Maybe I Protest Too Much. Maybe Not.

Practically everyone I talk to about travel challenges me when I say I don’t like it. How could I possibly follow my wife to 50 countries and keep a straight face when I profess that travel is not my cup of tea? They think I protest too much. I’ve been thinking about that.

When I look back on a particular trip, it is true that the low points fade into the background while the highpoints stand out. I remember the serenity of a Balinese temple and forget the towel-wringing humidity that made standing there practically unbearable. I remember looking into the eyes of a gorilla barely five feet away in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and forget that the climb up a mountain and through a thicket woven with nettles that tore at my clothes and my face to find the gorilla was the hardest climb of my life. 

In the recollection the pain seems to have disappeared while the pleasure remains. It is a bit like childbirth, or so I am told. Maybe that is a built-in mechanism that operates in me just as it operates in mothers who have told me they have forgotten the pain and remembered only the pleasure that came afterward. Maybe pleasure trumps pain. That would be nice.

In Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” That definition will work for my relationship to travel. While I’m doing it, I find the effort stressful, threatening and exhausting. But once I’m home, I forget all that and remember the gorilla, the temple, the shrine, the garden, the people.

In this respect I do think that I am different from the travelers I have known, that I am not, in fact, protesting too much. The difference typically reveals itself over dinner after a day that has, for me, been filled with near misses, imagined terrors, genuine sickness. Listening in you might well think that my fellow travelers and I have much in common. A good deal of the dinner time conversation is taken up with tales of mishaps: lost passports, sudden illnesses in the middle of nowhere, a spouse lost in a crowd with five minutes until the bus leaves, a reservation that was supposed to have been made but wasn’t, a tour bus that was supposed to appear but didn’t. The litany is endless.

In all of these conversations there is a fundamental difference between my companions and me. For me the possibility of these misadventures is sufficient reason to stay home. But my companions tell these stories as if they were wearing rows of campaign ribbons across their chests. Like a war veteran they point with pride to the red ribbon and tell the story of battle with a customs agent, or to the blue one and tell the story of lost luggage turning up three days later with the locks broken. These are battlefield stories told by travel warriors eager to tell them. They can’t wait until one story is finished so they can begin to tell theirs, in a sort of “you think you had it tough” exercise in one-upmanship.

There is a truth hidden in all this. For many of my companions travel is a battle, a kind of ritual reliving of one’s life compressed into a few weeks. Like a battle, travel is a test. They want to assure themselves that they can do it all over again if they have to, that they have not, in fact, lost it. Well, as someone who never had it in the first place, I say more power to them.