Some people can spend hours browsing through a dictionary or an encyclopedia of medical symptoms or a gardening guide. But when I’m in the mood to curl up with a reference book, I go for an atlas. Leafing through my antique Hammond World Atlas, I never fail to find something new to marvel at, some fascinating geographical feature or relationship that previously had escaped my notice. Look how small Tunisia is compared to Algeria! Is that really where Brunei is – in the middle of the South China Sea? I'd pictured it half a world away, near the Persian Gulf.
Sometimes the poetry of a name draws my eye. The Adaman Islands. (They belong to India, I know, but look how close they are to Thailand.) The Limpopo River. (There's its mouth, in Mozambique!) I can still hear my father intoning in his hammiest voice Kipling's description of “the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo, all set about with fever trees.”
Samarkand has always been my favorite place name. Once a stop on the fabled Silk Road, Samarkand is now part of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and has been recognized as a site worth preserving by the United Nations. The romantic city inspired the Kipling-esque poet J.E. Flecker to write an ode to wanderlust urging travelers to push on, “Always a little further.”
When I finished school, that was my plan. No graduate school for me, I decided. I would travel instead, and mainly to countries that required visas. The idea was that I would work half the year and travel the other half. This worked out fine for a while. My earnings from a hotel job in Germany financed a journey that started with hitchhiking down the coast of Yugoslavia, skirting Albania in a tramp steamer, and sleeping in caves in Crete. (The caves were in a tiny, remote village called Matala, and some years after I visited, I read in Life Magazine that it had become a hippie haven.)
In Istanbul I almost talked myself into joining a Land Rover caravan traveling east to Nepal, but at the last moment I lost my nerve and headed West again, via Syria and Jordan.
Eventually, life intervened -- as it will. I didn't stop traveling, but I was on a shorter tether. Yet all the while I was confining my trips to school vacations, I kept a mental list of the exotic places I would go . . . someday. (I have files of dusty newspaper clippings, now absurdly out of date, on traveling through Kerala in houseboats and the best approach to Angkor Wat.)
Now, the time has come when there's nothing to curb my travel urges -- I could go anywhere. I'd always imagined that when I got to this point I'd feel like I'd been shot out of a cannon. So why am I not on the way to one of my must-see destinations yet? What's holding me back?
As a penny-pinching backpacker, I was convinced that when it came to travel, the more you paid, the less you got. I could see that many memorable experiences eluded those who were bubble-wrapped in luxury, and I vowed that that would never be me. Lighting out for the territories now, so many years later, would mean putting that youthful promise to the test, and confronting how much I have - or haven't -- changed.