A long-time travel writer shares his favorite place to connect with locals, why rail is romantic and when to cut yourself off from home.
In the travel-writing genre, Thomas Swick stands out as a perceptive, old-school travel writer whose prose brings celebrated and obscure destinations to life.
He’s been a farmhand in Alsace, an English teacher in Poland and a journalist at newspapers like The Sun-Sentinel, in South Florida, where he was travel editor for 19 years.
In his new book “The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them” Swick draws on a lifetime of travel wisdom and experiences, and shares his seven pleasures of travel: anticipation, emotional connection, movement, novelty, discovery, break from routine and heightened appreciation of home. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with him.
Q: You wrote in the chapter on anticipation, “Long ago I realized that if I was feeling low, as if life no longer held any interest, it was because I had no trips planned.” Do you still need to have a trip on the horizon to be content?
A: I really want to have a trip to look forward to. I live in Florida, and I don’t have to suffer through long winters, but in the summer we yearn to get away from the heat and humidity. I love the idea of getting away from the routine, the sameness of everyday life.
Q: You write that trains are a voyeuristic pleasure — “as close as we get to the fantasy of dying and then looking down on the action,” but on buses, “You can talk to people, but they’re not always the people you want to talk to.”
A: There are some countries, like Mexico, that have very luxurious buses. But it’s still not romantic. The train goes its own way, it has its own tracks, it shows you the backs of things in a way that buses don’t. It’s hard to romanticize bus travel. On planes and ships, they take you away from the world, and you’re surrounded by nothingness, sea or sky, but on a train you’re escaping the world, but you’re going through the middle of towns where people have to stop and wait for your passage. Sitting in the dining car, looking up from your breakfast, watching places go by, it’s a wonderful experience.
Q: You’ve been both a traveler and an expatriate. You wrote, “Living abroad is the travel equivalent of monogamy,” but while travelers are rewarded with novelty, do they “miss out on the intimacy and insights” an expatriate gets from a lengthy stay?
A: I haven’t lived abroad since I left Poland in 1982. But when I travel now, I try to replicate that experience of being an expat, not just seeing the sights but trying to get beneath the surface of a place, figuring out what it’s like to live there. I’ve found that the places that are comfortable to live in aren’t always the most interesting to visit.
Q: One of your joys of travel is making emotional connections with the people we meet on the road. Is there one country in particular where you’ve found it easy to make these kinds of connections?
A: Brazil stands out. I found the Brazilians to be incredibly open. Brazil is the only place I’ve been to where you call people about getting together, and they say, “Sure, how about tonight?” It’s usually the less visited, less glamorous places where it’s easiest to meet people. Or it could be in an out-of-the-way place in a popular country like France or Italy.
Q: In an era of instant communication, is it harder to experience the heightened appreciation of one’s home, another of your joys?
A: The distance from home is shorter. I feel sorry for young travelers today who probably won’t experience that feeling of going somewhere and feeling completely cut off from everyone they know and being in a new place where they are on their own and have to fend for themselves. That allows you to understand home better than if you are constantly in touch with it.