On a recent overseas flight, I opened a copy of the International Herald Tribune to find the World's Most Traveled Man grinning back at...
On a recent overseas flight, I opened a copy of the International Herald Tribune to find the World’s Most Traveled Man grinning back at me.
The article described how he had spent a couple of million dollars over the course of four years to knock off the Guinness record by setting foot on nearly every country, territory, island, atoll and speck of rock that had reared its head from beneath ocean surfaces. But as I read on, I began to feel sorry for the World’s Most Traveled Man.
During the course of his globe-trotting, he hadn’t missed a single place. He’d just missed the point.
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Travel is not about distance and photo ops; it is a matter of inquiry, a dialectic between the self and the other, where time is the key ingredient. In his mission to “complete the task,” Most-Traveled reminded me that a frayed passport is next to worthless if you don’t have a cast of faces, a personal connection to every stamp.
I know the feeling.
On my first trip abroad at the age of 12, I embarked on a “whirlwind extravaganza” bus tour with my mother through 14 countries in Western Europe. For a month, I sat sandwiched between Australian retirees with thick thighs, hurtling from city to city, hotel to museum to restaurant, repeat, repeat, repeat, in a soap opera on wheels shielded from the continent by glass and speed.
Before I had finished my gelato in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, plates were being broken at an “authentic” Greek taverna in Athens. And not a moment after we had departed from a dumpy London hotel one rainy day, we were full circle in Amsterdam as our shameless Dutch guide made a final soliloquy to his beloved Red Light District. The trip was clean, organized and totally forgettable. Assembly-line tourism at its worst.
I have since learned that dynamic travel is no secret. It all begins by giving fear the finger and making a simple choice: to renounce comfort and routine for the limitless promise of the unknown.
Indeed, travel is dangerous. When Camus wrote, “what gives value to travel is fear,” his message was twofold. Today there are bombs over Baghdad; terror, disease and lethal chickens to look out for. However, it’s our interior that is most vulnerable.
By making the decision to experience the foreign on its own terms, and to be affected, for better or for worse, the traveler submits to threats both literal and figurative that cast his person, his notion of home and status, his world view, his very identity into flux. For the tourist who refuses to let go of assumptions and coalesce with the outside, this is a red light; for the traveler, this is life itself.
Some travel in search of cheap thrills; some look for answers to a vague and recurrent dream; others seek escape, to moonlight as someone else, only to forget who they were; and a few romantic souls chase epiphany, dogged in the belief that travel holds the answer to something, even if they don’t know the question.
Whatever your motive, do it sooner rather than later, with no strings attached. Create your own itinerary, and be ready and willing to break it. Reserve only when you must. Give chance a chance. Go in the off-season when the climate may not be warm, but the locals tend to be warmer. Stick to material simplicity and pack half of what you expect you’ll need. Read the local press. Read about travel. Better still, write about it. Bring a guidebook, bearing in mind that it’s not a Bible. Improvise. Ask around. Let others help you. If you can’t talk with anyone, just walk and wait. Getting lost is an art.
Bargain. Have a glass of tea, or two, or three before buying. Remember that German time and Moroccan time are not the same thing.
Jason Motlagh lives in Washington, D.C.
The Travel Essay runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and also online at seattletimes.com. To submit an essay for consideration, make sure it’s typed and no longer than 700 words. Essays, which are unpaid, may be edited for content and length. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or send to Travel, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Because of the volume of submissions, individual replies are not always possible.