Sitting still and meditating on travel addiction

My good friend Tomas Krag just posted a thought-provoking observation about travel. Like me, Tomas has spent a good piece of the last five years on the road, working on ICT for development projects around the globe. According to his latest post, he’s starting to feel the need to take a few steps back from this crazy lifestyle:

“I feel a subtle change in me, especially when i’m on the road. More and more, the time away feels like time away from my life. As if, at home, was my stable base, my girlfriend, my sports, my family, my home, and as if being on the road means being away from all that. I still have fun, but not quite as much as I used to. I still have most of my best friends spread all over the planet, but I feel more of a need for an intimacy that is not available in those relationsships.”

Much of what Tomas has to say rings true for me. The more I’m on the road, the harder I’m finding it to embrace what’s great about traveling – new places, new people, new food, new sights – and the more I find myself missing the big and small pleasures of home. And the longer I’m away from home, the harder it is to get back into local rhythyms. My friends in the Berkshires no longer even pretend that I really live here anymore. They’re surprised to see me and are wondering when I’m leaving again, not in a mean-spirited way, but in a very real acknowledgement of my transiency.

Home for nine days between the last two big trips of 2005, I find myself looking at my calendar and doing the math. Between February 1st and today, I’ve spent 148 of 300 days on the road, including the days I drive to Cambridge and back in a single day. I’ve flown over 125,000 air miles in that period, more than five times around the circumference of the earth, and put over 10,000 miles on my truck. I’ve been to seven countries I’ve never travelled to before and another half dozen that I’d visited before. I’ve travelled by bicycle rickshaw, trishaw, camel, train, plane, metro, ferry, bus, car and foot. I’ve had food poisoning in three different cities on two continents.

It’s been a blast. And I couldn’t be happier that it’s going to stop for roughly five weeks and give me a chance to catch my breath. At which point, I suspect I’ll be flat out thrilled about the next trip (Dubai and Qatar, in late January.)

As much as I miss being home – keeping track of friends in person rather than through their blogs, talking to my wife face to face rather than on a cellphone, watching the hills turn orange in the fall and purple and white in the winter – when I’m here more than a few weeks, I start missing the road. My other tribe of friends – the ones I see in the coffee shop in Schipol airport, not in the coffee shop on Spring Street in Williamstown – don’t stop moving when I sit still. And I’ve gotten to the point where I miss many of the friends in Accra, Budapest or Amman as much as I miss the folks in Williamstown and North Adams.

Another friend – one who travels even more than Tomas or I do – recently went in the other direction. He briefly gave up having a permanent residence, living on airplanes, his offices, hotels and basically wherever the rhythyms of his job took him. He and I were talking about the seductive pleasure of business travel when he noted his favorite part of a trip. “It’s that moment when the plane door closes, when you switch your phone off and you realize that, for the next week or so, the real world is going to have to cut you some slack.” In other words, it’s one thing to be inundated with email and unanswered phonecalls when you’re home at your desk – it’s another entirely when you’re on the train from Jaipur to New Dehli. In the first case, it’s your fault for being overcommitted and overwhelmed. In the second case, it’s still your fault, but it’s socially acceptable – laudable, even – as you’re trying to keep up despite the challenges of global nomadhood.

I found myself thinking about this notion of travel as socially-acceptable addiction. The message on my mobile phone often sounds something like this: “Sorry, I’ll be hard to reach for the next n days as I trompt around the following m countries. Leave a message if you like, but I may not get back to you.” The message is roughly equivalent to, “Sorry, I’ll be on a drinking binge for the next n days. Feel free to leave a message, but I may be too drunk to respond.” Is travel my coping mechanism for overcommitment, a symptom rather than the cause? If I didn’t feel perpetually overwhelmed by projects half-completed and phonecalls unanswered, would I be as willing as I am to spend 150 days a year away from the places and people I love?

Addiction or not, I’m not ready to take a big step back from travel. (I’d like to circle the earth fewer than five times next year, and spend more than half of the nights in my own bed. But that’s a low bar to limbo under.) In a very real way, the things I’m fascinated by, that I write about, study and try to explain – the globalization of atoms and bits, the questions of what we do and don’t pay attention to on a global stage, the ways in which technology widens some gaps and narrows others – can’t be studied from the snow-covered Berkshires. I’m not sure that moving to New York or London would help either. The things I want to study are happening in server rooms in Accra, in cabs in Cairo, in shipping containers in Taipei.

And, most of all, they’re happening in airports. One of my favorite sights to this day is the arrivals and departures board at Schipol Airport. Hundreds of flights heading to places I love, places I loathe, places I’ve never thought of visiting, places I can’t stop thinking about visiting. Every line on the screen represents dozens or hundreds of people crossing boarders, visiting families, making new friends, trading goods, taking photos, eating strange food. Every line on the screen means that the world is a little more interconnected, a little bit smaller, simulataneously less foreign and more weird.

That’s what I want to be part of. Even if the price of entry is 50 nights a year of sleep in coach airline seats, eight currencies in my wallet and a very confused housecat who doesn’t quite know who I am.

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7 Responses to Sitting still and meditating on travel addiction

  1. Dear Ethan,
    I do appreciate the dilemna here, and while I don’t travel quite as much as you–at least not in 2005– I am perhaps as addicted. We are both Berkshire people, though I don’t live there any more. When I first saw that GeekCorps was based in North Adams, NORTH ADAMS! I about choked. I cut my journalistic teeth at the North Adams Transcript and left there for my first trip around the world. I’m about the leave for a research trip around the world and am wondering if my blog about it would be appropriate for Global Voices. I’d love just to talk, if only to whisper some secret swimming holes I know about off Rte. 2.

  2. Hans says:

    maybe it’s just juvenile, but then I’m over 60

  3. Robbie Honerkamp says:

    I know the feeling. I really don’t travel at all these days, and I really miss it. I find myself missing the five and six-hour layovers at Gatwick, watching people rush to their gates, and wondering what their story is. Heck, I heard a recording of the chimes BAA plays before their PA announcements and got “home”sick. I always hate leaving to go on a trip, but once I get to where I’m going I love every minute of it.

    The more you travel, the more complex friendships get. I’m with you on missing friends overseas. One of my new years resolutions is to spend a couple of weeks in Nigeria and Togo in 2006 working on projects I’ve been meaning to start and hanging out with friends.

  4. Colin says:

    Herge, the talented creator of Tintin, originally planned to set his final and unfinished Tintin book entirely in an airport departure lounge (see Wikipedia for more). I understand the how a peripatetic existence can be much more “home” than any one location, and it is a bit of a drug. Do you think you’d be less addicted to travel if you lived somewhere more cosmopolitan?

  5. Jack Kennard says:

    I’m not a big traveler even though I’m in the travel industry. I do web design work for several travel companies.

    I understand the more someone travels the likely they will stay home on the holidays or during their vacation time.

    I designed a leisure site (cruiseandvacationexperts.com/blog/ ) for our corporate clients and a lot of our clients taking advantage of this site are the admins and executives.

  6. sj says:

    Being a part of all this interconnectedness… the thing is, travel can only offer so much; naturally limited by the airspeed velocity of a laden modern aircraft, orientation times, the complex network of physical negotiations needed to move just a few miles to meet in a fixed physical space.

    I look forward to the day when Arthur C. Clarke and the angels aren’t the only ones actively interconnecting without transit times, /forced/ unreachability, and punctuated equilibria; and when society has had enough time to develop simple policies for voluntary unreachability, peace of mind, and equilibration.

  7. Bruno says:

    Ethan, I totally relate. I have been travelling 207 days in 2005 (my own musing is at http://giussani.typepad.com/loip/2006/01/on_traveling_20.html)
    You speculate that travel for types like you (and me) could be a coping mechanism for overcommitment – “I’m away, so, sorry guys but I can’t do this today”. I agree, and I don’t. I have offered that justification a few times myself when I couldn’t deliver a report or a story or something before deadline (luckily it doesn’t happen too often). But travel has a perverse (in the sense of virtuous) effect on overcommitted people: it helps them to sharply focus for a few hours at a time, and generally that’s their most productive time: when they are in airplanes, or waiting to board, or in a hotel room at night while it rains outside and there is no business dinner and the city’s night life is not particularly inviting, or at a café table waiting for the next meeting. They fire up their laptop, they have no disturbance (the colleagues are sleeping 8 time zones away, family too, there is no familiar noise – it’s easier to fence off the unfamiliar noises) and by the time they’re done they’ve caught up with days of work, in just a few hours. People who tend to be overcommitted also often tend to be vastly overproductive at times. That’s what allows them to live the life they live.

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