I can see the border of Belarus from my window. On the other side, not a mile away, is Brest, the largest city anywhere near here — a place that doesn’t have much except for the aforementioned border, the hotel I’m staying in, and a junkyard.
My wife and two daughters are with me. They are not impressed. My wife had a break down over what she took to be pubic hairs on the floor of our room. I had to sneak into the appliance closet and procure a vacuum cleaner. They’ve expressed repeatedly how there is nothing to do. They’re really isn’t — well, unless they’re stricken by a sudden interest in Polish farming methods … or new developments that are going to rearrange the logistical map of a continent, as I am.
My wife was jealous that I was traveling in Europe for so long without her. She doesn’t really give a shit when I go off to Kazakhstan or Bangladesh or China. Europe though, Europe was something different. She came to Europe thinking of cobblestone streets and bistros; beautiful, cultured cities, cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe in golden dusk.
I took her out to the Belarus border.
But she doesn’t complain. She makes jests, she laughs, but knows the score: I’m here for work. These are research travels and research travels generally mean going to the places that nobody else wants to go.
As a traveler, this strategy couldn’t produce better results. It’s tough to decide on your own to go out to Terespol, Poland for no reason at all. You just wouldn’t do it. It’s not going to happen. Research travels take you to places you’d never go to otherwise because the intrigue is some form of information that you’re chasing rather than the appeal of a place in and of itself.
When in a bout of rec travel it’s sometimes difficult to break away from the pull of the black holes of tourism. You dream about your travels as though you’re going out to be some kind of explorer but end up sitting around in Luang Prabang eating pineapple sticky rice with everyone else.
My first forays into research travels were those eight seasons I spent as an archaeologist. The places that profession would take me were outside of my conception — or pretty much that of anyone other than those who lived in them. It was as though my travel destinations were dictated by dart throws at a map. I spent a lot of time in places I didn’t know even existed — the absolutely normal, mundane places that all anyone did was eat and work and watch TV, and I liked it.
In journalism — especially on these big book projects — this geographical lottery is risen to another power. The intrigue is found in accessing particular people, observations, and events; the place is more often than not irrelevant. It’s a reverse arrangement of travel priorities, and often lands me in places like the border of Belarus with my wife asking why it smells like burning garbage.