I live vicariously through my brother. An enthusiastic sailor and world traveler, he’s seen more countries than I can name. It never fails that during his visit in Texas, we end up drinking a good bottle of wine until the early morning hours while I am listening to the adventurous tales of Der Skipper.
During my teenage years I used to study an atlas and maps from my geography class for fun. I enjoyed looking at all the different continents, finding rivers, mountains and cities, and trying to imagine what life would be like in these far away places. There was another girl in my class who was as nerdy as I was, and often we would sit in the garden under the old Trumpet tree behind the schoolhouse and thumb through our atlases.
So, I was a little familiar with the locations when my brother would tell me about his trips to Dubai, and Namibia, Malaysia and Tunisia. Or, when he made his trip to Scandinavia, South America or the Far East. Not only did I have a vision where it was located, but he also brought it alive with his impressions of the people and their food.
I remember my father also traveled occasionally out of the country. He once went to Egypt and brought me back a blouse. He told stories of visiting the pyramids and sitting on a camel. He specifically praised his taxi driver, who had invited him to his home where he met the man’s entire family. My dad seemed like a changed person. All his children and my mother sat around the table, while my dad had to tell us his entire experience about his trip. The more he told us of his trip, the more I wanted to see the world.
I know that many famous people have traveled the globe with adventurous tales and some have been captured in many epic poems. The Odyssey by Homer comes to mind. Then there was Sir Francis Drake and his travels during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Marco Polo and Lewis and Clark. Either a monarch or government funded their travels and expeditions, or they were traders and merchants and used their private funds for their travels.
However, I am more captivated of other people’s stories when they are being told in person. A very dear friend of mine grew up in the former Soviet Union. He has told me stories of growing up in a place that always seemed cold and gray to me. As different and difficult as life has been for them, he was able to find little sparks of hope in his family life that can somewhat resemble tradition and culture.
He began telling me about the Dachas that reminded me of the little garden houses in Germany. There, people could actually grow some vegetables, fruits and potatoes for their own use. People spent the summer months in these small cottages. As simple as life was on this small private space, it formed a life-long memory for my friend where he could remember good times.
Although I have never been to this place, I could strongly relate to what he shared with me. I was familiar with gardens, and sitting outside during the summer nights visiting with relatives. I knew of singing with raised glasses (even if it wasn’t Vodka but beer) and of grandmothers putting us to sleep. The foreign, cold and strange place now received a personal association. It was quite obvious that families all over the world look out for each other even under the most oppressed circumstances.
There is something very attractive and mysterious about men who have traveled and seen many places. It is very intoxicating to me when they describe the places that they have visited. They can bring their surroundings to life with their words without my ever having been there myself. They appear secure with who they are, don’t feel threatened nor overly anxious. I suppose that the foreign is no longer intimidating to them. They have battled their own fears privately and emerged as men, some even with endearing characteristics.
I noticed that knowledge in people creates a strikingly similar response in me. A man who has knowledge with understanding knows of many wonderful things to talk about. He skillfully can lead his listener into places that were often off limits to an immature mind. There, he can masterfully lift one’s thinking a notch or two, and search out new thoughts that only lead to new insights. And, most importantly, men with a vision and knowledge are never boring. They find humor under the most unusual circumstances and are not chronic whiners and complainers.
Going beyond the boundaries of one’s physical homeland can often be a scary and nerve-wrecking move. One encounters strange languages, different customs, unfamiliar terrain and sometimes a lot of inconveniences taken for granted back home. It’s as if a child had his apron strings cut in order for him to explore the unknown and forbidden lands of mythological giants and monsters. It can also be the beginning of unraveling lies and misconceptions he was admonished to believe his entire life.
These are people who make an effort to break away in order to discover the truth behind the myth. They are brave enough to encounter the locals and find out about their customs. They would show an interest about their history and their culture. They are not afraid to taste the local cuisine nor do they expect things to be like it is back home. If anything, their return will make them appreciate home with a new richness that wasn’t there before.
Traveling is a personal challenge that many men still want to experience. It’s the last frontier to break away from the old familiar ways and discover something new. The renewal generally brought progress to man. He returned with new technology, medicine, music, poetry and goods. Sometimes he discovered these things in another land, or he found it at the edge of his own universe — in his mind. But what he conquered and discovered; he owned his experience. This personal and very private knowing is something that could not ever be stolen and taken from him. It’s an eternal gift that would carry him through his entire life and shape his character.
Travelers left behind their legacy in their writings, charted maps and treasures they brought back. They were read, and inspired others to follow into their footsteps. Yet, no matter how much information was left for someone to follow, each man had to make his own way by overcoming his weaknesses and fears. They faced natural obstacles like the weather, cliffs and rivers, wild animals, hostile tribes and diseases; a challenge that my brother still encounters while sailing the ocean. Being faced with 45-knot wind in the middle of the night out on the Atlantic around the rocky Canary Islands made even my brother feel his vulnerability.
Obstacles are part of life. They can make us stronger, teach us a lesson or we outgrow them. No matter how often people like to remove them for us, they have no idea how they deny a man the challenge to succeed in his own right. That’s why men became sailors, enlisted in the military or made their fortune by traveling to a foreign land. They all wanted to prove to themselves that they could make it somehow out there in this world on their own among their peers, and make a name for themselves.
I never saw the world like I wanted to, but I have seen it in another way. I found pleasure in learning. For several years now I have made it my own challenge to learn about history, science, religion, culture and human behavior. I just go with the flow of what strikes my curiosity and piques my interest and read whenever I find some time. The pleasure comes in sharing this knowledge with a few selected friends, penning some of it in my articles and applying a lot of it in my everyday life.
I am fairly certain I will never set foot on a sail boat in the Atlantic Ocean. But, there are, after all, people like my brother. And, with a bottle of Chianti on my kitchen table my brother slowly rolls a cigarette with Dutch tobacco as he embarks on another sailor story. I am his only audience. I anxiously sit in my chair twirling my hair with one hand. My other arm is grabbing my legs, which are raised to my chin. And, with eager anticipation I soak in word by word the story of my brother, the sailorman, who takes me to the faraway places I most likely will never see in person.
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.