There’s something magical about visiting a place for the first time. That first glimpse of the majestic Swiss Alps, the initial whiff of French bakeries brimming with fresh baguettes, the first time my toes dug into the white sand beaches of the South Pacific, the way my heart rate nearly doubled when I first glanced out at the Grand Canyon.
I love new places. I love watching from the airplane window as an entirely new landscape forms beneath me. I love new foods and new languages and new modes of transportation. I love meeting new people and learning new cultures. I love the adventure of stepping into a place I’ve never been before. I love the “new.”
But sometimes, travel doesn’t involve anything new. Earlier this year I got to go back to Thailand – a place that stole my heart on my magical first visit. But this time, there was nothing new about it. This time there were no new sights or smells or sounds. This time, I got to learn the art of returning.
Some people might have called this a waste of a trip. Why would you fly halfway around the world and spend all that money to see things you’ve already seen? To experience things you’ve already experienced?
And my answer to them is this: Because when the Thai flight attendant asked me what I wanted to drink, I could answer her in her native tongue. Because the fruit vendor at the temple gate still remembered that the pu-ying farang (foreign girl) from last year liked two slices of papaya every afternoon. Because when I sat down at a restaurant, I knew exactly what to order (and what not to). Because I knew how to navigate the city streets.
I understood the language that once sounded nonsensical. I knew the cultural quirks of the beautifully kind Thai people. I knew what streets to stay away from once darkness fell. I knew that Thai iced coffee was delicious and that panang curry was my favorite. I knew I should get as many Thai massages as possible because they were only $8 per hour.
But most importantly, I knew the Thai people. I had friends in this place. I knew brave people foraging into the trenches of human trafficking and extreme poverty. I knew exuberant Thai children who call me Teacher Dana, who hug me and jump all over me and hold my hand and refuse to let go. Who live in slums but who have the most contagious sense of joy I’ve ever seen.
This was a place I knew. People I knew.
And returning was the right choice.
I knew it was right the first morning I woke up there. Because this time, it wasn’t strange to wake up on a January morning to the birds chirping and the tropical sunshine filtering through the curtains and motorbikes whirring by on the street below. The cultural barriers weren’t overwhelming and all the things that were hard to adjust to on my first visit were no longer strange and new. And when I woke up that morning, a smile became a permanent fixture on my face for the remainder of the trip.
This was a place I knew. A place my soul called home.
Visiting a new place is magical, yes. But returning to a place you love?