Eight months ago I woke up to a cup of coffee, as usual, and opened an email that informed me that I’d won a dream vacation, which was not so usual, at least in the sense that it was a legitimate email and wasn’t sent by Spam Bot 3000.
For the next four months my girlfriend and I mapped out that dream vacation. Honestly, we were almost in a state of bashful embarrassment about the whole thing; we’d been chosen, 1 out of 20,000 odd entries, to do something most people will only, well, dream of having the opportunity to do. How do you tell colleagues, friends, even family that you won a blank travel check for $10,000, no strings attached (except for the taxes), without sounding like a total schmuck?
Most people are of course happy for you. But when a coworker has two weeks of vacation all year, and can’t afford to go too far from home, I don’t find it especially comfortable breaking the news that I’ll be off to Sri Lanka, then to the Maldives, then to South Africa, and that I’ll see them when I get back in five weeks.
Or when your sister is scrimping and scrounging to save up for a down payment on a condo, so that she can move her family out of her mother-in-law’s house and into their own home, and a long vacation is exactly what she needs but the last thing that she can afford, calling her up and saying “Hey sis, guess what? I won a dream vacation, isn’t that swell?” is awkward at best, no matter how you frame it or tiptoe around it.
Which isn’t to say those four months were filled with guilt, of course.
The magic of possibility was intoxicating; the freedom to spin the globe, close my eyes, and put my finger down on a random spot and actually go there—I used to do this regularly as a starry-eyed kid—was almost overwhelming.
In the end, somewhat randomly, we stretched those contest dollars as far as we could, and booked an open-jaw ticket inbound to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and outbound from Cape Town, South Africa. In between, five weeks of travel that took us to fantastical places we thought we might never see, places where we met the kind of warm-hearted—and, oftentimes, bizarro—people that always help make traveling such a transformational experience; people like Kumar in Kandy, Mrs. Fonseka in Colombo, Natasha in Johannesburg, and Vanessa and Marco in Kruger, by way of California. People we’ll never forget.
We left three months ago; two months ago we came home to Brooklyn, a hundred or so pages filled in our journals, thousands of pictures crammed onto memory cards, countless memories ping-ponging around in heads still spinning from good fortune and good times on the road.
In those days and weeks immediately following our return, it felt like it was all just a dream: were we really just walking through the African bush tracking elephants and rhinos? Did we really ride in the same train on the same track on the same route between Galle and Colombo that Paul Theroux described in a particularly moving chapter of The Great Railway Bazaar?
As time continues to relentlessly separate us from the newness of that adventure, these feelings of incredulity become only more exasperated. Inevitably, exacting details of our two days in Nuwara Eliya, our rooftop dinners in Galle, our blank-slate days in Goyambokka melt into broad brushstrokes and highlight reels. Tightly though we cling to these memories, the hands of time pound on them, pound on them, pound on them, wearing them down like ocean waters on a block of granite, chipping away, washing away, rounding sharp edges into blunt curves.
That’s why we treasure our travel journals as much as we treasure anything.
On those pages, the words are locked in defiance of time’s passage; they don’t age, they don’t blur. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, to write, write, write. I wish I’d kept more detailed and dedicated journals since I became fully, happily, consumed by the allure of life abroad, and of aimless travel, some years ago now. As painful as it sometimes is, and as tired as I oftentimes am, I must write something, anything, every day in that journal; technically, I should be writing something everyday period, traveling or not, but that’s another story on another topic.
I’ve shoe-gazed here about my stroke of dream-vacation luck before; I might very well write about it again. I’ll continue to consult that journal, and to the best of my ability continue to recreate those experiences in this space and, editors willing, elsewhere.
There’s a certain pressure that comes with that job, one that does, admittedly, get the best of me at times. It’s more than the brainstorming and the pitching and the querying and the outlining and trying to deliver a strong piece: it’s the pressure of doing the places, the people, and the memories the justice they so deserve.
That’s my only real prescription for success. And, really, that’s every writer’s only real measure for success, isn’t it?