"What's the point?" they wanted to know.
So what could we say? That there were few pleasures to compete with the thrill of wandering unfamiliar streets, of discovering villages and towns unlike any back home, of meeting people who looked, dressed, spoke, and believed differently than we did? Or was it that traveling gave us a better perspective, that as we engaged with the world we came to understand that our way wasn't the only way or even the best way? Or, as Hercule Poirot might have said, maybe it was that traveling stretched the little gray cells in our brains?
About the time I turned twelve, a package came for me in the mail. My Uncle Douglas, who'd spent his adult life traveling around the world, had sent me his collection of matchbooks he'd picked up along the way. They were different from the free ones my father got in bars and markets. Often oversized and brightly colored, they advertised restaurants and hotels in Europe, South America, and the Far East. Sometimes, the matches themselves were colored to make pictures: a peacock flaunting an open tail, a palm-bordered Spanish hotel, a curving bay framed by the sands of a golden beach. Worlds still beyond my grasp, but not my imagination. I covered the walls of my bedroom with huge maps of the world that I drew and colored on great sheets of butcher paper and then penned in the magical name of each foreign place.
My uncle's matchbooks disappeared years ago, but long after, as Sherrill and I traveled, I saved some that I picked up, usually not as nice as his, but colorful and full of memories for us.
Although we didn't know each other yet, Sherrill and I both were aware as kids that some people were lucky enough to fly around the world on airplanes and travel the seas on ships. We both grew up curious, wondering about this planet on which we lived. Our parents taught us, unintentionally no doubt, that although each of us was the hero of his or her own story, we were supporting players in everyone else's. Somehow, we each figured out that most people, including our parents, were just muddling along, trying to survive and be comfortable.
"Is this all there is?" we asked. We both craved something more than that.
Maybe some people in the world used funny toilets, ate with their fingers, dressed in their own way, had different ideas about where humanity came from and where it was going, but was that reason to fear or hate them? Or for them to fear or hate us? Sherrill and I soon realized that we shared this urge to get out there and meet these people and see where and how they lived. We traveled because every new experience raised questions, because every answer also was a question in disguise. It was harder, we learned, to be closed-minded if we'd met, eaten with, and talked with people who had grown up with different traditions and viewpoints than our own. We liked that.
The middle-aged woman showing us around Kaliningrad shuffled gloomily from site to site, giving us the official explanations. Whenever we showed interest or asked questions, she perked up a little. I had just finished reading a paperback edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic about the Siberian prison camps of the USSR, The Gulag Archipelago.
"Give the book to her," Sherrill whispered to me. I looked at Sherrill and she nodded. "Do it."
As Sherrill and I were saying goodbye, I put the dog-eared book into the guide's hand.
"For you," I said.
"For me?" she cried, clutching the volume, then lowering it discreetly. "Oh my! Solzhenitsyn! For me!"
All works by Solzhenitsyn were forbidden in the Soviet Union, but I hadn't expected such an emotional response—and for an English translation, at that. Almost in tears, the woman hugged us as we boarded the boat that would carry us away. I can still see her, in that shapeless patterned dress, long gray sweater, and down-at-the-heel shoes, holding that hefty paperback as if it were a gilded box filled with rare treasure.
"I'll do it," Sherrill told me.
I gave her my manuscript and she did retype the entire book. That was when I realized that she really was interested in me. (Fortunately, that novel was never published, but writing it was a turning point for us in several ways.)
"Aren't you afraid to go to those places?" friends asked us.
The truth was that we never were, not while we were there, only afterwards, for our friends and for the treasures being so thoughtlessly destroyed. In fact, our list of places that we wanted to visit kept growing, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of opportunities. Although we didn't get to all of them, we didn't do too badly during those five decades.
To be continued....