Learning to appreciate travel again.
ASTORIA, New York- My calendar app mocks me. It is sending me notifications of my journey to South Africa in real time as if I was living it: “Flight to Nairobi” … “Flight to Johannesburg.”
For the first time in my adult life I cannot just leave a place whenever I want to. For the first time I cannot travel.
My solution for any pernicious situation that I have ever faced has been to go somewhere else. I’m a traveler — I don’t fight, I leave. But what do you do when there is nowhere to run to?
Every traveler has some sort of mind map as to where they’re going next, where they imagine themselves to be in three months. While we all know that this is perpetually subject to change we at least have a framework for the future laid out upon conceptual map of the world.
When I look out at three months from now I don’t see myself anywhere. I’m in a holding pattern. For the first time I don’t have control of whether I say or go, and it’s made me a little hesitant to even consider planning my next steps. I just had an entire slate of speaking engagements in South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and journalism trips to Singapore and Australia wiped off the drawing board. The wound is still a little too sore to risk re-injury.
I’m stuck and I know it.
I don’t particularly like the situation that I’m in, but it has really made me appreciate the past twenty years that I’ve been able to travel freely. From 18 to 38 I’ve went wherever I wanted, done whatever I’ve found interesting, learned about whatever I’ve found intriguing. Throughout my stretch of travel up to here, the world was more peaceful, more prosperous, and more welcoming than it’s ever been before. The world had been mapped, the roads paved, and everything was wide open for me to go out and play. And play I did — for 20 years I’ve never had to grow up. My early adulthood was lived through a completely unique period of time — a Pax Romana at the advent of the digital age.
But this holding pattern gives me a moment to consider my next moves, whenever they will be. I’m spending my days thinking about the places I’ve never been: Togo, Madagascar, Pakistan. I’m feeling slightly regretful, and I start thinking about how at the beginning of last year I had tickets booked to Myanmar but decided to stay on a film project in Malaysia. I start thinking about my two aborted trips to Romania. I start asking myself about why I didn’t go to Western Sahara when I was just hanging out in Morocco blogging. Or why I didn’t go to Bolivia when I was virtually standing on the border in Chile. These thoughts make me feel a little on edge — what if I’ve lost my chance?
I’ve taken travel for granted, it would seem. Do something for 20 years and it’s easy to get used to it. But as soon as it’s taken away for a time, you realize how much you miss it.
I believe my next book will be a raw travel book — just a raw celebration of the art of human mobility. Doing research travel books like Ghost Cities and Silk Road are cool, but there is just something about a good travel book that puts it in its own class. They’re just enjoyable to read. And I don’t believe that the same-paging of the globe decreases the vitality of the narrative — a well-written piece can make an empty room seem like a destination. Writing is really a matter of patience, and that’s what’s become lacking in modern travel writing. It takes patience to build up the layers.
But who wants to sit alone in an empty room long enough to do this?
I guess I do. I complain about quarantine, but this really isn’t very different to how I usually live in NYC. I have two phases of life: I go out and travel, collect stories, go ape shit, and then return to my desk and write without a care of what’s happening around me. I’ve once spent ten days straight sitting in front of my laptop not leaving the house before. A week of not going outside is nothing for me. I’m a model quarantine-er … when I’m not forced to be.