“My trip back to Spain? Oh, yeah, it was fine.” That’s what I tell everyone. And it’s mostly true.
But every time I say it, there’s a mini movie montage playing in my mind. The Lyft driver who was late picking us up for the airport shuttle. My kind neighbor who offered to drop everything and drive us. Arriving at the San Francisco airport to learn the Heathrow-Málaga tickets, which were absolutely booked and confirmed, had somehow not gone through. Overcoming ridiculous roadblocks to fix that. Rich taking his onboard sleeping pill too early and having a truly bizarre conversation with me over a meal he doesn’t even remember eating. Both of us stumbling off the plane like zombies.
The truth is, the trip didn’t start feeling fine until I stepped onto Spanish soil (OK, airport asphalt) in Málaga, where we were spending the night before returning to Seville by train. Within an hour of landing Rich and I were sitting in a tapas bar enjoying ice-cold beer and a plate of jamón (ham), Spain’s most beloved comfort food.
Despite my jet lag, I actually managed to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then I was jolted awake at 2:00 in the morning by raised voices in the street, followed by a marching band. I stumbled out of bed and pulled open the shutters just in time to see the Blessed Virgin being carried through the streets. Why she wanted to go out at that hour is anybody’s guess, but half of Málaga had turned out to cheer her on.
“It’s official,” Rich said. “We’re back.”
Perhaps the strangest thing was arriving in Seville after six months away and finding the city and my apartment just as I’d left them. My time in America had been vivid, filled with many adventures, quality time with family and friends, and two bouts of Covid. No doubt it all had changed me in ways I barely understood yet. And while I knew it was illogical, I found it hard to believe the physical landscape had not rearranged itself to a similar degree. The city was just the same as always … or was it?
“Why do you go away?” asked sci-fi author Terry Pratchett. “So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.”
I’ve been back just over a week, and I keep walking through familiar streets, eating my favorite tapas in my customary cafés, and marveling as if it were my first time here. Everything seems to have extra colors. “We’re surrounded by the wonders of what we love so much," said travel guru Rick Steves about his joy at being on the road again. "And it just makes our endorphins do little flip-flops."
That heady endorphin rush of seeing a well-known place with fresh eyes is one of the greatest gifts travel offers. Many of us have felt it at one time or another. But few — only about 600 in all — have felt the profound euphoria that comes with looking at our home planet from afar.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, grew up in a world where she often got the message she didn’t belong, didn’t count. “Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe,” she said. “I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe, that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.”
After his 1971 moonwalk, Edgar Mitchell described looking at Earth as an "explosion of awareness" and an "overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness... accompanied by an ecstasy... an epiphany."
Lots of astronauts have reported a staggering, sublime shift in consciousness after seeing the Earth floating in space. They call it the Overview Effect, and it can be lifechanging.
“You develop an instant global consciousness,” Mitchell said, “a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
“It didn’t take long for the moon to become boring. It was like dirty beach sand,” said astronaut Bill Anders, who snapped this shot on impulse in 1968.“Then we suddenly saw this object called Earth. It was the only color in the universe.” This iconic photo helped launch the environmental movement. Some people feel the Overview Effect just looking at it.
Two years after returning to Earth, Mitchell co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which researches the link between science and consciousness and gives a biennial award for creative altruism.
Not every traveler, or even every astronaut, has an epiphany that inspires them to devote their lives to doing good in the world. But sharing time, conversation, and laughter with people from other cultures, even if it’s just during a tour or a meal, can send us home with greater feeling of connection to all humankind. We may find we have a greater sense of empathy and compassion toward all our fellow sojourners on this planet's journey through space.
I’m so disappointed. I keep pressing the space bar on my keyboard, but I’m still on Earth.
“I think travel is a powerful force for peace and stability on this planet,” said Rick Steves. “We would be at a great loss if we stopped traveling, and the world would become a more dangerous place … What you want to do is bring home the most beautiful souvenir, and that’s a broader perspective and a better understanding of our place on the planet.”
Travel makes us fall in love with the world. With luck it lets us feel the Overview Effect and fills us with so much wonder that our endorphins start doing flip-flops all over the place. That’s how I’m feeling right now, being back in the city I love most in the world, and having the pleasure of rediscovering it all over again.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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