The street outside my house at 2 a.m. is a familiar sight to me, all shades of grey blotted by the black outlines of trees until a taxi glides past, bathing the facing doors briefly in light as their colours emerge: red, blue, green. As a view it barely rates below average, and yet I don’t want to leave. It’s always like this before a trip, even if the destination is only a few hours by car. Even if all my bookings are confirmed and all my loose ends tied, I can’t sleep. Not from excitement but dread.
My definition of Shangri-La is my living-room couch. You wouldn’t know it from the dispatches I’ve written in half a dozen publications, about countries from South Africa to Japan, but I hate to travel.
Okay, hate is a strong word. And, yes, I know it’s a privilege to be able to see the world. But does anyone really enjoy the A to B, when your knees grow acquainted with your chin and the only food that really hits the spot is a can of Pringles? I know I’m not alone when I despair at the deadlines I’ll have to meet in the days before departure and the feeling of not knowing what news will await upon my return. When you’re clearing your desk in anticipation of leaving it, vacation always seems like an idea you had in a moment of lunacy.
I see every car as a moving target, every airplane as a turbulent risk. I’ll admit: It’s thrilling once you touch down, or roll into town. And then again once you’ve thrown down your bag, rinsed off the scent of transport and embarked on your first tour round the block. But so many factors stand in the way of pleasure: danger, disquiet, constipation.
So why, given the choice between “fight or flight,” do I choose flight?
A wonderful chemistry occurs when we travel, when foreign elements mingle to become larger than their fundamentals. Our inner makeup changes. We feel the weather more extremely. We enter a psychedelic milieu of hyper-awareness, where even the sidewalks are remarkable and subtle changes in the sky draw our eyes.
Ideas percolate – it’s been psychologically proven – when we leave routine behind and see life in a different box, then out of that box. Pico Iyer once wrote: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” I can’t vouch for the latter, but I’ve seldom had a problem that doesn’t seem easily and creatively cracked from the window of a train out of town.
Still, it often seems so unnecessary, living in a town where you can get cha siu bao at snacktime and paella for dinner, to leave. Why, in our shrunken world, would we put our skin through drought only to happen upon H&M, Zara and Benetton? Precisely because of that so-called globalization. To truly understand our lives today is to understand everyone and everything in them. Following in the footsteps of our ancestors and those of our neighbours and the new family down the road help us find not only ourselves but them.
Travel is exhausting, disorienting, but, as your mother used to say, those feelings can be character building. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t want to collapse in hysterics after 30 minutes on a Tokyo street corner trying to figure out which way was east. But it taught me – the hard way – that if a man comes to your aid, he will always give directions, whether he knows the way or not, in order to save face.
Why don’t I complain about the weather any more? Because of the men in sweat-stained cotton undershirts squatting on milk crates outside humid shops during the Southeast Asian summer. And the three generations huddled around a hot water pipe travelling up to the third floor of an apartment house in China, where a wealthy expat was taking his bath.
I don’t travel so my children will burp at the table with the excuse that, in Hong Kong, it’s a compliment to the chef. It’s so they’ll eat as children do in Hong Kong, then come home and think bigger than fish sticks.
As far as we can, my family and I do as the Romans do when we travel, especially if that means eating gelato at 10 a.m. or supping late in Barcelona, swimming fully clothed in Cochin, dancing in the streets in Buenos Aires or having our skin scrubbed raw at a hammam in central Turkey. Or simply watching a woman hang out the family laundry and stammering out a greeting in her native tongue.
It’s not for some sense of authenticity. I left authenticity behind when I had a family. Invitations to tea from strangers happen less frequently now. Ditto trekking between mountain villages and camping in the desert. I can’t pretend, as I attempt to hunt down a bottle of cow’s milk at dusk, that I’m “going local.” But I’ve discovered that you can still learn plenty from an hour in the playground, observing the sandbox etiquette and speaking the language of the twisty slide.
It’s always amazing to me when fashion magazines trumpet the season’s “cruise” collections: pages of uncomfortable heeled sandals, unwieldy hats and palazzo pants that cost more than most airfares. Travelling for me is an opportunity to simplify, a chance to make do with a single pair of sensible shoes and to dig out some yellowing T-shirts from deep within a drawer for one last joyride, before tossing them in the hotel garbage bin on my way to checkout.
Then I’m that much lighter for the joyless cab ride to the airport and the turbulent flight home. My head is filled again with that familiar dread, but my soul is packed to capacity.