This distinction between the literal and symbolic also applies to our broader experience on this journey. On the face of it, we are here to learn about Ireland’s past and present, to eat and drink and breathe it in. And we’re doing that with gusto. From the museums in Dublin to the walking tours in Galway and Kilkenny, this journey is packed with people and places of Irish history, politics, music, dance, art, food and laughter. We’re passing through landscapes which are lovely and dramatic -- all with stories of their own, and all part of the greater narrative of Ireland that we’re gathering.
Under the surface of this journey a different kind of knowledge is also being gathered. With our normal lives suspended, traveling creates a space outside of our routines to reflect on things we often put aside or take for granted. Encountering the unfamiliar gives us new insights and perspectives on ourselves and our lives back home. Our group has twenty-two people, about the size of a hunter-gatherer community, the longest-running social unit of humanity. In a deep sense, it feels good to be on a journey with a group this size. Although most of us didn’t know each other a week ago, we had more in common from the outset than a random group of strangers, since we’d all chosen to participate in this particular Smithsonian tour. Traveling with all of you feels a bit like certain honors courses I’ve taught where the hardest working students are there to learn the most they can. Choosing honors, they’ve already self-selected, preferring the quest for more knowledge over easy grades.