Sunday, September 2, 2012

Journeys Without Encores


     One of the advantages of being assigned to a European post is the vast opportunity it offers for traveling.   This is especially true if you are posted to a European country that belongs to the so-called Schengen zone – a group of European countries that have agreed, among other things, to do away with visa requirements as far as the cross-border travels of their citizens are concerned.   In the case of those assigned to Italy, for instance, possession of the carta d’identita (identity card) issued by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is enough, if you wish to travel to other Schengen countries such as France, Spain or The Netherlands.   You no longer need to apply for a visa to enter these countries.  Showing your carta d’identita to their border police or their immigration officers would suffice.  

     Not only that, low-budget airlines offer airfares that are so cheap, traveling from Italy to Spain or France can actually cost less than treating a couple of friends to dinner at a typical Italian restaurant.

     Yet, while in Rome, one does not even have to look beyond the borders of Italy to satisfy one’s desire to travel and see new places.  Every Italian region (nay, every province within a region) has something unique to offer;  it deserves to be visited at least once.

     Aware that my term in Italy would not last forever (the normal length of a foreign assignment being six years) and that it might take a while before I get assigned again to a European country, I tried my best to avail of every opportunity to travel both inside and outside Italy during my sojourn there.  I took the chance to visit Paris, Cannes, Nice, Monaco, Lourdes, Barcelona, Montserrat, Madrid, Amsterdam, Geneva, London, Athens, Milan, Turin, Venice, Verona, Padova, Pisa, Cremona, Florence, Naples, Taranto, Sorrento, Pompeii, Palermo, Reggio di Calabria,  and a number of other Italian destinations, thanks to the ease and economy of traveling while in Europe. 

     It is often said that traveling broadens one’s horizons.  Indeed, being exposed to ways of thinking and living which differ from one’s own expands the range of one’s perspectives.   As a result, one becomes more flexible in one’s views and more tolerant of other people’s divergent opinions and beliefs.   No wonder, a lot of people claim that traveling is a form of education.  In fact, many people suggest that traveling should complement one’s formal education, for there are certain things that one will learn from traveling which one will never learn within the four walls of a classroom.

     My own limited experience in traveling has certainly pushed back the frontiers of my understanding in no small way.   But it has done one other important thing besides.  

     I have noticed that every time I travel to a place which I feel I may never have the chance to visit again,  I literally make every effort to ensure that it is going to be a most enjoyable and unforgettable journey.   Days before I actually take the plane or the train for my intended destination, I try to read every literature I can get hold of regarding the place I am going to see.   I try to learn about its history, its culture, its current economic, political, social and religious conditions.   I even try to learn a little of its language within the limited time I have before the actual journey.   Aside from the obvious practical advantages of knowing how to say “Where is the washroom?” or “How do I find my way back to the train station?”  a little knowledge of a people’s language will enable one to view the world through their eyes, so to speak.

     Moreover, as soon as I board the plane or the train, all my senses become more attuned to their surroundings than they would normally be.  It is as if my eyes, my ears, my nose, and even my mouth and skin would like to absorb every particle of the journey I am undertaking.   I notice sights, sounds, smells, and tastes I would have been oblivious to, had I encountered them along the roads of my everyday life.

     Finally, in my desire to make the most of the journey, I would not, if I could help it, allow anything to spoil the fun.  Snags and glitches that would have disturbed my balance under normal circumstances become petty and forgettable while I’m on the road.   I would not permit such “small problems” to ruin my trip.   I always remind myself:  I may never get the chance to undertake this journey again.  I want to be able to remember this moment, many years from now, with a smile on my face and the sound of laughter in my heart.

     The metaphor of life as a journey has been used for so long, it has become hopelessly trite for a lot of people.   Yet my travels have taught me that, hackneyed as it may be, the metaphor remains a good one; and it is worth keeping the image in mind as we undertake this “journey without an encore” – this “trip” we will surely not have the chance to take again after our time on earth is done.  I am, of course, speaking of the life you and I have been granted the privilege to live for a given number of years.

     We only live once, and we will not live forever.   Yet how often do many of us live as if life were a reel of tape we could rewind and fast-forward at will?   We often take the hours and days of our life for granted.  And we throw away the joy of the present moment by wasting our time regretting our past mistakes and worrying about the future.  Before we know it, our chance to journey through life is over.  And we realize with sadness that we have barely enjoyed the trip.

     Not so long ago, I came upon the following poem attributed to a fifth century Indian poet and playwright named Kalidasa:

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities
and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every
yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

     If we’ve forgotten how to relish the irretrievable moments of our journey through life, it’s never too late to relearn it.