Traveling Without a Passport: The World in Our Backyard.

I have been living in the United States for just over 10 years. That’s 10 consecutive years. In other words, I’ve now lived in the U.S. longer than I’ve lived in any other country (previous record: 8 years in Kenya). Though I happily anticipated my move to California in 2006 to begin my Master’s degree, I fashioned myself a world traveler and California felt stifling. International flights were much costlier than I had ever paid in my globetrotting adult life and road-tripping necessitated owning a car, an object I saw as an anchor. The happiest version of myself included perpetually living around the world with little to hold me or my bank account down.

Recently, I sold my car after putting in over 200,000 miles of fuel-efficient driving to 13 states – the entire West and Southwest – and two countries (Mexico and Canada). What I had seen as an anchor had freed me in a way no airplane ticket could have. There was so much to see that I realized I had been reductive in my earlier views on travel. The world had always been there, waiting for me in a supermarket, a language class, a house of worship, or on the road. All I had to do was look.

Sonja in Taiwanese temple California

Is this Taipei? No, it’s Los Angeles! Visiting the Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple.

California is a place stereotyped as a land of Hollywood, spray tans, and inauthenticity, but my experience couldn’t have been more different. Between visits to Korean spas, Persian restaurants, Buddhist temples, or Día de los muertos celebrations, I would walk onto my university campus to see groups of students selling carne asada, drinking boba, or practicing choreographed hip-hop. The beaches, surfing, and tans all existed, but so did taco Tuesdays and Holi beach parties. That is my California.

Remarkably, this multiculturalism doesn’t just exist in southern California, but also in the heart of Texas, where I prayed for Nepal outside the Alamo, attended a Turkish festival, visited a Hindu temple, and ate the best chilaquiles this side of Mexico City.

And I’m not even telling you about the mountains, the rivers, the glaciers, and the geysers that I have filled up thousands of gas tanks to visit.

So when I speak with students about studying abroad – typically, they want to travel to some European city – I can see a younger me in their zeal to stamp their passport and tell others about their trip to the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, or the Lord of the Rings film set. I am just as keen to travel too (Ecuador is on my list, as is Cuba). Wanderlust never gets old; it keeps us broke and young. But I am more peaceful than ever with the spaces in between those flights because I’ve fallen in love with this land and its myriad beauty.

Loveliness of America collage A few years ago, on a solo road trip through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, I read a quote that lingered with me, by a dude rancher in 1934. This quote became a meditative thought. On this trip, I hadn’t crossed any international borders and my passport remained unstamped. But I was traveling nonetheless, thrilled by new discoveries in the landscape and people. It was there, in Wyoming, that I realized I had become an American, and that realization no longer stifled me. I was traveling freely, in the land of the free.

You must search for the loveliness of America; it is not obvious; it is scattered; but when you find it, it touches you and binds you to it like a great secret oath taken in silence.

 

 

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