Impressions of a 21st Century Dorothy

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore”

I took a plane, Dorothy took a tornado. My starting point was New Jersey. Hers was Kansas. Yet, I understand how Dorothy must have felt in that moment when she suddenly found herself in a distant land surrounded by the unknown and the unbelievable – that moment in the film when the screen went from black and white to colour. In the past five years, I’ve had many moments when my world has turned to colour. Moments when I have said to myself, “…I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore”.

Even while in the midst of a trip you know the discomforts – the itching of mosquito bites, the sharp pain of blisters, the dehydration, and the harsh words passed between travelling companions – will fade. It’s what you count on. Like taking a photo of a beautiful landscape but avoiding the power lines. The mental snapshots of a slightly surreal memory are what remain. These images that come in bright, often silent fragments – like recalling a dream – are what intermittently appear in my head when I’m back home and comfortable.

I sit on a wobbly plastic chair, hiding from the burning Italian sun under a torn beach umbrella, and realize that nothing is farther from my mind than my little hometown in New Jersey. My boyfriend and I live in a dusty caravan in northern Italy, paying for this run-down accommodation by helping out – mid-August –on land owned by a catastrophist permaculturalist. We fan ourselves and look out over the dusty, irregular terraces below. Our neighbour, a geologist, leans out of her car window to scold our host in rapid Italian for allowing us to live on such unstable land. Our first job: putting up a tarp to lessen the chance of a landslide occurring in an impending rainstorm.

It is mid-February in Malta, a place I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t have pinned on a map before going there to escape the dank cold and 3pm sunsets of a Scottish winter. I stand in a bathing suit on a wooden platform at the edge of the clear Mediterranean Sea and try to ignore the eyes I know are following me from the surrounding restaurants, porches and sidewalks. I can imagine the heads shaking: “what’s this girl doing? It’s too cold to swim”. I descend the slippery metal ladder, into water which is pleasantly cold. All knowledge of others vanishes. I turn on my back and look up at the bright afternoon sky, kicking up trails of white froth as I back-stroke away from the moss-covered rocks which line the shore. Behind me stand blocky yellow hotels and to my right are low cliffs, but ahead there is nothing but an expanse of calm sea.

The final two days of my trip, all the locals refer to me as, “that crazy girl who went swimming in February”. As for me, the image left in my head is of a startling blue sea stretching across an impossibly wide horizon.

I’ve spent a day searching the city of Maribor, Slovenia, for my great-grandmothers family home – a treasure hunt with nothing but an old photo and a name. I shivered through a winter spent 7,500 feet up in the Himalayan Mountains. I have stayed up till 3am washing dishes in an agriturismo in Piedmont, chatting in amateur Italian with two girls from Romania. I have stayed in a hostel on the edge of the Red Light District in Amsterdam – and spent my trip to Copenhagen snowed into a hostel basement watching apocalyptic films.

I have stood in Delhi on Holi and seen the world coated in colour. I have taken a night train from Croatia to Slovenia where we were told that the only way to avoid being robbed was to never fall asleep. We tied our cabin shut with a dog leash. I spent nights in a nunnery in Florence – and on a hill overlooking the sea in Malta a farmer picked me an orange from his tree as we walked through his groves. In Amritsar a beggar threw a banana at me. I’ve sipped an espresso in a side-street in Sienna and been pleasantly startled by a group of elderly men bursting spontaneously into song. And I’ve walked down a small street in Scotland dressed as a Stormtrooper for a Greenpeace campaign.

Like Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, travel can result in disillusionment; you often see behind a city’s majestic veneer – you discover the man behind the curtain. While you don’t escape flying monkeys to defeat evil witches, you do face obstacles and have the chance to destroy doubt and overcome fear. And if you’re very lucky, you have someone to link arms with while you walk through the dark forests we face when embarking into the unknown. I followed not a yellow brick road, but one made of cobblestones and sand, and while my destinations weren’t always grand, the journeys have changed me forever.

I think of Dorothy and know that at the end of her time in Oz she came back with more gained than just memories. And I am left with more than memories of elderly Italian singers, questionable Dutch hostels, and Croatian train robbers. Through travel, my world has been widened. Everywhere I have gone has ­­impacted me, and has left me with a stronger belief in myself, and in the endless variety and beauty that life can hold. I have found courage within myself – and a life forever enriched.

(Published on Tremr:

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