What we’re really looking for when we travel

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“I read; I travel; I become.” — Derek Walcott

Someone recently suggested to me that my many travels aren’t journeys to see the world and immerse myself in the new, novel and astonishing but to escape from life, to bolt from my existential predicament with its quotidian contours and smothering banality. 

Well, duh.

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Rather than take umbrage at this reductive hypothesis, I embraced its glaring self-evidence. But it is only half-right. Escape from routine and workaday doldrums is part of the algebra of travel for most of us, but the other part about immersion in the new, novel and astonishing is undeniably, irrefutably the most important piece of the equation. That unquenchable thirst for fresh, unpredictable experience, from culture to cuisine, people to history, is absolutely paramount. To say otherwise is preposterous.

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After all, you can’t actually escape yourself or your life just because you’re standing woozily before the Taj Mahal or whizzing happily on a moto-bike through the maniacal streets of Saigon. “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you,” author Neil Gaiman said. You can’t not pack you. You view the world through the lens — smudged, rosy, cracked — of your own inescapable mind.

Yet there’s another way to look at the urge to trot the globe, and it goes like this: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” That dimly cryptic maxim has no author, just the copout “anonymous,” but it’s deep nonetheless. It’s saying travel is life itself, that to travel is to truly live. I know I’m at my most alive, most stimulated traveling, when unfamiliar vistas and uncharted ways of seeing and surviving crack open like great gifts. I look, I learn, I marvel. Smitten here, flummoxed there, I gulp it all down.

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Contrarily there’s journalist Janet Malcolm, who finds travel a lesser version of daily living, “a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed.” (A celebrity in her profession, Malcolm has an incredible job, and she presumably enjoys a highly satisfactory family and social life in very nice accommodations. I’m just saying.)  

Real life will inevitably beetle its way into our journeys. We are not immune from the humdrummeries of being human just because we’re sipping sangria in Sevilla or snorkeling in Thailand. More often than not, we are pulled back into normal existence while trekking and must deal with the minutiae and mundanities of getting by. Currency hassles, airport irritants, sore feet, crappy service, taxi ripoffs, unvarnished boredom — life is a greedy intruder. 

Some germane questions: Does travel satisfy the urge to fill something, or to shed something? Ponder.

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I finish with this besotted soundbite from illustrious world-traveler Pico Iyer, who defines wanderlust far better than I can: 

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

Travel as enchantment. There you have it.

(Photos by Chris at Gnashing.)

Budapest or bust. (Likely the latter.)

With no travel planned for the near future, an empty, aimless feeling kicks in, and I’m like: Now what? My wanderlust is muscular. The urge to move pulls hard. I would like to hit the road — or, more accurately, the air — and be transported to a new land with new people, new sights, new food, new thrills.

Today I was aroused by a travel story about Budapest on The New York Times web site. “36 Hours in Budapest” unfurls a highlight reel of things to see and do in the Hungarian capital in a brisk day and a half, from famed thermal baths to a burgeoning modern art scene; from brand-new, extremely well-stocked artisanal bars to Michelin-rated eateries. I’m revved about all of it.

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Budapest. Perhaps. Or not.

I almost hopped a plane to Budapest a few years ago. In fact, I wrote in a December blog entry: “I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip.”

Bite my tongue.

Yet maybe Budapest is a bust. Then again, that article sheds entrancing light on what it calls “a regional powerhouse in terms of art, design and cuisine, home to a dynamic fashion scene and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the former Eastern Bloc.”

Cool. But it’s so much pie in the sky. I won’t be going to Hungary any time soon. Funds aren’t robust and it’s rather short notice. I curse the Times article for enticing me, like a mouse to cheddar in a trap. Fiends.

My brother pointed me toward a $300 round-trip flight to Paris in October on budget-friendly Norwegian Air. That’s amazing. But it’s also seven months away, and I went to Paris for the fifth time a little over two years ago. I need something more novel and less trodden. (Anyway, I’ll always have Paris.)

In my December blog, which echoes this one in its anatomization of pesky wanderlust, I mulled where I might travel next:

“Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm. … I’m picky. Some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.”

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Amsterdam wants me.

Ireland seems increasingly attractive. A reader nudged me toward Northern Europe (I forget what country exactly, perhaps Norway). I prefer a place where I have to wear a light jacket. Amsterdam, though I’ve done it a couple times, intrigues. (I never tire of the Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh Museum. Or those, um, fragrant cafes.)

Then again, Budapest. It beckons, quietly if firmly, no matter how much I know it won’t happen. I recently returned from an eventful stretch in Chicago, so it’s time to relax, sit still for a while.

That’s a tall order. Sitting still is not my style, unless it’s during a nine-hour flight to Wherever-land, soaring to the next adventure, not a little intoxicated on the fumes of giddiness.

The welcome problem of where to go next

Wanderlust is a malady, chronic and unquenchable. It’s a greedy thing. It wants, desires. It pulses with passion. A lust to wander — exactly as advertised. Lust isn’t a neutral word. It implies the untamable, the uncontainable. It’s hot to the touch.

I’m forever locked in wanderlust’s fevered clutches, craning my neck in search of the next journey somewhere far away. I need to move. I demand experience. I devour culture. I like airplanes.

This year found me bounding near — D.C., Philadelphia, Boston — and swanning far — London, Montreal, St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year was Spain, for the second time; the year before, Paris, for the fifth time. If all that hadn’t broke the bank, I’d now be giddily racking my brain and scanning maps to locate my next adventure.

Let’s do it anyway. Where next?

Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from Central and South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm.

But I’m picky. I won’t name names, but some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.

Though I enjoyed insanely sweaty jaunts in Thailand, India, Egypt and Vietnam (the latter was best), I mostly spurn hot, tropical climes. I don’t do palm trees. Sand: the great deal-breaker. No matter where I go, early spring and early fall are my optimal travel times.

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I go for cities, jostling, clamorous metropolises, be it Shanghai or Barcelona, Berlin or Mumbai, Tokyo or Hong Kong, Istanbul or Marrakesh. That to me is where the action is, not enveloped in frothing seawater on a Boogie Board or panting across sinuous mountain hiking trails.

Before choosing Russia for my recent fall trip, I looked hard at South Africa, but decided it was both too expensive and too outdoorsy. There is fairly cosmopolitan Cape Town, known mostly for its seaside “scenery” — cliffs and water and the like. Victoria Falls and overpriced safaris could not seal the deal. I’m not mad about seeing hyenas in their natural habitat, when all is said and done. (Why do tourist safaris seem so canned, so kind of phony?)

Some time ago I came close to buying tickets to Argentina — zesty Buenos Aires! Wine! Steaks! — and Brazil, until I peered closer at the year-round temperatures and the Brazilian proclivity for volleyball and Speedos. Only Rio’s storied favela piqued my interest in the end, so I swiftly looked elsewhere for the next journey.

I picked Istanbul for its European patina and Ottoman exoticism, and, once there, was instantly won over by its luminous culture, wonderful people, Old World beauty, dazzling mosques and cobblestone-y charms. A weekend trip to the fairy-tale cave village of Cappadocia topped a perfect two-week vacation. I have since returned to Istanbul, and will surely go back.

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But not now. I’m looking for the new, the untouched, the virgin vacation. Japan oddly beckons, but I’ve been there twice, though I’d like to dedicate more time to Kyoto; I think I rushed it. Swaths of Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark — fail to excite. I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip. Prague is near Hungary, but I’ve done that and wasn’t bowled over. A bit too touristy, a bit too lightweight.

I’ve been to Poland, Mexico, China, Austria, Nepal, Cambodia, Beirut and Israel. But I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t yen to go, for many of the reasons noted above. (“Sun and fun” as an ideal does not compute.) Toronto looks … meh. Indonesia seems too balmy, if unspeakably gorgeous.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is a crazily superficial, obscenely first-world conundrum to be stuck in. I’ll pry myself loose when the time comes, when I’m ready for the next big trip (Chicago? Taiwan? South Korea?). Meanwhile, I gaze at my suitcase with longing, hoping to fill it soon, even if I have nowhere to go. Wrote Stephen Sondheim: “Stop worrying where you’re going … If you can know where you’re going/You’ve gone.”