Mark Twain once said, “Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” Quite the world traveler, Twain was referring to the fact that no matter where you go, there you are. It’s that howl of thoughts in your head that’s chasing you around the planet, hoping to change the content of your mind by varying the context. It doesn’t work.
Travel isn’t a very efficient or reliable drug. God knows, I’ve tried to use it as that for as long as I can remember.
The key to changing your feelings, your mind, and your perceptions is to open your heart by letting go of all control and judgment. Then everything becomes interesting, even stuff that other people might think of as bad.
Once you’ve let go of all your expectations, life becomes “trippy.” Thirty years ago, a lot of us attempted to find such a state by putting strange substances in our mouths. Today, it’s much easier to get there, by just letting go.
Robert Browning got there one morning. “The year’s at the spring, the day’s at the morn, morning’s at seven, the hillside’s dew-pearled, the snail’s on the thorn, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” That’s the kind of emotion I had been looking for all along by sticking various substances in my mouth.
Walt Whitman said, “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name. And I leave them where they are, for I know that whereso’er I go, others will punctually come for ever and ever.” The bearded first beatnik popped through the looking glass in Brooklyn, just after the Civil War.
I just got back from another trip down to Nicaragua. That’s five times in a year and a half. Every time I visit many of the same places. Even though the locations are familiar, I learn something new each time. Maybe that’s the result of feeling more and more comfortable. From one visit to the next, people actually recognize me and some even remember my name.
So through repetition, I’ve managed to make the strange somewhat familiar, and it feels good. Over the course of 18 months Nicaragua hasn’t changed, and I haven’t really changed, but my level of anxiety is so much lower now that I can appreciate subtle commonalities and differences between things that were once simply exotic.
You can’t really conduct a proper experiment unless you have a control group; something with which to compare your experimental body. Sure, for my next vacation I’m tempted to run off to some new South American country, like Colombia or Bolivia, but then I’d be starting at ground zero, and be obliged to spend a few weeks just getting the lay of the land. Believe it or not, all those Spanish-speaking nations south of Texas aren’t the same place.
So for me, Nicaragua is becoming less exotic, less scary, less foreign. In this process, it’s becoming less powerful a way to hide from myself. Now that I’m more relaxed there, I’m forced to admit that it’s still just me that I brought along for the ride.
I’m not down on travel. And maybe most people don’t use travel in the ways I use it. Most people imagine a vacation chock full of pleasurable experiences. Not me. Heck, one time I arrived at the Mexico City bus station and bought a ticket for the next bus leaving to anywhere. The clerk seemed surprised. I assured him I knew what I was doing. So he sold me a ticket to a bus that was boarding right then, heading to a town high in the hills that had only one business, a prison. It was not a pleasant place.
That was 30 years ago. Now I’m less inclined to suffer for my sense of adventure.
I think the reason I like Ometepe Island in Nicaragua so much is that it’s so completely undeveloped. No international fast food restaurants. Not many cars. People still ride horses from place to place, or bicycles. Some simply walk. Everything is on a human scale, and when it comes to walking, rich people aren’t any better off than the poor.
It’s a place much like the Lake Isle of Innisfree, of which Yeats promises:
"And I shall have some peace there, for peace
comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to
where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by
While I stand on the roadway, or on the
I hear it in the deep heart’s core."
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.