How to Get Lost

I have done a fair amount of traveling in my time. Most of Europe, parts of Asia, the United States, of course. But a round-the-world trip is a whole other thing. Our plan is simple. To start from home and keep on going until we make it back. Easy, right?

Winnie the Pooh
By A. A. Milne (writer), E. H. Shepard (illustrator) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, if you’re a free spirit. As the gurus say, it’s not the destination but the journey you seek. Yes, if you’re 20-something with a good back and an ability to sleep under all conditions. You go with the flow and if you happen to miss that monumental place that Everyone Must See, no sweat. The 20 year old can always go back.

But my husband and I will be doddering 60 year olds by the time this round-the-world adventure starts. He doesn’t sleep well if there’s a lot of ambient noise, say, from carousers in the street below. I like a nice hot bath at the end of a long day. Some of the places I have in mind are so far away, it’s now or never. Can I have it all?

Down Under

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
Image source: Penguin Random House

The idea for a round-the-world trip started with The Fatal Shore. Robert Hughes is the author of this historiography of Australia in the days when it was a penal colony. That dark past fascinated me as did the notion that Australians still long for parity with the mother country. I thought, this I have to see.

But my Australian friends tell me it’s no picnic to get there. It’ll cost you one whole day, give or take a few hours, to fly from Amsterdam to Sydney. And it’s impossible to get there from here without stopping somewhere along the way. My friends do their layovers in Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur. The idea of a multi-country journey was born. I would start in China.

China

Then I saw the US State Department’s latest travel advisory on China.

Exercise increased caution in China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual U.S.-Chinese nationals. […] U.S.-Chinese citizens and U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage may be subject to additional scrutiny and harassment, and China may prevent the U.S. Embassy from providing consular services.

US State Department, China Travel Advisory, 3 Jan 2019. Accessed on 16 Jan 2019

The Canadian government has raised its warning level to high following China’s decision to impose the death penalty on a Canadian citizen being held on drug charges. Although neither the US nor Canada will say so publicly, the assumption is that China is retaliating for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, currently awaiting extradition from Canada to the US.

If my face is not enough to trigger heightened scrutiny in China, there are my blog posts critical of its policy. Now, it may be foolish of me to think that China has the time to follow small fry like me. But my most popular blog post continues to be a piece on the Chinese penal system. The idea of eyes on me gives me the creeps.

Planning

So instead we’ll split our time among Asia, Oceania and South America. Start the round-the-world journey in the fall and return home in the spring. Head from east to west. The true adventurer would wing the rest.

But I’m a planner. I need to work out ahead of time how to get from A to B, the distances and the detours, and where to stop for gas, coffee, or a great view. You’ll never find me at a museum or restaurant closed the day of our visit. And though I try not to schedule ourselves 24/7, even for the downtime I’ll have options ready. Given my anal-retentive nature, my instinct is to plan our round-the-world trip like a military operation. But maybe I’d be missing the point?

The New Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The New Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Image source: Penguin Random House

Alain de Botton is a Swiss philosopher who believes that travel can be more than fun. It can also be therapeutic.

all of us are involved in one way or another on what could be termed ‘an inner journey’: that is, we’re trying to develop in particular ways. We might be searching for how to be calmer or how to find a way to rethink our goals; we might long for a greater sense of confidence or an escape from debilitating feelings of envy. Ideally, where we go should help us with our attempts at these steps in our psychological evolution. The outer journey should assist us with the inner one.

Alain de Botton, The New Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton 2015)

Letting Go

Let’s say you’re the sort of person who hates to ask directions from a stranger, who would never approach a group of unknown people at a party, who in the face of anything alien will always retreat. For you, De Botton recommends a visit to a corner shop in Yokohama, Japan. Not once or twice but as many times as it takes to learn to overcome your inhibitions. First, you go into the store to buy a prepaid mobile card, an excruciating experience as you speak no Japanese and Mr. Nishimura speaks no English. Then, you return for wasabi-flavored crisps and another time for chocolate biscuits. Sooner or later you’ll learn to communicate with your newest friend, Mr. Nishimura.

Japanese snacks
Japanese snacks. Image source: Wikimedia

Yokohama would be good for me. I like communicating, as the Dutch would say, with my hands and feet. To see how inventive, crazy, and undignified I can be. Like the time my husband and I landed in an izakaya in Fukuoka, Japan with no one who spoke English. We knew that the specialty was chicken skewers and so we ordered that. The waitress frowned. Which part of the chicken did we want? We ordered by flapping our wings and slapping our thighs.

But this may sound too much like fun to De Botton. Travel should be about growth and fixing things that are broken. I’m not sure I have any goals that fall into either category. But I do want this: to break out of my comfort zone.

I’ve done this before. By leaving the US and later abandoning my legal career, I’ve forced myself to reinvent, adapt, take risks. I want to know what happens this time when I let go of everything that defines me today. To venture off into the sunset without knowing what the next day will bring. A round-the-world trip sounds exciting and exhausting. Surely this will be fodder for my writing.

But I don’t mean to write restaurant reviews or scenic drive descriptions. No lists of the good, the bad, or the ugly. I want my imagination to roam free. Who can say what happens next?

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