When I returned from London in December, I was unwell and sure I would not travel again. Yet here I am on a plane somewhere, perhaps over Florida, on my way to Costa Rica. Last year Roy and I had been planning this trip when it became suddenly apparent that I was too sick to go anywhere. We’d never taken a real vacation together before – nothing more than a weekend in Toronto or Ottawa. So I felt this was something we should do if I had the chance. And with him on reading week at the university and me on my week’s chemo break and relatively well, this was the chance, perhaps the last one.
I’m ambivalent, though, about traveling. I always have been. I’m a rooted sort of person, so something always feels wrong to me about flying around the globe. My parents and siblings are the opposite: there are often times when I’m the only one in the city where we all six still live, at least part time, them off on all continents for business or pleasure. Usually I couldn’t even say where each of them is. My older son Oliver is like me. However, he too is away now on a holiday with his father and family, probably somewhat ill at ease to be so far away from his daily life. While given a choice I usually prefer to be home, I do make sure I fully embrace and enjoy my travel experiences.
I don’t believe, for myself at least, that traveling is necessary to personal growth or to understanding the world we live in. (I think literature, movies, culture in all forms, and even now social media can do an adequate job of making us citizens of the world.) That said, much depends on how one travels. Embarking on an organized tour that trots one about like a herd of sheep isn’t going to give anyone much exposure to the way people really live anywhere. Nor will staying at an all-inclusive resort (relaxing as it might be) do anything to reveal a people’s culture. Traveling alone and actually meeting local people or staying and working in a place for an extended period of time can be worthwhile, I think. (I won’t say much about volunteer tourism, except that it is far better in many instances to simply donate the travel costs to the cause.)
The fortunate thing is that I now know how to be happy wherever I am, so I will be delighted with my new surroundings and thrilled with the water, the profuse vegetation, and hopefully some wildlife. I might even see monkeys! The biodiversity in this area is supposed to be among the most abundant on the globe, so witnessing that will be a special privilege. It will be green and beautiful, and I will be in bliss!
Much of my own ambivalence, now and in the past, comes from the fact that I don’t want to leave my happy life at home. This week I felt no need for escape or respite. I was content and comfortable, excited about my writing and knitting projects, enjoying my visits with Nathan and others. Usually Montrealers are desperate to get away from winter by mid-February, but because I have been on sick leave and able to just stay in when the weather is horrible, this winter, long as it has already been, hasn’t bothered me much. Besides, I love winter – though a few recent hard ones had me decided that a short break at my age might be a good idea: being cold all the time does get tiresome. But the medication I have been on recently keeps my metabolism so revved up that I’m never even chilled. Nevertheless, here I am on my way to the rainforest at the edge of a hot, sunny beach on the Pacific!
We’re staying at a sustainable eco-resort and will make sure to pay our carbon offset as well (Costa Rica has a program for this: http://www.fonafifo.go.cr/). One of my primary concerns with travel is its environmental toll. The strain of tourism development, while ardently sought by many local economies, is often terribly destructive to local ecologies. (This particular resort takes many measures to minimise harm and has been recognised by National Geographic for its sustainability efforts.) Flying is especially devastating to the planet, so I always feel guilty about it. In fact, until this past year, I did my best to avoid flying and other forms of travel. I have never flown so much as in the past six months! But I try to forgive myself, knowing I soon won’t be making any demands on the earth except to decompose my body.
But then travel still makes me feel guilty for the excess of privilege that even makes it possible. Every person on this plane is white. Every one is far enough away from poverty to indulge in this luxury of a warm week away. It is a stark illustration of global inequity.
So why am I here in this plane? The day before leaving is always the worst for me. I get anxious about packing and preparing. This time was especially bad as I worried about forgetting needed medications when we will be hours from any hospital. So my mood was not the best, and I started to feel that I was taking this trip not just with guilt but out of guilt. Guilt that Roy and I had never taken a vacation together, never been somewhere warm to relax and indulge in the simple pleasures of sunshine and water. I know he has been tired, that winter wears him down. That work wears him down. That he always needs more self-care. But guilt is a terrible reason to do anything. Probably one of the worst. And certainly not the way to enjoy a trip.
So I had to figure out a way to not feel guilty or this trip would be a failure. Instead of doing this despite my own ambivalence, I had to make this something I wanted to do. And what I want to do is give Roy this gift. A gift of time together. Time away from the harshness of winter. Time away from the concerns of his job, of my illness and treatment. Time away from the challenges of parenting two teenaged boys. Time away from figuring out what to do for supper. I want to offer him time instead with a warm breeze from the sea caressing his face, time floating in warm water so the weight of all troubles falls away. Time with all our needs taken care of by others. Time together to fill him with love and affection to recall in the time ahead when I won’t be by his side. Time before there is no time left.
Of course, that time doesn’t have to be in Costa Rica at a luxurious resort. But my mother also wanted to give us this gift. Allowing someone the gift of giving means being willing to receive. So now we have a chain of gifts, each bringing joy to the giver and to the receiver. This gift is beautiful, as is the giving, and I am enormously grateful for receiving it. So I thank my mother for her gift, and I thank Roy both for receiving it and for sharing it with me.
So now I am happy to be here on this plane. Though this trip is an extreme luxury, it is a gift that Roy will cherish and remember, that brings me great pleasure rather than guilt, and that will bring my mother joy in knowing she has made our joy possible. And I will delight in every moment in our lovely, secluded “casita” watching the sun sparkle on the sea, surrounded by the magnificent jungle and its marvels of nature. The further we fly, the further I leave all those guilts behind.