Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the times when I’ve felt the most free. This may stem from a paper I once wrote for my Risk Management postgraduate class that intertwined the notions of risk perception and travel as a form of female liberation. The times when I’ve felt absurdly free certainly range from instances of traveling to simply being by myself in my apartment. What’s come of these “freeing moments”? For one, they’ve empowered me to reflect on where I am, both mentally and physically, trace the steps I took to get to those places, and silently thank those who helped me along the way. In a word, presence.
Without a doubt, the most recent moment came when I was back in Tokyo after Christmas. I’d met up with a bunch of fellow alumni from The College of William & Mary for loads of fried chicken, beer, edamame, and karaoke in one of the city’s most popular nightlife areas. Eventually, it was time for me to head back from Shibuya to the quieter area where I was staying. Of course, despite my familiarity with the JR Yamanote train line, while waiting for my connection in Ikebukuro, I somehow missed the last train at around 1am. I was faced with the decision to taxi it back the 8 km, walk some and then taxi, or just walk the whole thing.
My Google Maps app told me it would take about two hours and forty-five minutes sans any stops at those ubiquitous convenience stores. After completing the Yamathon event in 2013 in which I walked 46 km around the Yamanote Line with friends to raise money for charity, I thought, “Why the heck not?” I thought of my friend Susie who had just finished an epic cycle ride over 5,000 kilometers around Australia for mental health awareness. I thought of my friend Adam who ran in the middle of the night from Shibuya to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before taking a flight. I was also in, arguably, the world’s safest city and had warm, comfy boots on. Armed with a fully-charged iPhone with jams to rock out to, I’d be just fine.
Turns out I was right. I loaded up with pizza man (dumpling buns filled with cheese and tomato sauce), onigiri (rice balls), and a small carton of Lipton Milk Tea at a Seven Eleven. I was ready to rediscover that part of northern Tokyo I had labeled as a “neighborhood with nothing” almost three years prior. As it was only about 45 degrees, the weather was a non-issue: I bopped along to Kendrick Lamar and J-Biebs. I reveled in the quiet, empty neighborhood streets Google Maps wound me through on even the shortest route back to my hostel in Iriya. I danced in the middle of the street, looked up at the full moon, and laughed at how ridiculous the whole thing was. And wouldn’t you know it, I stumbled upon a playground where my Yamathon teammates and I indulged in a little play session before.
What started out as an initially annoying mishap at Ikebukuro Station became an awesome opportunity to just straight kick it in the streets of Tokyo completely and utterly alone. In a city with a greater metropolitan population of 30+ million, the streets and narrow alleyways were mine. Because no one walks between Ikebukuro and Ueno, especially at that time of night. It was calming and it was just what I needed. It was an unexpected mini-adventure that enabled me to clear my thoughts, start to process how being back in Japan felt after being gone for two and a half years, and brainstorm how I’d spend my final months in Italy. What was to come next?
It is challenging to describe the feeling that that comes over me when I have these “freeing moments”. I like to believe it’s a combination of gratitude and the thought that that any tough/frustrating times have been worth it for that specific moment in time (ichi-go, ichi-e, every moment is once in a lifetime, as the Japanese like to say). I temporarily become overwhelming and think, “I must have done something right to end up here for this moment.” Essentially, it’s my own microcosm of mindful travel.
Upon a quick review of these rare moments in the last half decade, I realized that the majority have taken place along some sort of body of water. Perhaps this is a reflection of my childhood spent going to school only two blocks away from the Atlantic Ocean. I was on a total high driving my little white Fiat 500 along a coastline of stunning Sardinia beaches and singing along to Nicki Minaj as the sun dipped below the horizon. Laying on the rocks along Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor and soaking it all in – and maybe sipping on a local Niksic beer – made the hard year before worth it. I remember being in Taormina, Sicily, on a bus winding its way down the cliffs, checking my phone, and seeing a Rudimental music video/song a friend had recommended to me for my time there. I pulled it up on YouTube, pushed play, and smiled when the music exactly matched my breathtaking seaside view out the bus window. The music swept me up in that moment.
While basking in the Bali sun and staring out into the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum have given me pause for reflection and gratitude alike, travel has not been the only source of self-freeing enlightenment. I’ve gotten lost in reading books alone for hours but stopped when I came across a line that reminded me of a time in my life or a good friend. Taking my dogs down to the waterfront on Tacoma’s Ruston Way or taking visiting friends to see the Narrows Bay views from Point Defiance Park “at home” result in the same. Random discussions with a Spanish friend back in Japan about the sense of belonging while living abroad and a conversation with an Italian friend here that somehow touched on the topic of Picasso’s “Guernica” – these struck me and reminded me that I am surrounded by a motley crew of exceptional people with a lot to give and a lot to learn from. THAT is freeing.
Others might refer to this as a call “to stop and smell the roses”, or to slow down. But in my experience, some of the best moments have come when I’ve still been speeding right along. I’ve acknowledged that I love what I’m experiencing and continued the ride. You don’t necessarily have to follow the traditional recommendations of mindful travel gurus. These moments, and at times, epiphanies, may hit you smack in the face. You only need to be open and willing to accept them. To be present. Are you?