Blame it on the preacher’s wife. I had to have been ten or eleven when Mrs. Estelle McKissick, wife of Rev. Rudolph W. McKissick of Bethel Baptist Institutional (Missionary Rock of Zion Sermon on the Mount in Christ) Church (Inc.) in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, gave me a dangerous little book for Christmas titled Free Stuff for Kids. I can’t even remember most of the trinkets and doo-dads you could order in the mail because my attention was always and forever caught-up in the section that had the addresses of the travel bureaus of all fifty states, a bunch of cities, and a whole slew of countries. In exchange for a 19-cent postcard, I got bushels of pamphlets, brochures, and travel posters—among the more memorable materials, a thick, catalogue-sized guide to Austria; an amazingly ornate, oversized, circus-style souvenir booklet from Singapore; and an envelope royally sealed with red wax from the principality of Monaco—to the point of having my mother lug home an old file cabinet from school to house my nascent travel repository. This was waaaaay before the Internet age and country-specific websites. I became the biggest geography nerd in three counties (went to the State Geography Bee in seventh grade to prove it).
Then, one Saturday at the Regency Square Mall, I ran across a table touting high school foreign exchange programs through a non-profit organization called Youth For Understanding. I asked my folks, both high school teachers at the time, about hosting an exchange student and they balked, saying they wouldn’t have had the time to really focus the requisite energy and attention on a foreign guest (which in hindsight, I think they had a point). But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t go! So, during my eleventh grade year, I saved up money from my telephone customer service job to pay for most of the $2,000 program fee for a summer in fabulous Sweden!
Why Sweden? For starters, it, along with Finland, was the cheapest country option that didn’t require some prior knowledge of a foreign language. And I deduced that there were marginally more black people in Sweden than in Finland (thank World Book Encyclopedia for that one). So, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school swatting at Nordic mosquitoes, eating reindeer, and watching the sun dip under the horizon for all of an hour in the far, far, far north of Sweden. Yes, that’s me (many, many moons ago) standing next to a sign for the Arctic Circle. I was sixteen, and I haven’t been able to sit my behind still since.
Writer Paul Theroux says that “travel [is] flight and pursuit in equal parts.” For me, that exchange trip was an escape from the mundane nerdiness of my known existence and, yes, social rejection from my classmates at the decidedly hood high school I attended. But it was also the start of my as-of-yet unquenched desire to know people, places, values, emotions, experiences different from those which I am familiar. To see the sun dip below the horizon for only an hour each night, eat reindeer, and take a picture at the Arctic Circle. To straddle the Equator on its hot, dusty run through Ecuador. To parasail over a cow pasture outside of Medellín and ice skate on a Caribbean mountain top outside of Caracas. To see flying fish leap out of the water on a 24-hour ferry ride amongst the islands of Cape Verde, where at least fifty people vomited on the floor during the trip and one crippled old man slipped and fell in it. To have intense, week-long romances in Cuba. To have intense, two-day romances in Rio only to find out my date was a prostitute and to end up getting the price reduced by half and paying for it and realizing, damn…that was some good sex. To have a place to stay on every continent. To see myself in the faces of summer campers in Santo Domingo, New Years revelers in Havana, and Carnavaleiros in Salvador da Bahia. To catch an OutKast video at a flea market in Paris or at a bar in Bogotá. To see and smell and feel and taste the world; good, bad, and indifferent. To know that, by the time I see every place I haven’t been, it’ll be time to revisit the places I haven’t been to in years. To see the possibility of an airport departure board and, a short while later, to be propelled through the sky towards another delicious uncertainty. To fucking live, and to be forever beholden to that pursuit of life.