My mother lived to be 101; my father to 91. Both made aging look good. And maybe my brothers and I inherited their genes; maybe not. But as a family, we are collectively healthy and if we choose, we can ignore the reality of aging.
So yes, I’ve lived the Baby Boom experience in full. I danced at iconic outdoor concerts to the Grateful Dead. I reported an unpopular war in Vietnam. I embraced the re-birth of feminism. I continue to resist every new technological device - and depend fully on my adult sons to walk me through them. In sum, I am not unaware that there are multiple named-generations after my own.
But absolute nothing tells me more starkly that I have lived a fairly long life than this. Tourism.
I once stood in silence and awe, almost totally alone in the Sistine Chapel, craning my neck muscles backwards, and imagining Michelangelo flat on his back - touching brush to ceiling as gently as his image of God reaches out to His own creation.
I strolled the tulip fields outside of the Rijksmuseum, and the galleries within, in quiet rooms full of World Art book originals. I did the same outside and within the Prado in Madrid, and the Louvre in Paris. Always, it was possible to be alone.
I swam from isolated beaches into one of the Earth’s clearest seas – off the island of Mikonos – with just a single friend in sight. In Athens, a week later, I posed for a Kodak sprawled across the Parthenon in a pink summer dress. The wide lens image shows not another tourist in sight.
I bought tickets to my first opera ever, at La Scala opera house in Milan – just hours before the Saturday evening performance. It wasn’t a fluke; it was the norm.
I crawled slowly through the narrow hieroglyphic-filled walls of the tombs and the dimly lit pyramids in Luxor - unrushed by more than a tiny stream of my classmates.
I traveled by a wobbly, open-sided, steam-driven train through the fields of Malaysia to the island of Penang. On arrival, I stayed with my then-husband, (ocean-front. billowing sheer curtains) in an elegant remnant of the British colonial occupation. We ate and drank – with just a single other couple in sight – at otherwise empty candlelit tables scattered across the beach. On rented motorbikes, we drove the Island’s one-lane roads, and seldom passed another vehicle.
I lived abroad for four years. I never called myself a tourist, though of course I was one. I distinguished myself, as a traveler, absorbing the world’s cultures and peoples. Like many in my generation, I’d read the novel, The Ugly American, and I was certain that I could recognize one when I saw him – and that I was not one of them.
That was then.
Twenty-one years ago, I met and married a Native Hawaiian man without a passport. He denies himself that privilege of foreign travel because he denies citizenship in anything other than the now-occupied Hawaiian nation. The Hawaiian Kingdom no longer issues passports since the 1898 take-over by armed American sugar-cane and pineapple barons.
Born in 1950 under missionary laws that forbade his language, his religion, and every single one of his cultural practices for more than 150 years, ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani chose instead to reclaim and awaken what has been lost. That is his life’s work.
He is able to travel only within the boundaries of what the American nation claims. He travels those forty-nine states – and, of course, Hawai’i - without a shred of identification other than his Native Hawaiian genealogical one. It slows down the TSA line for sure.
Because ‘Iokepa cannot go abroad – though he’s been invited to speak across Europe, South America and Canada – I have not. I have an empty passport. I am an American. I could travel to places I haven’t been: Czechoslovakia, South Africa or New Zealand – and return to places I’ve loved. I know it would be far less fun without ’Iokepa.
But here’s where I walk head-first into the passage of time. It appears that I can no longer travel in the manner to which I have become accustomed. It seems that regardless of how hale and hearty I am or how willing I am to experience discomfort for some peaceful, solitary interactions with other cultures and their peoples, that choice is no longer mine.
I regularly read the New York Times travel pages. I listen to friends’ vacation stories without let-up. I find that fully half of those stories – in print and at dinner conversations – come with disappointment and warnings. They speak of obscenely crowded historic towns and famed sites. But even formerly remote places now have five-star hotels – Penang for one.
My point and purpose here is not to wave my arms in the air and add to the complaints about ubiquitous, greed-filled tourism and its ravages on the place and people it exploits. I’ll leave that for another time, or another writer.
I want to make a small point here – and it’s a very personal one. I do not measure my age by a Mayor Pete candidacy for president of the United States - not student council. I do not measure the passage of time by the technology that makes my flip phone seem needlessly obsolete.
Rather I am thrown into the doors that have closed to the possibilities of absorbing foreign faces and places without the interference of another person’s – or hoards of those persons – jockeying for a selfie.