I’m standing in an airport in Guadalupe, and I am – to borrow a phrase the kids are using these days – “low key” freaking out. Everyone here speaks almost exclusively French. I speak exclusively English, although, let me boast for a second, I did ask the flight attendant how to say thank you in French (“Merci”).

So I know one whole word.

But merci does not allow me to ask why we just deplaned when our itinerary had us on the same plane from Miami to Port-au-Prince to Pointe-a-Pitre to Fort de France, our final stop in a five-flight, 15-hour excursion from Los Angeles to Martinique.

Merci doesn’t allow me to ask why we are standing in the E.U. customs line.

Merci doesn’t allow me to ask where we need to go next.

Merci is, though abundantly used over the next four days, entirely useless here. And where was here, anyway? It wouldn’t be until later that I’d understand that we – Katie Spieler, Karissa Cook, Ben Vaught, myself – were in the customs line at Pointe-a-Pitre, an adorable little airport in Guadalupe. Not that I could have known. I’d never been through a customs line.

I’d never left the country.

It wasn’t necessarily the leaving the country aspect that had me so unsettled. No, that part was fun, scintillating, thrilling. What was not so fun, not immediately, at least, was the fact that my favorite tool – my ability to communicate – the one I had been honing since fifth grade, when I knew I wanted to be a writer, the one I currently use to make a living, had been almost entirely stripped of me.

I had, of course, been in plenty of situations where both parties cannot speak the same language, but I had always been the one on familiar ground, where English was the host language. After all, I had never left the country. So I had always been comfortable when giving a foreigner directions or pointing them to a place to eat or whatever it may be. I had always been at ease trying to understand what they were trying to communicate, working through it with hand motions and animations and facial expressions. It’s a fun little game, really.

But now, in this little airport in Guadalupe, the script had been flipped, the narrative reversed. English wasn’t the native language, but French. I was the confused one, the one limited to a single French word. The only reason I didn’t lose my head entirely was because Katie and Karissa, my guardian angels on the trip, seemed unbothered and unconcerned and totally confident we were going the right direction. I made a mental note right then to follow what Katie and Karissa were doing for the remainder of our trip, and it’s basically the only reason I made it back to the United States.

But still, even with Katie’s sixth sense for where to be and when, and Karissa’s wealth of travel experience abroad, confusion didn’t seem to have a language barrier at Pointe-a-Pitre.

“Welcome,” a big man with an accent lilted with either French or Creole said as we waited in line, “to the Caribbean. Welcome to the big time.”

NORCECA-Martinique-Travis Mewhirter

There is a very simple image I’ve come to love. It’s cliché, but I also unashamedly love clichés, since I can’t ever seem to name a single one that isn’t true.

I’m sure you’ve seen the picture I’m referencing, or one similar to it. It has “Comfort Zone” written in one circle and “Where the Magic Happens” written in another, intentionally far in distance from the Comfort Zone Circle.

I’m a believer in that concept. I’ve written similar sentiments many times on this very site, yet I suppose I’ve been a bit of a hypocrite of late. Sure, I’ve stretched my comfort zone here and there, in various different ways – geographically, financially, taking odd chances – but after a while, these discomforts became familiar, something I was accustomed to feeling. It had been quite a while since I really nudged its bounds, to the point where you can feel that tug in your chest, your throat tighten a little.

I hadn’t jumped into that “Where the Magic Happens” circle in a bit.

And then I went to Martinique.


Communication, and my ability to thrive in that space of daily interaction, is, as I recently discovered, where I’m most comfortable. When I have the use of my full vernacular, whether it be by writing it down or speaking it, I’m at ease. With that skillset in use, it takes a tremendous amount of adverse circumstances for me to even begin feeling pangs of stress. The way I see it, with communication, you can figure out anything, remedy anything that needs remedying. No need to stress.

Which explains why that little airport in Guadalupe was so jarring. Suddenly, I, armed with my beloved and almighty English diction, was quite useless, rendered to shrugs, animated expressions, and tagging along like a puppy as Katie and Karissa figured everything out.

For the first of many occasions on the trip, a wave of empathy rushed over me so swiftly it damn near knocked me over. Patience for those who struggle with English in this country has not traditionally been my strong suit. I have a feeling that’ll change quite a bit now that I’m back.

In Guadalupe, I was far outside of my cozy little English-speaking comfort zone, and at first, yes, it was wildly uncomfortable. I didn’t like not knowing what was happening. I didn’t like not having any control over my situation or any way to understand it.

Inside, I was kinda freaking out.

Upon boarding our new plane, the one headed for Fort de France, Ben, my partner for the NORCECA we were headed to, asked me how it felt to finally leave the country. I shrugged, said we’d only barely glimpsed the inside of an airport of a different country, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Had I been telling the truth, I’d have said it actually felt a bit terrifying.

It felt, in retrospect, exactly where that magic begins to happen.

NORCECA-Martinique-Travis Mewhirter

It’s funny, what happened the rest of the trip: Everyone spoke English, or, at the very minimum, some broken form of it. You’d have thought, given the 800 words you just read, this would be a great relief to me, and to some degree it was. But it also carried with it an unexpected side effect: An odd combination of guilt and embarrassment.

A 17-year-old ball girl I met spoke five languages – French, English, Latin, Chinese, Spanish. Five languages! Latin! (Who voluntarily learns Latin?) Chinese! At 17!

Almost all of the players and officials spoke a minimum of two – French, English – if not three or four – Spanish and Portuguese being added to the mix.

And I could only speak one?

I felt like I was, to some degree, insulting the island itself with that level of ignorance, to the point that, on our first day, Ben and I took French lessons on Duolingo for 20 minutes so we could at least say hello, please, thank you, and mention the odd food or two. If we were ignorant, we could at least be politely ignorant.

And as we did so, little tingles of that magic began to happen. Soon, the terror of not being able to communicate was replaced with the excitement of learning how to do just that, in a different way I hadn’t previously been capable. I took great delight in learning what little French I could, a lovely, “sing-songy” language, as Karissa put it. It was incredibly fun to pick up phrases from the chefs, refs, players, ball-girls, whoever, not so much because I was learning the language, but because I was interacting with people from all over the world in a different manner than I ever had.

Soon we were learning a bit about the culture of not only the island, but of the countries against which we were competing. Soon we were practicing with a team from Trinidad and Tobago – Trinidad and Tobago! Soon we were trading jerseys with Martinique. Soon I was learning to count to 10 in French with my favorite ball girl. Soon Ben and I were playing excellent volleyball, winning one match then the next, figuring each other out, learning a language of our own on the court, one in which we could run a shoot or a quick without a single word.

NORCECA-Martinique-Travis Mewhirter

Soon we were eating dinner with fellas from the Cayman Islands, both of whom recognized my Maryland flag tank-top and Maryland crab tattoo. One of them was a diehard Baltimore Ravens fan.

Imagine that.

A Ravens fan from the Cayman Islands playing in a beach volleyball tournament in Martinique, an island of less than half a million that most are unaware even exists.

The world is a wondrous, enormously small place, don’t you think?

I do.

I’ve got the bug, you could say, and the few who have seen me since my return have indeed already said so. Caught it watching a Martinique sunset with two guys from the Bahamas, one of whom, hilariously enough, now lives in Canada. Caught it “dancing” — I put dancing in quotes because I am very white, and I’m not sure you could call it dancing — and drinking champagne with people from all over the world deep into an island night. Caught it learning some basic salsa from fellow American and new friend Victoria Dennis, who I didn’t know had played college ball at UCI and professionally in Peru, or is also doing this weird double-life of media-beach volleyball that I am.

Caught it from a weekend of basically no WiFi or cell service and a dead laptop with no ability to charge it, a much-needed reprieve from screen time, one we don’t get much in the U.S. Caught it jamming out to some catchy sort of French hip-hop that the DJ was playing. Caught it from that same DJ playing Taylor Swift’s 22 because Katie, who turned 24 the next day, requested it since Ben had just turned 22 on the first day of competition. The DJ didn’t have that song on his computer prior to Katie’s request, yet he downloaded it anyway, for no other reason than just because a little American asked him to, and blasted a Taylor Swift song at a beach volleyball tournament.

I love little moments like that, golden nuggets for the memory. This weekend was replete with them, one after the other, a particular favorite of which was eating a quick lunch with a ref, learning that he does everything from NORCECAs to FIVB Majors but also studied psychology and practices youth development in New York and Maine while living half the year in St. Lucia.

Everyone has a story. I dig learning stuff like that, and I especially dug it when learning about people from all over the world when the culture was more theirs than the one to which I was accustomed. Take the guys from Saint Kitts – St. Clair Hodge and Shawn Seabrookes – for example, whom we played in the quarterfinals. I didn’t know Saint Kitts was even a place. Ben and I took turns guessing what SK stood for on their jerseys. Turns out, it’s an island with less people than are enrolled in my alma mater. They both have full-time jobs. They’re lucky to play on the weekends.

And here we were, being able to train any day of the week, on the finest training grounds the world has to offer, and we could even bring along an excellent physiotherapist on site, something I received a good deal of grief for from the Cayman guys.

I’ve always heard that traveling the world gives you a heavy dose of much-needed perspective.

I was finally getting mine.

I listened to a speech by Will Smith not too long ago, and something he said stuck with me, and resurfaced quite loudly after this weekend: “Bliss,” he said, “is on the other side of fear.”

To be honest, I had never known that I was so scared of not being able to communicate with people until my ability to do so took a hard pivot in that little airport in Guadalupe. Maybe that sounds silly to you, since you are not a sheltered little Maryland farm boy, and you’ve probably left the country before. And indeed, there was some serious, unsettling fear, and crossing the threshold from fear to bliss was a strange, uncertain adventure.

Yet true to his words, this weekend was one full of bliss, of moments both small and big. Big in the sense that Ben and I represented our country well, bringing home a silver medal, a complement to Katie and Karissa’s gold. Small in the sense of tiny relationships formed, ones with ball girls and volunteers, cleaning ladies and referees, players I might never play against or see again. I’ll play many more beach volleyball tournaments. I’m confident I’ll win more medals.

But will I meet a Cayman Islander doubling as a diehard Ravens fan providing me updates of the loss to Carolina during my final against Puerto Rico while also heckling me for hitting a ball into the net or missing a serve? Not likely.

Will I get to see Katie, all 5-foot-4 inches of her, walk to the front desk of the hotel lobby, demanding a taxi, and a taxirightthissecond – ours had been, oh, only an hour late – because if we didn’t get one, we’d miss our flight? (Told you she was the reason I made it home)

You didn’t have to speak English to know better than to cross the U.S.A.’s most badass beach volleyball ninja assassin.

We got a taxi.

We made our flight by minutes.

Fifteen hours later, I made it home.

Just in time to start charting the next adventure.