is my dream that one day, my bag will be the very first one the appear on that horizontal escalator of boredom. If that day actually arrives, I promise to treat everyone reading this blog to lunch! *Opens wallet and carefully sets aside money for 3 lunches*
After getting my bag, I headed towards the exit of the airport.
Now more than ever, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. I knew not a soul out of the 11 million people in Tunisia. I had no assured place to sleep. I knew as much French as a 1-year old baby, and I knew even less Arabic. Hell, I didn’t even know if my stomach could take all the spicy food. I waited for the all-too-familiar lump of anxiety to rise up in my throat, but nothing came. Instead, I felt the bubbling over of excitement.
I realized that the future held an infinite number of possibilities for me. I had no idea what I would be doing in a week, a day, or an hour; I didn’t even know who I would be meeting in a few seconds. But none of that bothered me anymore. I didn’t feel anxious. Instead, a smile shyly crept across my face. Not knowing what was going to happen with my life over the next 2 months caused adrenaline to course through my veins. Adventure was out there, about to slap me right across the face.
That is the nature of travel: being plucked out of your comfort zone and thrust into a situation where you know close to nothing about. Being ripped away from home is truly a traumatic experience, but as the popular quote goes, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what it is built for.” Traveling is when we take that boat out of the harbor and into untested and unfamiliar seas. Being removed from all that you know makes room for new experiences, insights, and wisdom that you never would have been able to attain in the comfort of your home. Traveling can make you see all that is wrong with your country, and at the same time it can make you appreciate all that is great about your country. It can show you parts about yourself that you never even knew existed. Travel can even make you love those you left behind even more. Indeed, travel truly is a beautifully harrowing experience.
I stepped out into the arrivals area, and there waiting for me was a lady with a sign that read, “AIESEC Exchange Participant Zachary Riskin.”
I waved at the lady as I muttered to myself,
“Zach, what the hell are you doing?”