I wrote this piece recently to contextualize the travel memoirs that form part of my next Pelekinesis book, Autobiography Without Words. Since its function is mainly to introduce those other pieces, I haven’t tried to publish it separately, but am sharing it here.
I caught the travel bug in 1989, when I was 33, rather late in the game. I had won the first of my several writing fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts that year and decided to use part of the booty for a month of travel and writing in the Pacific Northwest, visiting Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria.
Before that trip I was the furthest thing from a seasoned traveler. I had only left North America once, in 1985, for a two-week trip to London and Paris. The only other time I had left the country was for the Montreal Jazz Festival. Otherwise, I normally spent a week or two every year in San Francisco, and a few days in South Florida, for booster shots of maternal abuse.
I had never traveled for as long as a month before, and this time I did it solo, which was a revelation. That much time out on my own, without anybody in tow to remind me of home, gave me a great feeling of freedom. I was able to invent every day from scratch, keeping the weight of the past and the familiar at bay. I went around with a glow I had never experienced before, and I determined to make travel central to my life from that point on.
Over the next year or so I visited Venezuela and Trinidad, then Russia, the Istrian Peninsula of Yugoslavia along with Northern Italy, and India, the first of three trips to that most idiosyncratic of places. For the next several decades travel became central to my life and my identity. I focused mainly on Asia for the first number of years, out of cultural and culinary interests, then I started using jazz festivals as a motivation for further European exploration, and ultimately I began to devour Latin American locales. When I was working as an IT consultant I normally traveled about six weeks per year.
That glow of freedom traveled with me. I felt as if I were constantly reinventing myself, for the better, on my own terms. I think that may have been the final piece of the puzzle, how to turn a sad─no, make that miserable─child into a happy, at times even beatific, adult.
Part of that process, I think, has to do with the realization that, however burdensome our own private concerns may be, we’re ultimately all small fry in a vast and wondrous ocean of humanity. And our own cultural assumptions about how to live a life, our own sense of time, space, love, family, friendship, art and eating, are part of a much wider repertoire of options, of actualizations, no better than any other, just more familiar.
The lone traveler, if so inclined, is also more likely to have significant interactions with people of those other cultures, since locals tend to strike up conversations with solo travelers when they wouldn’t think of intruding on the cocoon of a couple or a family.
Shortly before I caught the travel bug I had bought a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, where I still live. Over the years people have asked me if I’d have preferred a larger apartment. “Not really,” I always say. “The world is my apartment.”