No matter how much I love traveling or how often I do it, I get nervous before a big trip. It usually dissipates when I get to the airport, but those moments (i.e. days) before I leave are pretty anxiety-ridden.
It's not the travel itself. I'm not afraid of plane rides or not speaking the language or diseases or the other things that I assume keep other people close to home. It's actually the same thing that makes me anxious the night before every school year begins: I'm just afraid of the unknown.
I like having a plan. I like knowing what I'm going to wear the next day, what will be for dinner, what's expected of me. I can handle spontaneity, since that's really just making plans very, very quickly. I can also handle, even delight in, not having a plan for a few hours (or days, if I'm traveling with Emily), since not having a plan for a set amount of time in a set location with pre-determined company is a very solid plan.
What I don't like is having a long stretch of time in front of me that I can't plan for because there are so many unknowns.
There's a little game I sometimes play when faced with unknowns. The first time I remember doing it was when we moved to Germany when I was 8. Sitting on the plane to Frankfurt, I wondered what Germany was going to look like. We had moved quite a bit already at that point, so I knew a lot of different types of homes and cities. But they were all American and this was Europe. This was going to be different.
And so I imagined all the different ways Germany could look. I pictured different types of streets and houses and landscapes and I figured that it had to be one of those.
Then the plane started to descend and I looked out the window to see Germany for the first time.
And it was nothing like I had imagined it.
It wasn't better or worse. It just wasn't at all like I pictured it.
I kept playing that game over the years - when faced with an unknown situation I think through all the possible ways it could turn out. And here's the thing: I have never, ever been right.
Even more recently, now that I'm very aware of this "game" and of its inevitable outcome, I consciously and deliberately think through every possible way some new thing could be. And I'm never, ever right. Things never turn out like I imagine they will when I play that game.
I call it a game because it actually is fun for me now. For one, it gives me something to focus on when I get nervous. But I also get a kick out of seeing just how sneaky the universe is. Because I can be a pretty thorough thinker when I put my mind to it, and yet I never, ever imagine the way things actually turn out.
And so I spend the van ride to the Russian mental institution calling to mind everything I've read or seen about mental institutions, and yet I didn't imagine the smell or the bars on the windows (not the look of the bars, but the feeling of being locked in a strange room with bars on the windows) or the sound of Russian coming from a medicated toothless old woman who insisted on showing me her breasts.
And so I spend the plane ride to Valdelavilla imagining all the ways I could teach English to grown-up professionals, what the other Anglo volunteers would be like, and what a restored medieval Spanish mountain village would look like, and yet I completely missed the way I would so quickly come to adore the people I met there. And I certainly didn't imagine dancing with all of those drunk, adorable people until 3:00 in the morning.
And so I wander all jet-laggy through the Bangkok airport at midnight, marveling at the giant green demon statues, the lovely curly swirls of the writing, the extremely long and lone nail on the customs agent's pinky finger that he picks his nose with. I'd heard about those aspects of Thailand, I knew about the art and the humidity and the sounds of the language. I spent the last part of the plane ride imagining what it would be like there, picturing every possible combination of all that I knew and didn't know about Thailand.
And yet it was nothing like I imagined it would be.
On Wednesday I start my summer adventure of 2011. Rachel's going to drive me to the airport so I can go to DC for six weeks. This one's different - I've been to this city before, I know Jason pretty well, and it's still America, for goodness sake.
And yet I'm nervous.
Despite all that I do know, there are some big unknowns about this trip. I don't have a volunteer position set up at a local orphanage/retirement center/monastery to schedule my time around. I don't have a plan in place for how to fill each and every day from X:00 to X:00, nor do I have a set goal to accomplish. I am excited about having so much time to play in DC as I please, and I am also terrified to have so much time to play in DC as I please.
I am not so nervous about the evenings and weekends, since I'll get to hang out with Jason (and hopefully Meg!). We do and will continue to have plans when he's not working, of that I am comfortably certain.
And yet! This isn't the same as the other times I've seen him - we're not living in the same city, or traveling together to a new place, or spending a pleasant long weekend together. He'll be going about his normal life and I'll be there, in the middle of it. There's so much I already know about what it will be like, and yet I can't even imagine what it will be like.
I'll keep trying to imagine it right up until I'm there, I'm sure; and I'll keep on being nervous, because I keep imagining what it will be like knowing that I will never, ever be right.
And so I imagine what this trip could do to our friendship, and I conclude that there are only three possibilities: that it can either make it better, make it worse, or make it stay exactly the same.
So what options am I missing?