One way to clear your head of obsessive thoughts – unfulfilled tasks, a sequence of events that need unscrambling – is to grab a pen and pad and write them down. That’s what I did yesterday when travel was front and center in my thoughts, as it has been through much of this pandemic time. I’ve been feeling particularly hemmed in lately and was seeking relief by cataloging the places we’ve been before travel posed such a complicated and demoralizing challenge. A paper and pen recreation is a poor substitute for the rich, sensuous experiences of the market stalls in Marrakesh and the riverboats on the Mekong River. Doris Lessing speaks of “the thinning of language against the density of our experience.” I recognize that naming these destinations is merely an exercise in listing; the true encounter lies on the other side of daily life, habit, and, of course, the erasures of memory with time and age. But the list is all we have in our current locked down situation, with time running out on the travel warranty of our aging bodies.
To bring the physical capacity issue home with a sledgehammer, we received a few weeks ago an outsize catalog of available trips from Road Scholar, formerly known as Elderhostel. We have never done group travel, not with Road Scholar or any other agency, but whatever list they paid for had correctly targeted us as potential customers. This company knows its audience because at least a third of the listings are for grandparent/grandchild trips. Each listing in the catalog is accompanied by a colored line graph, indicating the degree of difficulty it presents – amount and strenuousness of walking involved – and the majority of them were already out of our league.
Once I had drafted a list of countries we had visited, I consulted an Atlas – always fun – for a quick scan of the maps to jog my memory and passed it by my wife to make sure I hadn’t missed anything; the final tally was 32 countries and six continents. Australia was all that stood between us and a perfect sweep. I had been to Denmark and Norway pre-Rosellen on a hitch-hiking adventure through Europe and she had been to Poland on a USIA lecture tour and to Russia to connect with Jewish Refuseniks denied permission to leave the country. Otherwise, we had covered the remaining countries on the list together.
Of the 32, there were 6 we had visited multiple times. Italy topped the list because, in addition to our straight up tourist visits, there were 15 glorious summers of Rosellen’s writing seminars in Spoleto and Assisi, many of which I was able to piggyback on. Her writing reputation also got us a month-long residency at Bellagio, the Rockefeller Foundation retreat on the shores of Lake Como.
Mexico was a frequent escape from New Hampshire’s colorless cold winters and, later, during our 13 years in Houston, proximity made it almost obligatory to visit regularly as one would a favorite relative. With a few notable exceptions, we never touched down twice in the same region of this astonishingly diverse neighbor, covering destinations from Michoacán’s monarch butterfly sanctuary to the southernmost state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala.
Israel stands in a category of its own. It’s the only place outside the US where I was more than a tourist, by virtue of the year I spent there after my freshman year of college. We’ve been back as a family for several extended visits and are deeply invested in its troubled politics, both because our daughter and son-in-law are Israeli citizens and because the history and fate of the country are part of our identity as Jews. By contrast, our multiple visits to England and France, rich and rewarding as they always are, don’t have the intensity of our encounters with Israel where we have an emotional investment that goes beyond tourism.
The years immediately preceding the pandemic took us further from home than most of our earlier trips. Over a six-year span, we touched down in India, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia (Bali). Many years earlier we had been to Pakistan at the invitation of a Lahore-born friend and to Turkey at the turn of the Millennium, but the more recent cluster of pre-Covid trips seem driven, in retrospect, by a premonition of doors closing for a variety of reasons.
I could regale you with a smorgasbord of travel memories and glaze your eyes with the predictable photos with which travelers return, but that’s for another essay. My compulsive country count isn’t about establishing bragging rights based on the extent of our travels. Instead, I’m underscoring the way in which travel is deeply woven into the fabric of our lives and how painful it’s been for all that to come to a screeching halt. I’m guessing that many readers will agree that there’s an addictive quality to travel. The more you’ve done, the greater the need to keep doing it. I can’t recall many years in which there hasn’t been at least one major trip, almost always international. I’m not even addressing our domestic travel history here, except to say that I plead guilty to the charge that we’ve shortchanged our home country when we’ve made our travel plans. That’s partly because we are drawn to experiences of cultural difference in addition to physical beauty.
Being deprived of travel is definitely a first world problem when you consider that at least 98% of the world’s population has never been outside their home country, perhaps has not even ventured beyond the bounds of the region of their birth. Until relatively recently, foreign travel wasn’t a major part of most Americans’ lives. When I spent my year in Israel in 1957-58, semesters abroad were not yet an almost obligatory part of most college experiences, and the definition of travel for most families was a road trip of varying lengths in the family auto. Beginning in the 60s and escalating ever since, travel abroad has become the norm for middle class, college educated Americans with a sufficient pool of surplus cash.
In contrast, my year in Israel was financed by the $550 in the savings account my classmates and I were encouraged to create, beginning in first grade. The infusion of my bar mitzvah gift money swelled the amount that was the accumulation of weekly deposits of one dollar over many school years. Later, despite my modest teacher’s salary, we were able to travel as a family almost every summer, thanks to the generosity (or forgetfulness) of a wealthy landlord who never thought to increase our rent. More recently, we have the resources to travel more comfortably but our tastes and values still incline more toward graduate student than prosperous burgher.
The more we’ve traveled, the greater is our awareness of the limitations of what we’re understanding as tourists. Even setting aside the limitations imposed by language, moving about inside the tourist bubble and following the predictable itinerary of must-see sites walls you off from how most local people live. Once, we were able to convince a local tour guide to skip the required stops and instead take us home to meet his wife and kids and to tour his modest home. That visit imparted more understanding of life in Viet Nam than checking the boxes on his guide’s list. Whenever we can identify a local contact, as we’ve done from Palermo to Bristol to Istanbul and Capetown, the trip allows access to the beating heart of a place many levels beyond the idealized portrait in the guidebook.
None of us knows how many more bookings our future holds. Our passports expire in 2023 and if we’re still around then, we’re going to have to decide whether renewing is more than a symbolic act. I hope not. Meanwhile I’m hoping that the world reopens soon enough for me to remedy my case of travel deprivation. This quote from author Carew Papritz sums it up for me. “I travel because I become uncomfortable being comfortable.”