“There is little favorable to be said about poverty,” wrote Nelson Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom, “but it was often an incubator of true friendship.” I first read this line (and book) about 15 years ago, and I remember it sometimes in my moments of misery on the road.
No, it’s not that through travel I somehow become poor; it’s that through travel I frequently encounter things about which little favorable can be said but which, at the same time, are incubators of qualities and traits I wish to develop.
I remember once sitting on a minibus in Homs, Syria, on my way to visit the Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, and the man to my left nudged my ribs and said, “It is too hot.” And it probably was, all of us dripping sweat and nearly suffocating as we waited for the vehicle to fill so we could depart. Part of me wanted to cuss, particularly at the driver who wouldn’t let us out for fresh air, but most of me chalked this up as another opportunity to practice both patience and endurance. And when an hour later that sliding door did open and we all piled out, the world was beautiful, not least because it contained oxygen and a slight breeze.
That summer in the Middle East, during some of my more heat-ravaged days, I thought of the drops of fresh mountain water in the photo above. They are pretty little things — amazing really, so wet, cool, and abundant. When I had taken the picture on a two-day hike in the Smoky Mountains, the water seemed ordinary and commonplace, because water was easy to come by (and easy to take for granted). But ponder these drops while in the desert with a dry tongue and they may suddenly seem extraordinary.
So what do my experience in a Syrian minibus and a picture of drops of water have in common? Travel, particularly budget travel, includes moments of hardship and discomfort. These moments may be brief or they might last the duration of one’s journey. But always they are opportunities to build one’s character, and they might even lead one to see the world as full of the extraordinary, whether drops of Appalachian mountain water or drops of Syrian sweat. If Nelson Mandela could point out something good to be found in poverty, surely we have the capacity to discover good in our own lesser travails.