I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel.
I’ve been to some fun places in the US: Chicago, St. Louis, NYC and the like.
However, I’ve been beyond blessed to be able to travel worldwide as well. Canada. England. Wales. France. Mexico.
The travel bug is the worst disease you can have when you’re a student with little resources. There’s a constant yearning to see more and learn more. I’ve seen more of the world than most students my age have, and yet I selfishly want more. Starting college, the thing I was most excited for wasn’t taking classes in my chosen major, or making new friends, or being independent. I was (am) counting down to my junior year. That’s the year I’m going to study abroad in Spain for a semester.
As someone afflicted with the travel bug and obsessed with all thing related to other cultures and countries, I scour the internet frequently for travel blogs and pictures. In all my internet travels, I’ve discovered two schools of thought regarding travel.
The first is simple: Go to another place, take pictures of the landmarks, eat at the famous restaurants or at chains, and go home with a t-shirt. This is the typical type of family vacation (though some break the stereotype).
The second is adopting an attitude of immersion. Immerse yourself in the actual culture and atmosphere of the place you’re visiting, especially abroad.
If you adopt the second style of travel, you’ll realize something very quickly. Those beautiful night skyline of Hong Kong, the sunrise over the beaches of Puerto Rico, or the pristine white of Santorini in Greece? They’re beautiful yes. But they’re probably not the true beauty of those countries.
The true beauty comes from what some would consider “ugly.”
We spent three days in France on our Great Family Vacation of 2011. We went to the Eiffel Tower (which is stunning when it is lit up at night). We saw the famous Degas paintings at the Musee d’Orsay. We walked through Notre Dame. But by far, my most favorite part of those 72 hours were the few we spent in Caen, France, along the beaches of Normandy.
It was very cloudy and overcast the day we spent along the beaches and in the American cemetery. There are flowers and trees in the graveyard, yes, but it’s mostly just row upon row of white crosses. Somewhere like this in the United States would be mundane. Boring. Yet standing there looking at the physical evidence of the sacrifices made decades ago, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.
And then we walked along the path to the beaches. There are no bikinis. No laughing children. There’s no bleached sand or crystal clear blue water. There is no blazing sun to create an aura of paradise.
Instead, the sand is dull. The water is murky. And in March, it is as cold as if we had gone to Siberia. And yet to this day I want nothing more than to return to Normandy. I want to walk along the top of craters that dwarf whoever stands at the bottom. Those craters were formed by mortar fire on D-Day. I want to walk along the daisy-lined disintegrating shelters at the top of the cliffs overlooking the beaches.
I want to go back to Point du Hoc, hoping that for a brief moment, the lifeless grey of the cliff and the water below lights up as the sun peeks through the clouds, even as barbed wire reminds you of the horrors that once happened where you are standing.
However, never has the concept of non-traditional beauty been so evident to me as it is in Mexico. I’m currently writing to you from Mexico City. This is my fourth visit to Mexico and I’ve never been to a single beach.
Mexico to me is not Cancun. It is not Acapulco. It is not Veracruz or any other beach town (though they’re all stunning I’ve heard).
Mexico to me is waking up to the cries of “Basura!” (Trash). It’s the multi-colored houses. The deep purple apartments the next street over from this house (my second home really). Mexico is having sweet tamales for breakfast. Getting fresh hand-made tortillas from the tortilleria for an obscenely low number of pesos. Mexico is fearing for your life every time you get into a vehicle. It’s seeing two-lane roads turn into four or five lane roads at rush hour. Mexico is eating the most amazing food that will make you regret the fact that you ever thought Taco Bell was good. Mexico is going to an American movie at the local mall but watching it in Spanish. It’s buying your favorite candy that you can only get here. Mexico is seeing people’s faces light up when you make halting attempts to answer questions in Spanish. Mexico is seeing the top of the Basilica de Guadalupe on nearly every excursion.
So next time you visit another country (or anywhere rather), don’t look for the beauty. Look for the ugly. It’s in the ugly that the best parts of another place can often be found.