Fittingly, I discovered the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński while in a small Polish town, starved for English books and enjoying the cold canned air of a mall bookstore. I had been in Europe for nearly three months, teaching first in Italy and then Poland, existing in a world without smartphones with quick access to English articles and news. I bought two English books in Italy and read them three times each. I ran across Kapuściński’s later work, Travels with Herodotus, crammed in between the usual shelves of Penguin silver spines, and wondered where he had been all of my life.
Kapuściński traveled throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, writing for the Polish Press Agency and filing reports from nearly every conflict zone on the planet. In the throws of the Cold War, there were plenty of options: Iran, Honduras, Angola, Senegal, Ethiopia … the list goes on. He wrote throughout his years abroad, covering four decades of coups and wars and revolutions, resulting in articles and books like The Soccer War, Another Day of Life, and The Emperor. Perhaps his best work is Imperium, a book about his journey around the Soviet Union as the arcane communist system edged toward collapse, his observations of the cracks in the system written with wisdom and alacrity.
I appreciated his work because as he traveled, he thought. He measured himself against the environment, forever seeking to dip beneath the surface of culture to understand the values and motivations, ultimately finding commonalities between the people of disparate nations. He wanted to understand, to drown his ignorance through experience, to learn and to grow. “The world teaches humility,” he wrote in Travels with Herodotus (p. 39). Those words described so much that I have experienced through traveling- and continue to experience with each new trip. Only travel can give you both the high of experiencing and learning so much, then dropping you into the abyss of knowing that you have only begun to scratch the surface of the globe. It teaches you that what you know is simply what you’ve seen; what you haven’t seen remains. There are miles to go, hills to climb, people to meet, sunrises to remember, soccer balls to kick. With every moment I collect, I am reminded that there are thousands- millions- more to experience, learn, live.
I’m now preparing for my next foray into humility: in six weeks, I will leave the fair United States to fly off to Rwanda, landlocked in the heart of Africa, for a year-long teaching fellowship. In contrast to Kapuściński, I won’t have wars to witness and dictators to interview (one only hopes), but the thought of immersing ones self in a wholly new culture, where I am clearly and markedly an outside, leaves me already operating in a state of nervous excitement. So I have begun this blog, titled “A Thousand Hills from Home,” as a way to keep track of these moments, to share with others, and to maybe spread some of the humility, if possible. And now, let this next journey begin.