“Why on earth did you walk that much when you didn’t need to?”
After about 5 hours hiking in the mountains, enjoying the view, searching for mushrooms (without much luck) and occasionally spotting animal footprints along the trail or birds in trees, we met a local man – probably in his 70s or 80s – from one of the small villages that we passed by, and that was his question to us.
He asked where we’d come from, and Hermann and Katharina, my hosts and guides in Măgura, told him our hiking route (I didn’t, of course, understand what exactly they were saying but I could tell from their gestures). He looked surprised, and didn’t seem to think we could have walked that much. The Q&A was repeated: (the village man, with a confused expression) “where?” and (Hermann and Katharina, pointing the way we’d come from) “from over there, we started down there, came along this way…”, and they did this a couple of more times, and the man, who finally seemed to believe that we really did walk that much, asked “why?”
Katharina later translated the conversation to me and explained that the man found it surprising that we would walk that much, up and down the slopes, voluntarily.
As with most things in Romania, opinions about life that the old man from the village has seem to be influenced by the experiences of “the communist time”. “In the communist time…” was one of the phrases I most often heard during my stay in Romania, whether it was on the volunteer city tour of Bucharest, through conversations with my hosts, or discussions about today’s economic challenges in Romania. The “red” history is still very much a part of life, it seems, whether anyone likes it or not.
The old man from the village along our hiking route, it turns out, had a very understandable reason for being puzzled at our voluntary half-day trek in the mountains; as a young worker in the communist time, his experience of walking the rough mountain trails (obviously in a much tougher condition than my hike – with an expensive pair of hiking boots, energy bars, and what not) was decidedly non-voluntary. He and his fellow workers had no choice other than to walk up and down the rugged mountain slopes – rain or shine, cold or hot – and this was hardly a fond memory for him.
Once I understood why the old man was confused, I was fascinated by his question.
Why – really, why – do we walk, trek, hike, swim, ride, paddle, and partake in these activities, subjecting ourselves to conditions outside of our comfort zones? Enjoying nature, discovering beautiful scenery, seeking physical fitness, seeking mental relaxation, or “getting away” from whatever we feel the need to once in a while get away from…?
On my last day in Romania, on the way to the airport through beautiful mountain views (occasionally interrupted by uncomfortable and ugly remains of failed attempts at rushed “luxury” development projects – half-built vacation homes in the middle of nowhere; abandoned billboard signs announcing ambitious construction projects that were due a few years back), I was thinking about the question in my head.
Why do we travel?
My “taxi” driver, a friend of Hermann’s who lives in a nearby village, shared with me his undying love for his home village. Brașov (the closest place from Măgura that would be considered a large city) is nice, he said, “many of my friends now live there and like the city, but I’ll never leave my home – this is where I will die.”
As someone who hasn’t really stayed in one place, I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but I definitely understand and appreciate it. Knowing that a large part of what I appreciate about my home (Japan) has been influenced by my being away from home for a long time, I think it’s exciting that someone who’s never left his hometown feels such a strong affinity with the place.
“Well, I wouldn’t leave this place,” he added, smiling shyly, “but if I could live in Hawaii, I would.”
Hawaii, of all the places. Not Bucharest, not Berlin, not Rome (he speaks German and Italian, on top of Romanian and English), but Hawaii. Pointing to the CD player, which was playing the soundtrack from the movie “The Descendants“, he said he loved the movie so much, and believes it’s true that “people’s characters reflect those of their land.” In Hawaii, like in the movie, where the landscape is so gentle and relaxed, so are its people; life is slow paced, just like how he likes it in the Romanian countryside, and the weather is always nice.
Admiring the fall colors as we drove through the old highways along the Carpathian Mountains, with Hawaiian songs and beach sounds in the background, I felt that maybe somewhere in the middle of this funny mix was the answer to the soul-searching question, “why do we travel?”
To me, at least, being surprised, puzzled, and fascinated by the things I encounter while traveling (like the old man’s question on my hiking trip) – and the occasional feeling of “where am I, really?” – is what makes me want to venture into the unknown. No amount of online or offline reading could have given me the weirdly exciting feeling of being the curious foreigner who wants to voluntarily trek for hours – and thus being able to see (or, maybe more like have a peek into) the same moment in the same world from a very different perspective.