Did you ever walk into a room, maybe in an abandoned house, and feel a buzz, a kind of ‘ohmmm’? That’s what I felt standing in the middle of the Greek temple in Segesta. No roof. Fluted columns on all four sides, pointing up and out as much as around. A holy space, a launch pad to the heavens. I had a similar ‘moment’ in Ballyvaughan when I lunged from tuft to tuft of raised grass across a soggy churchyard to a seep-spring where ancient folks believed the gods reached into our world from below. Same idea. A portal to the gods—from below in Ireland, up and away in Sicily—while we mortals plod the middle ground.
That’s why I travel. It’s not out of restless curiosity and the need for eye-candy. No bus trips and cruises for me. I guess I’m a bit snobbish about the tours I take. It has to be a small group, select (other educators preferred) and it has to allow a lot of time for personal exploration. I prefer destinations off the standard tourist tracks and off-season if possible. And if I am so particular, you might ask, why don’t I just do my own solo trips? Why any tours or group packages at all?
Well, three things. It’s unsafe and often awkward for a woman to travel alone…shouldn’t be, but there it is. Second, I like the convenience of organized trips. I don’t have time or interest in reading train and boat schedules and making and confirming reservations and all that. Finally, I like the enforced contiguity of a small tour group. I don’t have many friends—acquaintances, campus colleagues maybe, but not come-by-for-a-drink friends. It’s starting to sound like I’m anti-social. Not so. I spend a lot of time with people—my classes, my graduate seminars, thesis direction. But all that is cut off and wrapped into discrete blocks of class periods and semesters and graduations.
You may wonder how being stuck in a tour van with a handful of strangers can be appealing. Well, it can and here’s why. I’m not responsible for them. Not like with my students. And I can enjoy their company without worrying about faculty-student relationship issues. And maybe a fellow traveler might even prove interesting and continue contact after the trip. Could happen. But that’s not the point. I’m not good at ‘group.’ For example, I see students in the union laughing and talking and teasing…I don’t do that. Never did. For the price of signing up for a tour, I can buy my way into a friendly group. We all agree to get to know each other, to be accepting and open for the duration.
Think of it this way. Were you ever on an airplane and you got to talking with the person next to you and, thinking you’ll never see that person again, you share what you never would otherwise? Well, that’s what a tour is like. There’s this sense of being in a time capsule, a time-limited agreement to put up with each other. And then it’s over and you can return to everyday life.
Which brings me back to the temple in Sicily. A frisson moment. That’s another reason to go on carefully chosen tours. You’re looking for that touch of the numinous, that conjunction of history, time and place. It can come as an unexpected surprise, even though you did choose the site, the tour. And when it does come, sadly, the special moment only happens once, the first time. You can go back but it’s never the same. And you can’t go around expecting a trickle charge at every historical spot. Each happening is unique and the best are unanticipated, like the time I climbed the steps of a holy site in Tulum overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on one side and low-growing pine trees to the horizon on the other. I could sense the power that the people before me, way before my time, had felt in that place. On another occasion, walking the medieval city-center of Florence on a damp November morning, I absorbed the pulsing rhythm and balance in the stones and buildings along with the rain. Traveling, I look for that rush of feeling but have learned not to expect it. For example, the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica impressed but left me cold, unlike the time I emerged from a Bushmen cave in South Africa to come face-to-face with a thousand-year descendant of an Eland depicted on the walls inside. Or the way I poured over art book reproductions of Botticelli’s Primavera back home, only to find the real painting in the Ufizzi to be just a bigger version of the printed copy surrounded by a milling throng. But then, strolling the streets of Assisi, I was ambushed by the graceful strength and beauty of the pointed pink stone arches built into every wall.
Surprise. The moment of insight and beauty. That’s why I travel.
So, there I was in the center of the Greek temple in the middle of nowhere Sicily feeling like I was in a silo aimed straight up to heaven. After a while, I noticed a man, maybe my age, longish thick brown hair swept over his ears, low to the collar of his corduroy jacket. I studied him for a moment taking in his wire framed glasses, knit tie, leather patched elbows. Another academic? He seemed to be experiencing the same sensations that I had. Eventually he noticed my attention, made eye contact, said with his eyes and smile—you felt it too? amazing isn’t it? I nodded. Too bad he wasn’t with our group. That’s another reason I like to travel…and hope.