People love to travel. There is something inherent in our wiring that titillates our curiosity about that grass which grows on that other side of the fence. Does its lushness make us dream of living over there? Are there more flowers among those blades than there are on our side of the fence? Does it get more -or less- sunshine? Can it justify my decision to continue to live where I do?
For over 15 years, I have had the pleasure of traveling around the globe with some of the best scientific and historical minds in the world. Together, we have visited the tiny nooks and crannies left vacant long ago by people of our ancient past. And with them, I have traveled not just globally, but through time.
Yup, time travel.
Not in an H.G. Wellsian machine with flashing lights and spinning dongles. But by venturing out with real Archaeologists that have spent their lives studying these places, and the people that once inhabited them. With them, I have visited historically relevant locations that might be remote, desolate, mysterious, and seemingly impossible to reach.
Places such as Isla del Sol in the Bolivian Andes; ancient caves in Armenia; Mayan ceremonial caves that border Belize and Guatemala; mountaintop dig sites in Xian, China; the sparse and mysterious Easter Island; the hidden homes of the fastest people on earth in Copper Canyon, Mexico; arid ancient paths in the Sahara Desert, and the list goes on. 15 years of bumping, bruising and scraping through piles of rocks, of sore breeches on the backs of horses and camels, of breathing the dust of civilizations long forgotten.
I am often asked WHY I go to these places? What is out there? And, commonly: do I really get to visit actual working Dig Sites?
But how about more important questions like ‘Why did those cultures go away?’ or ‘What would they have done differently?’ or the real biggie ‘What can we learn from their former mistakes?’
Ok, enough ‘heavy,’ back to reality.
Many of us live every day with the complications of a career, a family, and loans that need whittling. We tape photos of exotic, desolate, palm-populated beaches to our walls so that we can dream of someday lying there with a purple, umbrellaed drink on a sumptuously soft chaise lounge.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I attempt to put myself into that photo, I feel pretty self-indulgent. A tiny bit of guilt seeps to the surface. Then the common sense kicks in, and I think to myself, “I can lay around in my own backyard any old time. If I am going to spend a dollop of my rare extra cash and my hard-earned free time on a vacation, the last thing I want to do is lay around.”
I want to see everything. I want to explore it all. I want to learn. Everything.
Never satisfied with going to mere ‘places,’ I find it more enjoyable to visit people. Foreign people. Alien cultures. Ancient civilizations. This is a different way of looking at travel, but with the added perspective of looking at our world not just from the grid of a map, but from the viewpoint of time. This added vantage point has forced me to see our position on the planet quite differently, with the added clarity of depth.
To answer the oft-asked question of how to
- Think small: When booking a visit to a faraway land, avoid the large tour groups, and seek out the tiny local entrepreneur that is full of pride to show off his/her local area and history. (Don’t forget to check their online ratings before booking, however!) BONUS: You may find this first step is significantly less expensive than going with the traditional broad-market tour companies.
- Think smart: many local schools and universities welcome foreign visitors. Often, they will invite you not only to visit their facility, but also to their favorite secret locations in the area, and perhaps even to their table for a meal. Reach out beforehand, with a couple of well-placed emails to their history or archaeology departments.
- Read: Once the decision has been settled as to a destination, spend a few months beforehand reading about both the modern-day culture as well as the extinct one(s). The internet makes this an easy – and fun – task.
- Learn a few foreign words: Attempt to learn tidbits of the local language to demonstrate good manners: Please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry, no problem, hello, goodbye and good night. This little effort of learning a few words and phrases has allowed me to communicate with people all over the world. I have found that if you at least attempt to communicate in a friendly manner, people will go out of their way to reciprocate your kindness multifold (even in France). 😉
- Smile: I know this seems trite, but it is too oft forgotten. This one little tiny effort has opened doors to homes, sites, friendships, and experiences (not to mention great wine!) that I would never have enjoyed if indeed I had forgotten to smile.
- Befriend the Locals: It’s easier than you think. Step 3 is a great way to begin. Local inhabitants know so much about their ancient past, and the pride they radiate when telling their stories is unequivocally priceless. Not only can they point you to the best food and beer in town, but they know where to find the nooks and crannies that hold the secrets to the mysteries of their storied past. And they will most likely be excited to share them with you, sometimes for the cost of a mere smile.
I recently read in a Rick Steves Travel Guidebook that the more money we spend when traveling, the farther away we get from our intended destination. This means that big bucks can buy luxury hotels and transportation and food. But more often than not, this translates into luxury AMERICAN hotels, transportation, and food. It will likely cost a significant pile of shekels to see the world from a distant but padded, American bubble. For me, however, it is arduous to attempt to go back in time to truly experience an ancient culture from a Marriot or MacDonalds. Not that I am an anti-American highbrow, on the contrary. When I am at home in California, I adore my American cultural niceties. But when traveling, I leave the boundaries of the US to soak up as much of the foreign culture for which I just paid so dearly.
After these years of dusty exploration, have I found that the grass is or is not greener outside of my green-laden Southern California life? Not really. Nearly every place I have visited enjoys their own variety of ‘green.’ Once you get to know them, it becomes easy to see how people have been able to make homes in so many types of environments and altitudes around the globe.
All places on Earth have a past, but not all have a future. It is certainly not up to me to ascertain which. However, the ability to observe life through a 3-dimensional far-reaching lens rather than a me-only existence has enabled me to truly treasure my home culture and the incredible life I have the honor of living. This is the finest gift that I have received from Time Traveling.
Well, that, and plenty of callouses.