When I was six, my dad took off an overseas work trip that took him to Japan and Hong Kong. He was only gone for 10 days -- it seemed like an eternity -- and when it was time for him to come home, my mom carted me and my sister down to SFO to welcome him home.
I'd only been on airplanes a handful of times in my life and viewed all airline travel as inherently glamorous and cool. As we stepped on to the escalator at the International Terminal, all that glamour and cool magnified tenfold as I starred at the beautiful stewardesses jetting to and from the gates in their chic suits and perfectly coiffed hair. If I had thought the flight attendants on Southwest were cool, the elegant ladies of Pan Am and Cathay Pacific set a whole new level of life to aspire to. I immediately informed my mom that I was going to put my ballerina plans on hold and be a stewardess when I grew up.
We met my dad in the arrivals hall and although he was presumably bleak and bleary-eyed, on the ride home, he regaled us with tales of his few days in Japan and Hong Kong.
"When you fly into the city," my dad told us, a touch of awe in his voice, "you just fly over dense metropolitan area that just goes on and on. We must have flown over sky scrappers for thirty minutes before we landed at the airport. It was like Manhattan that went on forever."
While I had no context for this statement -- I don't think I'd even travelled to New York at this point -- an image of an endless sky scrapper-filled metropolis burned its way into my brain. What would that look like? What would that place feel like? It was an image I'd find myself recalling as I flew in or out of places like Buenos Aires and Mumbai, comparing these vast and giant cities with the standard set by my dad's description.
I think one reason we're drawn to travel isn't just to take a break or see something different or new. I think we also travel to see if what we've heard is true -- to compare our biases and prejudices and assumptions against the reality we experience with our own senses. Is the Croatian as stunning as everyone says it is? (Yes.) Does Botticelli's "Venus on a Half Shell" really so beautiful it can move you to tears? (Yes.) Will India be so overwhelming you'll pack your bags early to go? (Almost, but no.)
Yesterday, as our plane began to make its descent into Hong Kong, I eagerly flung open my window shade to find a sky of pink-tinged clouds, set afire by the sun sinking towards the horizon line. The clouds parted and I saw we were above the sea, where a lone cargo ship solemnly trucked through the water. See you in San Francisco.
As our flight continued on over the water, it occured to me that our approach to the airport wasn't going to be across swathes of metropolitan urbanity, but along the coast. We flew along endless water, broken up only by the occasional cargo ship, finally passing a new bridge under construction. I craned my neck to get a view from the windows on the right side of the plane and only could see some mountains rising high into the clouds that seemed to cradle where I imagined the city must lie.
Where were the endless skyscrapers? Were my dad's version of events right? Had I remembered this info correctly? Was this a different airport? These thoughts danced through my head as the airplane gracefully touched back down upon the earth after 14 hours in the sky.
That's the other thing about travel -- no matter what someone else experiences, we get to compare and contrast their narrative against the only one we ever truly know: our own. My arrival in Hong Kong may have been the complete opposite from the one my dad experienced so many years ago, but if I'd never heard his story, the seed might not ever have been planted to see it.