I stared eyeball-to-eyeball at the piranha encased in glass. My father had brought this mysterious souvenir back from one of his many business trips, this time from South America. A shiver went down my spine. The sharp-toothed sea monster terrified me—but my imagination set ablaze with what it must be like to travel down the Amazon River.
Unknown waters carry risk but also reward, and I am instilled with wanderlust.
My father, born in a small village in the Peloponnese, went to sea at seventeen to earn a better life for himself and to send money back to his parents and younger siblings in Greece. Two decades later he established his own family in the United States and got a desk job. Occasionally, though, he would still go to sea. It was ostensibly for work, but the sea was in his blood. When he was home, my sea-captain father regaled me with stories of swimming at the beaches in Peru, eating caribou in Nova Scotia, and watching kabuki in Japan. Every time he returned from one of his adventures, he would bring back a souvenir—sculptures from Africa, electronics from Asia, and “armadillo droppings” chewy candies from the American South. Some little girls only had adventure books to read, but I had a father who was a real-life adventurer, and so I knew incredible journeys were possible for those who sought them.
I grew up in the most mocked of states—New Jersey. A snickering “What exit?” was the perpetual follow-up question to where I lived. I went to school with the same classmates from kindergarten to senior year of high school. I was so shy I was practically mute, and because everyone expected me to stay that way I didn’t know how to change—or if I even could. My father too had been shy, he’d told me, the emotion catching in his voice. With his booming voice, no doubt cultivated when he had to shout orders aboard a roaring sea, it surprised me to learn that my father was shy. Just like him, I would have to leave home to find my voice.
I am not adventurous by nature. I am, in fact, resistant to change. Calculated risk, as my father always put it, is needed in life though. That’s why I knew that when it came time to pick a college, I had to pick the furthest one I could imagine—a small women’s college in the Los Angeles suburbs. I had never even visited California before orientation day. I understood, though, that I needed that distance so that I’d only have myself and God to rely on to grow into the woman I was supposed to become. If I floundered, I had the safety net of my parents, but I knew that if I really wanted to change I had to dive into the deep unknown.
The day I arrived for orientation, I discovered my roommate had taped colorful paper fish around our dorm room. I didn’t have the voice then to tell her of my long-held phobia of fish, and so I suffered in silence. There were days I questioned my choice to move across the country. Days I struggled. Days I felt like I might drown in a sea of tears. After years of reading about other people’s adventures, I did not know how to have my own. Talking in class was still so difficult for me that professors singled me out to give special oral presentations.
The reverend of my small campus church, though, saw past my outward insecurities. She warned others that I had a backbone of steel. I had never considered that before, but I believed she was right. It had to be true since I had been willing to leave everything behind me and come this far without turning back. I didn’t change overnight, but by the time I left I wasn’t the same shy girl I once had been either.
I graduated and got a job.
Swept up in the momentum of life and youth and love and literature, I even adventured to exotic locales and read on stage at some of New York City’s most prestigious poetry venues. After a while, though, perhaps consumed by the daily grind, the paying of bills, the long grocery store lines, the fear that came with the economic crisis, the growing up and wearing appropriate business-casual attire, the travel that was obligatory, I realized I was clinging to safety. I had turned risk averse. Worse than taking a chance in unchartered waters was being a piranha perpetually trapped in glass. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I packed my bags.
“Please ensure your seatbelts are properly fastened,” the pleasant voice of a flight attendant says over the loudspeaker. Tray table up in the locked position, I pull out my small notebook and pen and using my knee as my writing table I write the date and place. A sense of calm waves over my body, and I begin to settle into myself. I breathe.
The plane lifts off, and I close my eyes and pray a silent prayer of safety and gratitude for the journey ahead. My knees press into the back of the seat in front of me, and the person next to me commands the armrest between us, but I am free. Unfettered from alarm clocks and carefully composed answers, I begin to settle into myself. My real self. The self I am when I am not restrained by expectations. For the first time in a long time, words flow out of the tip of my pen as the anxious cares of the world recede to pinpoints on a living map under the cloud coverage.
In South America, I meet up with a friend from a former church we attended together back in New York City who has also felt the call to leave everything behind and rediscover life. Together, we crane our necks to find sloths lounging in trees in the city center. Drenched with sweat, we hike up steep mountain trails and learn how to cultivate coffee-bean plants. A friendly toucan flies to the railing of our lookout point and lets us pet his rainbow feathers. We get caught in a rainstorm, and I fall down in mud and pick myself up again. We eat juicy mangoes plucked straight from the tree, guanabana gelato, and tree-tomato chocolate. We drink the local beer while we read in hammocks as the sun turns pink over the mountains.
My friend insists the river we cross is not piranha-infested, and when I then follow her blindly into the thick of the jungle on the other side of the rushing water, we find ourselves walking in circles until we meet a man and his dog and have to trust them to be our guide back to town. We are rewarded by an invitation to watch soccer with him at a local establishment. We float in the azure waters of the Caribbean. We stare up at the starlit heavens.
I behold a world so raw and beautiful and true. On the road, I shake off my inhibitions. I listen to stories told to me by strangers. I slow down. I begin to pray more. To become more grateful. I become my childhood self that is so captivated by wonder I begin not just dreaming but dream-chasing. Though travel is a luxury, it is sustenance to my weary soul, connecting me to the inheritance of my father’s rich stories and lighting the pathway toward my future.
When I come home, blinders off and senses reawakened, I see the diamonds sparking in the gritty sidewalk, I smell the chestnuts roasting on the open flame of the street cart, I hear the flapping of pigeon wings flying heavenward. I stare at the streetlight, eager now to experience the adventure of the everyday.
I am ready once again to be called out unto the water.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos is a writer, editor, teacher, and speaker based in New York City. She coauthored, with Paul Maher Jr., the biography "Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road.'" For more, visit www.StephanieNikolopoulos.com.
Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" Paperback – July 14, 2015
by Stephanie Nikolopoulos (Author), Maher Jr., Paul (Contributor)
List Price: $19.95
Fueled by coffee and pea soup, Jack Kerouac speed-typed "On the Road" in just three weeks in April 1951. He'd been traveling America for the past ten years and now, at last, the furious energy of his experiences flowed through his fingertips in a mad rush, pealing forth on a makeshift scroll that he laboriously taped together. The "On the Road scroll" has since become literary legend, and now "Burning Furiously Beautiful" sets the record straight, uncovering, among other things, the true story behind one of America's greatest novels.