World Travel’s Greatest Gift: The Plus Signs Between Even Improbable Pairs

I remember when I was 19, one of my favorite artists said at the end of one of his songs: “Love for President.”

A few years later, a close friend and amazing poet described his experience growing up in a Christian family (I was surprised to find this out about him, as I had just acquired my share of bad experiences with the religion and was completely turned off from it then): “It’s all about love,” he said. Curious.

A couple months ago, I was sitting alongside a jazz musician in Bali, listening to him talk about his spiritual beliefs: “Some people say ‘God,’ some say ‘Allah’; I say ‘Love’.”

One of my best friends said to me this past spring that she no longer wants to travel alone. A previous tenant expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s only worth it if it’s shared.” And both have traveled extensively on their own and know firsthand the magic in it.

It took me until very recently to understand love’s critical role in my life experience. I have spent the last sixteen years or so caught up in an art as my first objective. It eclipsed everything else: many social opportunities, relationships, and — at times — my mental health.

I felt the highest power was creativity and that love was nice.

The longer I’m out in the world, though, the more my priorities are shifting. Although I am constantly growing in experience and wisdom through my travels, although I am writing more than ever, although I am learning about how others think and live and adjusting myself as I see fit, there is actually something even larger that I’m gaining out here: connection.


As a person who used to consider herself to be very shy and socially awkward, it’s strange to think that the thing that means the most to me these days is connecting with new people. But it does.

Over the past three months, I have found a little brother, a father, a kindred spirit, a teacher, a lover, a best friend, a mommy, a mentor — some of whom were the same person, some in more than one person.

Often I find myself frequenting the same establishments — even when it means spending beyond my budget or eating the same food again and again or drinking things I don’t much enjoy — just so I can run into the same people, the owners and patrons of the places where these connections were made.

All of travel is brilliant for this, but Southeast Asia seems the most conducive and — in particular — Indonesia.


I met people on a very regular basis in Bali. There was actually a point during which I couldn’t write a word because a stranger would start up a conversation with me or new friends would by chance drop into the same cafe just after I’d settle in, and a whole new discussion or adventure would ensue.

I was so torn about all this at first because I felt like I couldn’t find the time and space to be alone and to be creative, yet I was gaining much from these encounters.

And, sure, you can do your best to plan your days — and you should if you intend to achieve anything — but you can’t plan the universe’s interventions: the people you are supposed to meet, the places you are supposed to be, the things you are meant to see even if it’s “supposed to” be writing time.

And why fight it? In my case, getting to the end of the writing process seemed the most important thing — to have a book finished — but with enough time I learned that each person was a character in my story and I in theirs; the only difference (and not always) was that I was recording mine.


I explained to one person that I felt like I was in love with everybody, and I’ve since decided not to run from this notion. There doesn’t seem to be a precise word or phrase for falling into deep love with someone unromantically, but this is what I’m getting at.

We tend to value romantic love over all other types — sibling love, parent love, love for children, for your own child, for your pets, for friends. I felt the same way, even back when love didn’t take precedence. It seems that no matter how many beings we feel unconditional love for, no matter how loved we are or how many people love us, we feel like we’re missing something without romantic love — that most delicious elixir.

But I’m trying to be okay now with whatever form love shows up in, in not needing romantic love in order to feel whole: a restaurant owner giving me a thumbs up behind the back of the man I’ve brought in with me for drinks; my personal Swedish massage trainer in Thailand nodding and saying, “okay, okay, okay,” as confirmation after each of my tentative strokes on my model; or a handful of new friends revealing to me their deepest secrets — while exchanging favorite music with each other in the middle of the night surrounded by abandoned villas in Bali, or getting ready for work in the morning in Germany, or riding in the back of a songthaew in Thailand, or walking through a food festival in a tiny Irish town.

So many people earned my good-bye tears when we parted ways.


Even with contenders like getting lost, missing my bus by a few minutes, sleeping through my train stop, conflicts with airport security, thirteen-hour layovers, being eaten alive by mosquitos, and forgetting my bank card in the ATM, leaving people is still the most difficult part of all of travel.

So, to Mal and Chris, Michael, Brian, Paddy, Leo, Mickey, Mabel, Elke, Boom, Caroline and Ali, Reza, Maya, Rose, Orçun — and so many others: You’ll forever be in my heart.

I’m grateful for the plus-sign once stuffed between us.


Photo 1 courtesy of a lovely Alchemy staff member; photo 2 courtesy of Michael Alemparte; photo 3 courtesy of Paddy Kearnan; photo 4 courtesy of Ali Ertürk

2 responses to “World Travel’s Greatest Gift: The Plus Signs Between Even Improbable Pairs

  • Diana Lacross

    Penny! Penny, Penny! Keep writing! I love it, I love you!!! Saw your mom and sister, yesterday for a bit at your Nana’s. So happy that you seem to be having a great time and finding yourself. Nana said, you had to leave Italy in a hurry? I didn’t have time to find out why because we just dropped in on our way for a boat ride in Bob Braito’a boat! Looking forward to playing catch up! Keep on keeping on! Be safe! Love and miss you, Diana

    Sent from my iPhone


  • emysilva

    Love is the greatest and best! Sounds like your heart is bursting open. That makes me smile.

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