How Travel Changed My Life

Return of the Native

by Paul Balido

The plot was always the same: I am alone, a grownup walking the streets of the little town where I was born, past colonial façades, through the park with the old stone church and the statue of a local hero. I am looking for my home, but search as I might, I can't seem to find the street. As I round a corner, suddenly, without warning, I break down, tears flowing like a summer storm. I wake up.

Little wonder, then, that for thirty-two years I pretty much banished any thought of returning to my little town. My own private embargo.

I'd last seen the green hills of Cuba from inside a magic bird that took a five-year-old away from rationed milk and bread lines to a place where people spoke my language with a funny lisp and there was plenty of milk and ham and all sorts of goodies. Spain, however, wasn't the final destination; and just as I was getting used to the cold air of winter in Madrid, I was plucked up again and dropped into the urban meltingpot of the Greater New York metropolitan area.

As I adjusted to my new life, Cuba withered slowly inside me, a tropical vine unsuited to snowballs and earmuffs. Memories lingered, visions of another life: shucking corn on grandma's porch; raising guppies in the old laundry sink out back; the sandal-clad feet of my music teacher pumping the piano pedals as we sang along, her toenails the color of ripe guavas. In the end, I had to bury these memories; they were no longer relevant to my new American self.

That early experience, though, must have taught me that good things lay at the end of a long journey. How else to explain my consuming passion for travel? How many fifth graders collect brochures about faraway lands? Or study Russian and Hebrew and Chinese on their own, for fun?

I would break the loneliness of my egghead childhood imagining the places I would take my family: to Spain and France and farther afield, to fairy-tale cities like Samarkand and Thimphu. How would we navigate the Himalayas, with my grandmother's bad ankle? Would a wheelchair help her up a mountainside? What would be the taste of yak-butter tea, or Tibetan momo dumplings? These thoughts plagued my young mind while other kids were out playing ball in the heat of Miami, a city we'd quickly moved to, seeking, like other immigrants before us, to recreate our homeland in the new country.

I typed long, detailed itineraries as exotic as my family's hard-earned trips were banal: the Everglades; Tampa; Disney World, if we were lucky. My obsession reached a point, I'm embarrassed to admit, that my parents actually forbade me to create any more itineraries. My career as a grade-school travel agent was over. But that night I swore to myself that one day, no matter what, I would see the world.

And so I have. From a post-high school "grand tour" of Europe (for which I'd saved like a veritable Scrooge), to a luxury cruise around the Far East many years later; from the heights of Machu Picchu to the flat fields of Lithuania to the deserts of Namibia, I have been fortunate enough to go where my heart desired, seeing, tasting, experiencing my way around the globe.

You'd think I would've had enough. But I hadn't. Was it an addiction? Might there be a twelve-step program for travel junkies? What exactly was I seeking, that I still hadn't found?

At some point in the early eighties, a thaw in Cuban-American relations permitted exilados like me to return to a land we thought we'd never see again. My mother was among the first to go, and since that initial trip, she's gone back to see her own mother as often as her budget has allowed. More than a few times she and my father encouraged me to go as well, but something always came up: work, other trips, fear of military conscription (go ahead, laugh). The real reason, I suppose, would be that I was terrified to come face to face with a past that I had buried. Why reopen a seemingly healed wound?

And so the years blurred into decades, and the first gray hairs appeared on my head, and lo and behold, a recurrent dream of my little town started to percolate in my nocturnal subconscious. It was around this same time that I realized that my grandmother, the one who'd been left behind, the one on whose porch I'd shucked corn, was nearing 90. If I was to go to Cuba, I'd better go soon. I couldn't let her die thinking I didn't care.

It might not seem a particularly brave thing, to call a travel agent; but in this case, for this trip, it was. Already at the airport I was battling butterflies in my stomach. Would I break down in public, as I had in my dream? And yet, by the time my Cubana flight touched down in Havana last Thanksgiving, I felt strangely calm. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to fly back into your past.

That same calm hung on the next morning as I hugged and kissed dozens of Cuban relatives. What a feeling, to see these people I'd all but forgotten! What a feeling, to walk those streets I'd walked in my dreams! To see my old school, the park where I'd played as a little boy, the house where I'd lived. To sit with my beloved kindergarten teacher, now old and frail, and her daughter--my music teacher--still sporting sandals and painted toenails. What a feeling, finally, to sit on my grandmother's porch, as if I had never left, with uncles and aunts and nth degrees of cousins asking me about the outside world, me the expert, me who left so young and now could give so much...

Those hours I sat on that simple porch are a highlight, a turning point of my life. I realize now what I was looking for. Why I felt best in places like Italy and Spain, Mediterranean cultures so much like my own. I was looking for a place where I truly belonged. Home.

And what a home I found! This island I had feared and avoided was, perhaps, my greatest travel fantasy come true: Europe and Africa and Asia all rolled into one enchanting package -- every style of architecture; every skin color of the rainbow; a people as warm, friendly and attractive as any I've ever met, all under a brilliant tropical sky. I found a connection unlike any other, a kind of -- if you'll pardon the psychobabble -- "closure."

Maybe I'm slower than most to catch on, but it took me three decades of travel to the ends of the earth and back to realize that, corny as it may sound, Dorothy from Kansas had it right: there really is no place like home.

And the dream, by the way, hasn't come back.

Paul Balido has written guidebooks, phrasebooks, and TV scripts, as well as numerous travel articles.