When the world is a monster, tame it with details.

The World Is Enough
By Elizabeth Cutright

Slipping through the Spanish countryside on one of Spain’s speedy and modern trains headed to Toledo, I was so happy that I’d looked sleep deprivation bravely in the face and said, “you will not defeat me!”  At about 4am in the morning, it looked like I wasn’t going to make it.  After a prompt “lights out” around 11:30pm, I tossed and turned for hours until I finally gave in to jet-lagged insomnia.  I turned on the ipod, logged into the hotel’s wifi, and spent the early morning hours reading Facebook updates and and catching up on email.  At 8am the situation was grim – gritty eyes, aching muscles and cloudy thoughts made dressing seem impossible.  Putting on shoes and navigating my way to the train station?  Inconceivable.  It could not be done.

It would be done!

My growing distaste for Madrid propelled my out of bed – I needed to get the hell out of Dodge!  The night before I’d been confronted by an endless parade of unfriendly faces and condescending service as I tried, in vain, to find a nice place for dinner.  Everywhere I went, I was ignored or told in slow, halting tones – that implied I was a child or an imbecile – that no tables were available, or dinner was not being served or simply, “estamos cerrados.”

On the street, rushing bodies tumbled me across the sidewalk, crashing into my shoulder and elbowing me into corners without nary a nod or glance, let alone a “sorry” or “excuse me.”  Obviously, this small town girl needs to toughen up.  In the end I grabbed a pita sandwich at Maoz, a national chain that serves fries and hummus to the masses.  I ate at the counter and watched the “Madrid-ians” hustle into the night.

So I had high hopes for Toledo – surely the people would be nicer.  Well…you know what Buddha says about expectations. I stepped off the sleek train and onto Toledo’s dusty, empty streets, and knew right away we were off to a rocky start.  Under cloudy skies that threatened rain, the impressive views from this medieval fortress flattened out – still and stagnant under a muted sun.

After panting up several flights of stairs, I ducked into a nondescript church for a taste of sightseeing (who knows which one, there are several).  The attendant – a noncommunicative, stern looking fellow – shoved a map in my hands and pointed to the entryway with a huff and a growl.  I wandered in and out of empty pathways and chapel alcoves….unsure of what I was seeing (my map was in french) and feeling more than a little desolate – would my entire adventure be marred by unfriendly natives at every turn?  It was hard not to take the surliness personally…was it my obvious “Americanness” that rubbed them the wrong way?  Could my Spanish (learned literally at my grandmother’s knee and spoken as often as English in my bilingual household) really be that rusty?  If I were young and stylish and French like the gaggle of school girls  next to me on the train, would I be getting better treatment?

And here lies one of the biggest pitfalls of traveling – particularly when you are on your own.  Buddha warns that the root of all human misery lies in unrealistic expectation.   Of course,when we plan a trip or adventure abroad – we expect the best (if we anticipated days of misery and melancholy, we’d never get on the plane!) – and the disconnect between what we imagined happening and the reality of what we’re experiencing can lead to doubt, selfpity and sabotage.  If you’re alone, it can be even more difficult to rise above the situation – without a partner in crime to back you up or offer up a more positive interpretation of events and interactions, you’re left wondering if things really are as bleak as they seem.

But – more often than not – the fates will conspire in your favor and (in the words of my best friend Tracey and all the sages that came before), it’ll all turn out…IF you’re open enough to let in all the quirkiness and wonder that exists in the world beyond your front porch.

But the first trick is to face your fears – are you a stranger in a strange land?  Probably?  Will you end up like Port from The Sheltering Sky (dying of of typhoid in french foreign legion fort in the middle of the desert) …or quivering in a jail cell….or abandoned on a roadside with no money and no passport and no way home?

Maybe…but it’s unlikely (and think of the story you’d have to tell once you survived and lived to tell it – it could lead to a book deal, a talk show circuit, a movie with the your favorite Hollywood star in the lead role as brave and indefatigueable you!…But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…)

Here’s what I do when I’m on my own and it all feels so unfriendly, and everyone is cold and gruff and all I really, really, want to do is escape back to my hotel room and hide under the covers – I take a deep breath, pull out a pen, and document the moment…all of it.  I write down my sneaking suspicion that the hotel clerk and the taxi driver are plotting against me.  I detail how small and insignificant I felt when the cashier looked down her nose at me, judging and dismissing in one haughty gaze.  And then I look a little closer at my surroundings. I start to focus on the details, and suddenly the sun will pop out from behind the clouds and I’ll see all the funny, endearing, strange and wonderful moments that are percolating all around me.

In Toledo, I escaped the drafty church and it’s sullen keeper, and teetered over cobblestone streets until I found a quiet, out of the way café.  Sitting at an outdoor table, pen in hand and glass of wine at the ready, I looked and I listened…and Toledo came alive.  Children ran up the street, chasing a ball and looking for all the world as if they’d stepped out of some post-war Fellini film.  An accordion – I kid you not – began to play in the distance, wafting up the town’s crooked streets until the player himself emerged in the courtyard, tuning lustily under the dappled sky.

Taking it all in, I realized this is why I do it – why I hop on planes by myself and wander out into the traffic of the world.  Is it enough just to see something different? Taste something new?  Hearing a different language tripping off tongues?  Yes…yes…yes…it is enough.  It’s more than enough!

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