Dear Global Nomad,
If my current blog posts are any indication, I recently returned to the east coast (to New England, to be more specific) and spent a lovely week in both Maine and my native New Hampshire. While in Maine, my mother and I skied at our favorite resort, Sunday River, a place where many locals (from places like Rumford and Mexico, Maine) are employed. Now, if you’ve never been to Maine then you likely will have no mental picture of a ‘Mainer.’ Suffice it to say, Maine is known as ‘Down East’ Country—the people are ‘salt of the earth’ in the most literal way possible (no, they are not salty, although I’d imagine your Maine ‘lobstah’ man would be quite salty indeed). But these are people whose families, for generations, have been born and bred in places with names like Poland (yep – home to Poland Springs water!), Mexico, Norway, and Sweden (all in Maine!). Their parents and grandparents may have worked for the local timber or textile mill (more on Maine’s mill history here). Those mills have long since closed shop (Maine was once filled with ‘mill towns’ most of which are now just mill-less towns), but what has remained are a stock of people who know what ‘home’ is: home doesn’t change much—the local families all know one another, went to the same school together, pass one another on the few roads snaking through the rounded Mahoosuc Mountains. These Mainers don’t travel across the border to New Hampshire or Vermont much. In fact, these Mainers probably don’t leave Oxford County often. Why, you ask, would a travel blogger care so much about these people who don’t travel much more than a twenty-mile circumference around the place of their birth?
I suppose it’s because being in Maine, and meeting so many of these ‘local’ people (many of whom work at Sunday River or its neighboring restaurants, ski shops, and stores) at a ski mountain that I visited often during my youth, made me question what the benefit of traveling is, and even more, what we potentially lose in a world that is so easily traversed, so globally-aware.
Do we travel in order to see new places, to experience new cultures?
Do we travel in order to live in a new place, to test our own boundaries or our understanding of what it means to live in this ‘world’?
The benefits of travel are always widely touted: we learn new languages, see the way ‘those people over there’ live, question our ability to use a squat toilet (or perhaps we find squat toilets a preferable manner of relieving ourselves). Through travel, we feel a sense of adventure, of exploration, of, perhaps even, some old-fashioned imperialism for some. But what few of us fail to recognize, or even to consider, is what we lose in the process of ‘moving away.’ What do we lose when we are always moving from one place to the next, when we are constant itinerants in a world that increasingly feels smaller and smaller, and less, dare I say, worldly?
Then, sometimes, we return ‘home’—wherever that may be—and we remember all that we loved there: even the chill of a late March Canadian wind can feel surprisingly refreshing (when all those who have suffered through winter are bemoaning the unending grip of the cold season). We walk into museums we never visited when we were ‘locals.’ We explore back alleys that we would have otherwise avoided if we were slave to a daily commute. We stop to admire a red Northern Cardinal—an otherwise common bird to the area that is not native to our new ‘home.’ In other words, perhaps, through traveling, we are able to appreciate our hometown in a way we never would have done had we stayed on there forever. Maybe we hear the local accent in a new way, maybe it even lingers on our own tongues, maybe we yearn for the old ways of speaking, of living.
I guess what I am saying is that I hope we don’t lose anything in this increasingly inter-connected world. I hope that what we gain in the process of losing that hometown familiarity is a new appreciation of the places from which we came. That we can apply our own fresh travel eyes to the homes that had once seemed so familiar, perhaps even tired and old. That the world may always be refreshed and renewed for the global nomad. I hope. And yet, despite this optimism, I’m not so sure this worldly ‘here’-ness is a reality when air travel increasingly interconnects diverse locales, increasingly erases any sense of the ‘local’ that had existed previously (case in point, the photograph above: a Hooters restaurant overtaking what had once been one of my favorite neighborhood ‘hutongs,’ or alleyways, in Beijing where I used to bicycle for hours). I hope that we, world travelers, fight for every place, each ‘home’ as it were, to retain its own local qualities. That we fight for those who either choose to or have no option but to remain in the same twenty-mile radius their whole lives, retaining the customs, the inability to change. Because I think what I learned through visiting the backwoods of Maine, the same backwoods of my childhood, is that it is precisely because some of us choose to stay that those of us who leave are able to return home to a place that is still ‘home’—and hopefully, always will be.