Guilt and Gratitude

I’m writing this entry on thanksgiving. It’s not celebrated in Argentina (as far as I know, Canada is the only country outside the US where they celebrate thanksgiving), but I thought it would be good to think about the things I’m grateful for anyway.

I love traveling, and I feel very lucky that I have many months left still to travel. I love being in a new place, I love learning about other cultures and meeting people from all over, learning words and playing silly language games, swapping travel stories and learning the lesser known idiosyncrasies of countries I thought I understood. I like having my own assumptions about the world challenged and being humbled to meet people who are much more informed than I am. I like walking through the streets and taking public transportation. I love learning what the people who live here love about their home, and what they wish was different. I love the challenge of learning a new language, the avenues it opens in your mind, the way you’re forced to question things you thought must be the same everywhere. I’m very happy to be doing what I am now. There are inconveniences, discomforts, loneliness, and anxiety – there always are with travel – but I bear them and they come and go and I cope, and they don’t make me want to stop traveling.

I have to add, though, that it feels a bit weird to write about gratitude when I have such a stress-free lifestyle. I get self-conscious, thinking, come on you idiot, of course you have things to be grateful for. You haven’t worked since June. You’re on vacation. You can eat steak every day and drink wine every night and sit on a beach for the next three months if you feel like it. What is your gratitude worth if it comes so easily?

I also feel a bit guilty in general, a rich white American traveling in countries beset by economic crises and poverty and violence and me reveling in how cheap it all is. I wonder if I’m having a really authentic experience here, if I’m really learning about the places I visit, if I’m really coming to know these places the way I’d like to.

I know this guilt is probably part of every traveler’s experience. I don’t want to dwell too much on it, other than to say it’s something I feel along with my gratitude for the many, many awesome things that my lucky life is full of. I think it’s worth mentioning along with the things I’m grateful for because in some ways this guilt is something I’m grateful for as well. It’s feelings of guilt that help motivate me to get up early to explore the city while everyone else is still sleeping off their hangovers. Those feelings keep me from getting attached to the insular environment of the hostel. They remind me to keep my privileged American eyes open. They remind me that ultimately I’m not traveling to party, or to take an extended vacation. They remind me that at the root of my desire to travel is a hunger for knowledge about the world, for perspective and context and humility. Maybe guilt is the wrong word for it – maybe I mean a sense of purpose, or calling even. In any case, it is that feeling – more, even, than all the crazy experiences I’ve had or all the little happinesses of my traveling life that I’m truly grateful for – that I appreciate most today.

I’m lucky, and grateful for my good fortune, and trying earnestly to savor to the last drop the good gift that I’ve been given. It’s probably not so profound to think that I’m happy I quit my job and decided to travel for a while before I work again. But I am. I made the right decision.