See the World, Free Your Mind

Traveling to the other side of the city or the world can be a transformational experience.

To Eric, my first editor

In third grade, a girl from my school died in a car accident.

I vividly remember hopping on the yellow bus with a few dozen other kids to go to her service without knowing what to expect. We probably were just vaguely excited about skipping class.

After seeing the face of a sleeping doll with pigtails in her open casket, the mood was decidedly different. On the way back, we were quiet and silent—profoundly changed by the funerary field trip.

Traveling to the other side of the city or the world on a sad or happy occasion can be a transformational experience: the physical commuting triggers an inner journey that continues unfolding for the rest of our lives.

In “The Philosophy of Travel, ” George Santayana wrote,” “Locomotion—the privilege of animals—is perhaps the key to intelligence.” Seeing the world with an open heart and mind, as kids usually do, is critical to transcend propaganda.

Visit the locations of our history books to learn what they don’t teach you in school. Being in “the room where it happened,” whether Charleston‘s Old Slave Mart Museum or Lisbon‘s Monument of the Discoveries, shatters stereotypes.

Like going to Mexico City and realizing its world-class museums and cosmopolitan rooftop bars have nothing to do with the dodgy picture delivered by American media, or traveling to Bourdeaux and finding the friendliest locals appreciative of your efforts to communicate in broken French.

“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate,” wrote Pico Iyer in “Why We Travel.”

After visiting the Faroe Islands, online trolls scolded me. “Congratulations on supporting animal cruelty,” they said, referring to the ancient practice of whaling. But going beyond bloody YouTube videos and into the heart of the foggy Northern European archipelago was illuminating. It taught me their hunting is non-commercial, humane and environmentally sustainable. 

Touring Seville‘s Bullring Real Maestranza Museum was uneasy until we discovered the chapel where matadors pray before facing the magnificent beast with reverence. Learning more about the solemn ritual shifted my perception. And, though I probably still wouldn’t attend a bullfight, I found myself capable of respecting a different cultural practice. 

“The world never quits growing on us. It’s just as vast as ever, and it reinvents itself every day,” Bill Bryson aptly wrote in “The Best American Travel 2000.” And, though rewarding, the experience can be an unsettling one.

The images of the falling Wall from my teenage years colored my first visit to Berlin in 2007. I was delighted with a sense of optimism and possibility, different from my post-social media/COVID trip to the German city (photo featured), shaped by the historical and geographical proximity to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

The French election of a lifetime, between President Emmanuel Macron and rightwing hardliner Marine Le Pen, was also momentous. Fresh off the Trump years, an American in Paris was an ominous walking-and-talking warning. So much was a stake for France, the European Union and the world. We dodged a bullet, for now.

The most important lessons? Progress is not a straight line. And, as John Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charlie: In Search of America,” “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

At a trying time for millions of Americans’ rights, including women and LGBTQ+ families, celebrating the old USA’s birthday in Provincetown, the birthplace of American freedom, still committed to liberty after more than four centuries, was reaffirming.

I wish cultural warriors had a peak at so much love between people from all walks of life. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain in “The Innocents Abroad.”

Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic and, as Maya Angelou said, “travel cannot prevent bigotry.” But even the legendary poet and civil-rights activist believed there could be hope. “[…] by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends,” she concluded.

Faroe Islands: Ancient Land of the Vikings

Time stands still in the unreal archipelago of the North Atlantic.

Once upon a time, on a faraway island, the descendants of the first Vikings hunted whales and raised sheep while retelling encounters with selkies and other shapeshifting creatures.

The year: 2019. The place: The Faroe Islands.

This archipelago, formed by 18 major rocky islands off Scotland and halfway between Norway and Iceland, is the North Atlantic’s best-kept secret.

Blessed with mild winters and cool summers by the Gulf Stream, the island nation, with a population of 50+ thousand and twice as many sheep, is a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. 

The Faroe Islands

The most Instagrammable place is Múlafossur Waterfall. You should stop here as soon as you land and even before checking in your hotel.

Located in the town of Gásaladur on Vágar Island (just 7 miles from the airport), this 100 feet waterfall will take your breath away.

It is accessible via the Eysturtindur tunnel, completed in 2006 to the joy of the few dozen inhabitants of the villages of Gásadalur and Árnafjall and the tens of thousands of visitors who come every year.

Drive from Vágar to Tórshavn, Faroe Islands

We stopped a couple of times to admire this place’s rugged beauty on our 28-mile scenic drive from Vágar to Hotel Føroyar, located in Tórshavn.

I was glad we flew in our hiking gear and shoes as we were ready to explore the many trails leading to the most picturesque cliffs, fjords, waterfalls and lakes.

Vágar, Faroe Islands

One of the most extraordinary things about the Faroe Islands is that you feel like you’re the first soul who’s arrived here in a long time and have the entire place to yourself.

Even upon descending in the quaint villages that occasionally interrupt the beautiful wilderness, there’s such a fog-covered dormant vibe.

Saint Olav’s Church, Kirkjubøur, Streymoy, Faroe Islands

We drove 18 miles northbound to Eysturoy, the second largest island, on the following day. 

One of the ancient Viking settlements also possesses the archipelago’s highest mountains, largest fjords, enchanting villages (Gjógv) and impressive waterfalls (Fossá).

Gjógv, Eysturoy, Faroe Islands

One of the most characteristic sights is the grass or sod roofs. Settlers introduced them to provide thermal insulation during the 300-day rainy season. 

Although other cost-effective materials replaced the tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, recent times witnessed aesthetic revivals, and new buildings started to go the ancient ancestors’ way.

Grass roofs, Faroe Islands

On Day 3, we took the ferry to Kalsoy in the archipelago’s northeast. Home of the iconic Kallur Lighthouse and the famous Seal Woman statue, it’s also the location of the 25th James Bond 007 film “No Time to Die.”

I believe that the famous movie franchise was about to do for the Faroe Islands what it did for Thailand’s Khao Phing Kan Island back in 1974 with “The Man With the Golden Gun,” when COVID stood in the way.

Although the hike was not challenging, I failed to see the lighthouse due to my extreme fear of heights. Nonetheless, the surrounding area is a feast for the eyes and sanctuary to about 40,000 pairs of puffins, making it a paradise for bird lovers and watchers.

Kallur Lighthouse hike, Kalsoy, Faroe Islands

Kalsoy means “man island” and parallels another isle to the east (Kunoy, “woman island”). It seems ironic that it’s the former and not the latter where the iconic Kópakonan (Seal Woman) statue lives.

The Seal Woman was a selkie. In Celtic and Nord mythology, “seal folk” can change from seal to human by temporarily shedding their skins. They usually did it on the Thirteenth night to party with the humans.

A young man from Mikladalur waited on the beach until a pretty sea girl shed her skin to steal it, kidnapped her and forced her to bear his children. One day, while he was out at sea, she recovered her skin, fled and reunited with her seal family at last.

After the fishermen realized it and went out to hunt down and kill the seals, she appeared as a terrifying troll pledging revenge. Legend says that every time a man from the village drowns at sea or falls from the cliffs, it’s the Seal Woman’s doing.

Seal Woman statue, Mikladalur, Faroe Islands

If experiencing the islands from the cliffs is spectacular, doing so from the water will leave you speechless. 

The boat tour, which departs from the marina in Sørvágur on Vágar Island, will put you almost at arm’s length to the iconic Drangarnir Sea Stacks (weather permitting). 

I’m confident you won’t reach out and try to touch them, though, as you’ll be firmly holding the boat’s handrails for dear life. 

Even in the summer and with good conditions, the ride is choppy. But if you can stomach it, the rewards are worthy. 

You’ll admire the rocky coastline in all its splendor, the many sheep defying gravity as they pasture at almost 90 degrees, puffins and pellets’ perfect choreographies, and the majestic sea stacks.

Drangarnir Boat Tour, Faroe Islands

Our captain must’ve been as skilled as his Viking forefathers, for we were treated with a sail through the natural tunnel formed by the stacks. After about 45 minutes of awe-inspiring content-capturing, the rough waters started to wear us off.

So as we returned to the marina, most passengers had put the cameras away and stared at the unreal landscape holding the boat and hugging their loved ones.

I thought about the ones swallowed by the ocean, victims of the curse of the Seal Woman.

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