This essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?
When on the bus to work the other day, I came across a passage in Pico Iyer’s selection of W. Somerset Maugham’s travel writings, The Skeptical Romancer, describing a missionary being carried by locals up a hill. It brought to mind my hike, some 9 months prior, to Cerro Calvario, in Copacabana, Bolivia, at the southeastern edge of Lake Titicaca. At the summit, 3,966 meters / 13,012 feet above sea level, I sat on stone steps catching my oxygen-deprived breath, sipping El Inca beer, and watching a young couple make an offering involving flowers, incense, and beer in hope of soon obtaining a house, a model of which they’d bought from one of the nearby vendors. Beyond the edge of a low wall, the Lake stretched all the way to the horizon. I shielded my eyes from the reflection the setting sun spilled over the flat waters, a strip of brilliant white searing the view into the back of my eyes. I recalled that polar explorers and mountaineers must wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, thinking I should have brought my pair with me to prevent Titicaca blindness.
When I was a boy, I devoured adventure novels in which stories took place in various locales beyond the borders of then-Czechoslovakia and the Warsaw Pact countries; Jules Verne was my favorite author, providing a major inspiration for my love of traveling, joined by Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many others.
When I read those pages I was transported to many faraway places alongside the protagonists. Yet I did not dream of visiting the locations of these adventures. I would locate the strange names like Madagascar or Alaska in my trusty Pocket Atlas of the World, thus attaching them to the real world. But my mind continued to associate them with the made-up stories, so they retained a mystical sheen of imaginary places, mirages on the same plane as Atlantis or the center of the Earth. Even as a teenager and college student in the 1990’s, after the borders opened and I traveled on my own, the places from my adventure books remained outside the realm of possibility, far away and beyond dreams.
When the Bolivian newlyweds departed, one step closer to fulfilling their dream of home together, and the view stilled, it occurred to me Lake Titicaca was one of those fantastical places of my boyhood. In fact, I had visited several such places on the round-the-world trip. When I hiked the mountains of Patagonia I wondered why they reminded me of the Slovak High Tatras. When I saw a troop of wild kangaroos lounging by the roadside near Sydney, Australia, I recalled my resolve to have a kangaroo sidekick like Skippy from the eponymous TV show. The Strait of Malacca. The Bosphorus. Machu Picchu. Sarajevo. The Southeast Asian jungle. Havana.
When the memories stopped flooding in, I had an even grander epiphany. All my life I had carried within me a longing, the kind of faint, shapeless sensation you experience when watching a plane cross the sky or an anchored boat bob off a sea shore. As the sun dipped below the thin clouds, the shapeless desire acquired the concrete contours of understanding. Not only did visiting the places of my childhood fantasies render them possible and real, it impressed upon me a sense of completion. Shortly thereafter the places dissolved into memory, the same way authors erase their recollections by putting them into writing.
When I was growing up, I contemplated what marks the transition from a boy to a man: a boy climbs trees, a man chops them; a boy runs through puddles, a man skirts them; a boy desires to flee home, a man yearns to return there. Now I also knew that while a boy entertains a dream of traveling, a man makes that dream come true.
When all this went through my mind, the bus #12 approached the Burnside Bridge. No longer able to focus on Maugham I closed the book mid-sentence. The morning unfolded over the city with the sky opening and the Willamette River reflecting heavy clouds rushing toward the next rainfall.
When the dreams of a boy come true, the man the boy became makes new ones.