On Death, Travel, and the Heart
Today I found out that a friend and former co-worker, someone I know as a result of traveling to Mexico this past summer, died in a car accident last night. Originally, this piece was going to discuss something quite different as it relates to travel. But now the way in which traveling has affected my life and possibly my writing, the phrase I have prompted myself to write from, has changed. It has become more sharply defined. Traveling has widened the circle of my life and the previous limitations of my heart. To be clear, traveling is not a family vacation or a mission trip. It is not a trip taken with six friends to feel safe. It is not staying in a hotel in which you are separated from the people, language and natural (and at times, unnatural) environment which begin to comprise life in that city, town or village of whichever nation. Traveling means to humble yourself in the knowledge that you are an outsider. When Americans hear that they are arrogant from non-Americans, they are often confused or offended. Americans do not understand how to be okay with being an outsider although it is, I will agree, an uncomfortable state, one made even more uncomfortable if you have nothing to offer in terms of a well-roundedness, cultural sensitivity or spoken languages other than English.
Looking back on this past summer’s trip to Mexico, I can see the beginning point and the end of what I am attempting to illustrate. In the beginning, I was The Black-ish American girl who spoke essentially no Spanish at a work environment for which Spanish was a necessity. I was an outsider, which did not preclude me from being an object of attention. Any American black woman in Central America is an object of attention—the attention ranges on a scale which runs from admiring to inquisitive on one end, and then from inappropriate to fetishizing on the other. I digress. I was an outsider. And today, at the end, I am crying as I have not cried for a period which falls somewhere between a long time and too long. It felt good to cry like that once I realized I was doing it. Initially, I was just reading and responding to Facebook messages with a friend who was breaking the news to me.
I’d like to mention that traveling has increased by one-hundred percent the importance of Facebook in my life. Not because of a need to post and share pictures with my social circle, but out of genuine necessity. Not every friend you make in the world will have a working phone. At times, you may not have a working phone and Facebook is the only way of contacting people. Facebook is how I stay linked to someone I partied with for three straight nights during Carnival without speaking to them every day—I want to see her pictures, and she wants to see mine, but we don’t need to literally speak unless I am coming back. Facebook is the bookmark I have had to place too many times at my favorite part of books international friends and I have only just begun to write in our lives. These books, should the metaphor not be revealing itself you, are entitled “Friendship.” Facebook has prevented valuable friendships from disappearing once my plane has left the ground on its way towards my home. Today, Facebook is how I found out that my friend was dead. No one in that town could have called me to tell me, much less texted me the news. Cell service is a privilege, a lesson I really learned only after this past summer. At work, I was one day jealously asked how I still had service. I replied to my coworker that I had an unlimited network. Then they told me that no one in town—by which they meant locals—had cellular service for the previous three days. That is all to say that Facebook means a lot to a traveler. If I did not travel, perhaps I would be free of the one social media addiction I possess.
To continue—I was crying. The way that bad news unfolds correlates to the intensity at which tears are released from tear ducts. The phrases, car accident, all three of them, funeral, triggered gushes of tears that I only noticed because they impeded my ability to read more of these phrases popping onto my screen. I did not cry when an article came onto my timeline later in the day with more details because I was too preoccupied in realizing how traveling has sown thin threads of invisible steel through my heart with every journey. How often do we see an article about a local tragedy in some country? Probably quite often if we are users of the internet. But on average, we are not bound in any personal way to these tragedies. If I had not gone to Mexico last summer and then saw this same article today, I would have felt the familiar fatigue of sadness which resides in the average beating human heart in today’s world. But I would not have been connected. I would not have understood the impact made by the loss of those three lives to the community and my grief would not have multiplied at that knowledge. Because of what happened today, I now understand that when there were earthquakes in two parts of the world I had traveled to and then a hurricane over another, the threads curved into my heart pulled outwards. Those events were not mere articles to me anymore.
Traveling expands the limitations of the heart. If you travel far enough, it can remove them entirely. I believe that this can be a cure for apathy towards fellow human beings—a condition undiagnosed in many of us—during an age in which we are immersed in tragedy over breakfast, as soon as we wake up and look at a screen. We are desensitizing ourselves towards tragedy as a means of necessity. When I travel, I remove my ability to desensitize myself, country by country. But this only works when I go to a country with the intent of learning, receiving and giving—not of taking or collecting. I live in a world which is all at once gloriously connected and horribly disconnected. In exploring that world, I heal the disconnection within myself.
© Jahia Knobloch
Jahia Matilda Ifill-Knobloch is an English student at University of Maryland Baltimore County. When she is not attending school, she is reading and writing for pleasure rather than for schoolwork, traveling, painting or spending time outdoors–all at once when possible. She hopes to one day publish memoirs that will tell the stories from her life which are better read than heard.