Travel Is My Lifeblood

When I was a boy growing up in the early 1960s, I often played the board game “Pirate and Traveler” with my friends.  The board displayed a map of the world and distant ports with names like Cape Town, Bombay, Valparaiso and Godthaab – names that cast a spell over me, though to my friends they meant nothing.  Who lived there, what were these places like, I wondered, without having the slightest notion that someday I would walk their streets.  (Well, I still haven’t made it to Godthaab, later renamed Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and the prospects of a future visit don’t look good.)  This call of the mysterious, the unknown, is something that only a comparative few seem to be born with.  One was Herman Melville, whose great novels – the pinnacle of English language literature, in my opinion – were based on his long sea voyages on the other side of the world.  “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” he said late in life.  It was a sentiment that emerged in his childhood.  Reminiscing on those early years, he said, “We had several pieces of furniture in the house that had been imported from Europe.  These I examined again and again, wondering where the wood grew, whether the workmen who made them still survived, and what they could be doing with themselves.”  Herman Melville – now that’s special company! 

My first taste of the remote came when I was ten, during Christmas school vacation in 1963, on a long bus trip from New York City to Miami Beach, where my grandmother lived.  Our family – my parents, younger brother and two younger sisters – took up the six rear seats of a Greyhound bus.  Can you imagine a middle class family making such a trip these days?  How deprived today’s kids are of experiences like this!  It wasn’t an easy trip.  My little sister, only eighteen months old, was sick and not a happy camper.  At 4 AM, after eleven hours on the road, we pulled into the terminal in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A new driver was supposed to take the wheel, but there was no driver, and we were delayed for hours.  My father, by nature patient and easygoing about everything, was livid.  I don’t remember much else about that bus ride, except for hearing those charming southern accents for the very first time when we stopped and ate.  It wasn’t exactly a journey of discovery.  And even though it was wonderful to see my grandma, Miami Beach was as unappealing then as it is now.  Still, it was an adventure for a ten-year-old, we did some interesting things in the Miami area, and I look back on it with a smile.  A year later we made the same trip, this time by train, and again we ran into an unscheduled delay, though we had sleeper berths and it was not nearly as uncomfortable.  

And for nine years that was it.  We made a few family forays into Pennsylvania and upstate New York in the old Ford Fairlane station wagon, but never more than 300 miles from home.  Every state I hadn’t been to remained a wonder, a mystery.  Even Ohio gave me an itch for the remote.

In January 1974, when I was twenty, during a long winter break in my on again off again college days, I decided to fly from New York to Phoenix, Arizona and hitchhike back home – my first time in a plane and my first great solo trip, though I’d hitched to Syracuse and back a few times, visiting college friends I’d made after I dropped out.  This was when a lot more young people hitchhiked to explore America than they do now – and it’s a shame that it’s become so rare.  Jack Kerouac’s On the Road​, published in 1957, kicked off the vagabond era that blossomed with the hippies in the late sixties and seventies, but I didn’t read that famous novel till later in the decade, so I can’t say it was my inspiration.  I just had an incurable case of wanderlust.  I just wanted to see new places and new people.

Well, that was 48 years ago, and it’s still the only trip I’ve ever made in harsh winter conditions, enduring a blizzard, eight below zero cold in Kansas, and black ice conditions so treacherous that I-70 in Illinois was shut down and I had to sleep on the floor of a truck stop.  It was a great adventure, which only whetted my appetite for more.  That summer I tried, and failed, to hitchhike all the way to Alaska, which to this day is the only state I haven’t visited, and like Greenland, is not currently on the radar.  Even so, I had the priceless experience of crossing the Canadian Rockies by freight train – quite illegal, of course, which made it that much sweeter – and seeing the spectacular northern lights, most unexpectedly, from my sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia.  I haven’t seen them since, though I searched hard for them in Iceland and northern Quebec.  I’ll write about that trip on another page. 

The following year I again thumbed thousands of miles from New York to Washington, then down the Pacific coast, through the magnificent redwood trees, to San Francisco, then to the outskirts of Los Angeles before turning around and heading home.  This time, too, I had a distinctive experience – heat so oppressive along the Idaho-Washington border that it easily surpassed my hottest day crossing the Sahara Desert by Land Rover six years later.  The car radio rattled off temperatures well over a hundred degrees in a dozen towns in the region.  I’m talking painful heat that I could feel warming my lungs each time I inhaled.  Many years later I looked into it and figured I had to be there on July 10, 1975, because on that day the small city of Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington, where I spent the night, recorded its all-time second highest temperature of 112 degrees.

In 1977 I made yet another hitchhiking loop around the country, and I followed that up with one last hurrah in 1986, though that time I flew home from San Francisco.  Mixed in with these trips in the seventies were a few I made in my own car, one out west and two down the eastern seaboard and into the Deep South, the only region of the country where I never got around by thumb.  By the end of the decade I’d been to all of the lower 48 states.
In 1978 I made my first trip to Europe. I flew to London and hitched around England and Scotland for two weeks, before taking the ferry to Calais, France, and traveling far and wide around the continent on a month-long rail pass, gorging myself on as much as I could see.  That really isn’t the right way to do it, but in retrospect it was a good introduction to the Old World, and nearly all the countries I visited in western Europe I would visit again in the years to come.  The 1980s, during which I worked only seasonally, was my Age of Exploration.  I traveled some in the early 1990s, before those relatively carefree days came to an abrupt end with the birth of my twin children.  Everything was put on hold for eight years until 2002, when I resumed my travels, right up to 2019, though on a less ambitious scale.
On eighty percent of my travels I was alone, or a few times with my ex-wife, winging it on public transport, occasionally rental car, with no set plans and no reservations, planning each day as it came.  The other twenty percent were trips I booked with companies that specialized in small group, basic travel to countries that would’ve been difficult or in some cases impossible to do on my own, or mountain hikes where I, having a terrible sense of direction, would surely have gotten lost without someone holding my hand.  (Once, while deer hunting in Vermont, I got lost in the woods and had to be rescued.)  In the ways just described, over the course of forty years, I’ve been to Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burma, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Congo (Kinshasa), Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Germany, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lesotho, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Vatican City, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe.  My cumulative time in all these countries is more than three years, plus well over a year for the many trips, long and short, that I’ve taken in the U.S.  The time I spent in each country varies widely, but averages, I figure, about twelve days.   In five – Belgium, Chad, East Germany, Lesotho and Vatican City – I never spent one night, while I spent more than a month in Australia, Canada, France, India, Peru, South Africa and Turkey. 

So, I’ve been to 97 countries, including my own, though a few of them no longer exist.  There’s an outfit called the Traveler’s Century Club, with chapters in several countries, open to those who have hit the 100 mark.  The rules are very loose – they add a whole bunch of “territories” – so that by their criteria I’ve visited about 110.  For example, I spent a few hours in airports in Panama and Liberia, waiting for a connecting flight, which would have qualified.  They allow England and Scotland as two countries; I don’t.  At the Iguazu Falls, I walked from Argentina to Brazil to view them from a different vantage point for a half hour, which was permitted without passport formalities, but I didn’t put Brazil on my list.  Tahiti, where I spent a week, counts, but it’s still part of French Polynesia, a colony, so to include it would be cheating.  I do feel a bit cheesy, however, for listing Vatican City, also called the Holy See, a tiny enclave of Rome which, believe it or not, is a sovereign nation.  Membership in the Century Club will cost you a $100 initiation fee, plus $75 for first year dues.   Pay it, and then you can walk up to strangers at cocktail parties and say, “Guess what, I’m in the Century Club.”  But after thinking it over I decided there are better ways to spend $175, so I’ll leave it at 97.  And the way things are going, with Covid communism covering the planet, I doubt I’ll hit 98.  But if I never get on a plane again, and never set foot in a new country, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished.

Some men feel they were born to fly, or become a soldier, or write music, or invent things.  I was born to see the world.  To go through life deprived of that would be like being born blind, or legless. If you’re a world traveler, you’ll relate to that.  If you’re not, you probably won’t.  

Let me clear up some misconceptions about traveling, by responding to the top five questions and comments that came my way over the years.  1) “Do you work for the CIA?”  I can’t believe that about ten people have, in all seriousness, asked me this.  No, I’ve never worked for the CIA or any other government agency.  2) “Why are you going/did you go there?  They hate Americans.”  Keep watching television.  Nobody hates Americans, at least no one I ever met, except for an Aborigine woman drinking from a whiskey bottle I had the misfortune of meeting while walking down a dry riverbed in the Australian outback.  It’s true that a fair number of Europeans, especially older and more cultured ones, look down on Americans as ignorant, uncouth and conceited because of the things they say and the way they behave, and it’s also true that people the world over hate and fear the U.S. military and government, for good reason, but again, nobody hates us on a personal level because we’re American citizens.  In fact, you’d be surprised how many people from “enemy” countries – and I’ve been to some – are fond of Americans.  3) “How do you communicate with people when you don’t speak the language?”  You walk around, asking people, “Do you speak English?”  If you can’t find anyone, you do the best you can.  4) “You must have a lot of money to travel so much.”  Wrong.  I had no bank account to speak of in the 1980s.  I always searched hard for great air fares and found them.  And most Americans cannot believe how absurdly cheap it was to travel throughout the Third World back then – and still is, though the cost of living has kept pace.  Take India, for example.  In 1987 I paid $100 for a 30-day rail pass, about $10 a day on meals, and an average of $4 a night for a basic but clean hotel room with shared bathroom in the hallway.  That’s less than 20 bucks a day – for everything!  That’s less than half of what ordinary living expenses cost a single guy in the New York area back then.  Once in Bolivia and once in Bangladesh, I actually spent less than $1 for a night’s lodging, though in Bangladesh I was desperate and the room was truly disgusting.  I may have set a record by spending less than $100 my first week in Japan, a very expensive country, eating at cheap noodle houses, hitchhiking, being treated to meals or invited into homes for dinner and a bed by the wonderful Japanese, or throwing down my sleeping bag in a secluded spot for the night, same as I always did when hitching around America.  5) “You’re brave.  I admire you.”  It’s nice to stand there and bask in compliments like this, but they really don’t apply.  The best definition of courage I ever heard was “being scared as hell of doing something, but doing it anyway.”  I was never “scared as hell” when I embarked on an adventure.  Apprehensive now and then, yes, and a few times I found myself in unexpected situations where I was scared as hell.  But offbeat travel came easily and naturally to me.  Many years ago, people would say to me, “How can you just hitchhike around the country like that?”  Here’s how: one day in June 1975, when I was 21, I closed the door to my parents’ house behind me at 6 AM, walked a hundred yards to the westbound side of busy Hillside Avenue, and stuck my thumb out.  About eight rides and seventeen hours later I was within striking distance of Michigan’s upper peninsula, in a car full of stoned hippies singing “We’re on our way to Onaway, We’re on our way to Onaway,” Onaway being an ordinary town not far from the Mackinac Bridge, where I asked to be let out, and finding a vacant field, threw down my sleeping bag for the night.  People would tell me, “I could never do that.”  Well, I could, and it was never a big deal getting into a vehicle with one or more strangers or sleeping near the side of the road.  In foreign countries, especially outside of the Western world, it’s more about the willingness to deal with uncertainties, inconveniences, and hassles in general, rather than danger.  I remember having this discussion with a guy named Ian, during an eight-day organized trip to Georgia in 2018, which was the last big trip I ever made.  There were about ten other people, all but one British, who had flown from London to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.  I had flown into Baku, the capital of neighboring Azerbaijan, spent two nights there, then two nights in the colorful city of Sheki, then a full day getting from there to Tbilisi.  This involved taking dirt-cheap public transport in 15-passenger vans, into which 25 or 30 were crammed, riding west in bits and pieces, picking up and dropping off people in small villages, and stopping in towns with names like Asagi Goynuk, Qax and Zaqatala, where I’d have to get out and pick up another van.  Finally, in Balaken, there was a van to the border, ten miles away, and on the other side, a waiting bus headed to Tbilisi.  It was a quiet, easy border to cross, just ten minutes on each side for passport and customs formalities.  I had to walk across a bridge above a dry river bed where a shepherd was tending his flock of goats and sheep.  I got to Tbilisi before dark, and quickly found a cheap hotel for the night, a short walk from the hotel where the group trip began with breakfast the next day.    I told Ian about this when he asked me when I had arrived in Tbilisi, assuming that I had flown in.  “You’re brave,” he said.  “How do you travel like that?”  Brave?  It was a mellow day, getting a feel for everyday life in Azerbaijan.  And what could be more delightful than looking at posters that read something like “Novruz qedim ve boyuk bayram kimi yazin gelisi munasibetile qeyd elidir ve sevincli hadiselere,” with all the e’s printed backwards, which actually was much easier to read than the inscrutable Georgian alphabet.  Every interaction I’d had was pleasant.  Though very little English was spoken, people were invariably friendly and helpful, as when, for instance, a van pulled into an outdoor transit plaza in Qax, and after studying my map, I asked someone “Zaqatala?” and seeing I was a helpless foreigner who didn’t know the language, walked me over to where another van was waiting to fill up with passengers before leaving for that town, a Zaqatala sign displayed on the dashboard.  I told Ian about this.  “I don’t see what’s so brave about it,” I added.  “Brave to me is class five white water rafting, or going skydiving.  I sure as hell wouldn’t do that.”  “I skydive,” Ian replied.  “Well,” I said, “there you go.  I guess we all have our own personal definition of what brave is.”

I’m working on a blog that will recount my standout travel experiences.  There are so many.  But let me just sneak one in here, since it’s a great example of the overlapping complications mentioned above, and a fairly recent one: I was 59 at the time.  I stayed in Guilin, China for two days, one of which I enjoyed taking a motorized raft trip on the Li River, with its jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery.  Right after checking into a hotel on a Tuesday afternoon, I headed to the railway station to buy a ticket for Xi’an, the overrated terracotta warrior city, a 27-hour journey, for the Thursday train.  There were about fifteen ticket windows.  I went to the last one.  “Speak English?” I asked.  Saying nothing, the woman wrote something on a slip of paper and pushed it to me.  It read “7”.  She pointed to her right.  I went to window seven and asked for a sleeper berth reservation for the train on Thursday, which left at 6:30 PM.  The agent said that all the sleeper berths were sold out, and the only thing left were seats in what the Chinese call “hard class.”  I knew about hard class – it’s a cattle car – but I had no choice so I bought a ticket.  At the appointed hour I boarded the train and found my seat, mentally hunkered down for what lay ahead.

On each side of the car was a row of narrow wooden seats facing each other, three on one side and three on the other, with a narrow table in the middle.  My neighbors were passive Chinese men who took no interest in me.  It was dull and uncomfortable, it was going to be a long trip, and I knew my back would be aching.  Around 8 PM a man pushing a trolley cart with boxed meals and bottled drinks came down the aisle.  I bought my supper, rice with strange meat and vegetable morsels.  It was fairly hygienic and didn’t taste bad; it would do for a day.  The trolley man made an appearance every three hours or so the following day.
After it got dark, people started sleeping in the aisle, which is the norm on overnight bus and train rides throughout Asia.  This required gingerly stepping over bodies on the way to the toilet.  I tried to sleep with my head on the table, making a pillow out of my forearms.  It was pure misery.  Actually, I was lucky because the table was too narrow for two reposing heads, and the man opposite me remained upright in his seat through the night.  Early in the morning I discovered that the pit toilet had stopped flushing and had backed up.  Lovely.  I won’t relate the rest of the trip because it was just something to endure, and frankly I don’t remember any of it.

We pulled into Xi’an on time, about 9:30 PM.  It was raining.  I had studied a guidebook before leaving home, photocopied about thirty pages that would be useful, and had already highlighted a budget hotel with an adjoining youth hostel in a good location.  I got into a tuk-tuk taxi, and was able to show the driver my destination because the hotel names in the guidebook were printed in Chinese characters below the English.  The hotel staff spoke good English.  I asked for a room and was told that both the hotel and the hostel were full.  God, no!  “But you wait,” the receptionist said.  “There is student from Pakistan who make reservation but has not come.  I try call him.”  As she held the phone to her ear, I said to myself there’s no way I’m leaving here – not in the shape I’m in, not at night in the pouring rain, not having no idea where I was or where the next closest hotel was.  I don’t care if I sleep in a storage closet or even in a bathroom stall – I am not​ walking out of this building.  She got off the phone.  “He does not answer so you can have room with four beds.  Is that good?”  Is that good​ ?  I felt like hugging  her!  So I spent that night and the next, $18 total, in a bottom bunk bed with three young Chinese students who ignored me, one of whom stayed up late both nights reading by a portable lamp and munching potato chips.  I much prefer privacy, but in this situation how could I complain?  That was the one occasional nagging uncertainty – tramping around late in the day or at night and searching in vain for a night’s lodging.  But, as in China, it was almost never a safety issue.  And somehow, as in China, things always worked out.

* * *

I’m thankful that I was born at a time that allowed me to travel as freely and as often as I did from early adulthood well into my sixties – I’d even call it the golden age of travel opportunities – but now, with the lunacy of Covid-19 sweeping the planet, that era has ended.  In March 2021, the British government made it a crime for its citizens to travel abroad, except in special circumstances that applied to very few.   It’s mind-blowing that a once great nation could come to this – a nation that gave the world more legendary adventurers and explorers than any other.  That restriction was loosened, but foreign travel for Brits and everyone else is still a horror of PCR tests, quarantines and whatnot, not to mention wearing face masks on long flights.  I sure as hell have no intentions of dealing with any of that; dealing with TSA, even before all this crap started, was about all I could take.  (I can still remember, pre 9/11, when flying was a pleasure with no security measures other than walking through a metal detector.)  And now this plandemic, and the current strife over vaccination requirements, has inevitably wrecked the travel industry and ruined the lives of so many employed in it, from commercial pilots to lowly porters and guides, especially in less developed countries, who depended on the influx of travelers to feed their families.

I had one peeve about travel in the 21st century.  I seemed to be the last traveler in the world who left home without a smartphone or laptop computer or both.  The only electronic gadgets I own are a desktop computer and a flip-open cell phone, which I never take with me and which I almost never use even at home.  Yet, these days grown men and women can’t seem to live without their toys, even for just a week or two.  Why – especially when it’s so easy to find a computer in a hotel or guesthouse, or an internet cafe?  Back in the 1980s, before all this technology came along, the only way to instantly connect with someone back home was by phone.  That meant going to the telecommunications building in a large city, and in the more primitive countries, as in Africa, there was little choice other than the capital city – and even there it wasn’t always easy.  Usually there were two or three phone booths where international calls could be placed.  You’d go to a certain agent, write down the phone number, pay for how many minutes you intended to talk (usually around $2 a minute), then you’d wait until you were called and directed to go to a certain booth, at which time you’d pick up the phone and the other party was on the line.  Normally I’d call home every three weeks or so, though I can still remember, in 1982, calling from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, after being out of touch with the outside world for more than a month, and speaking with my mother, who had been quite worried about me.  It was a poor connection, and I couldn’t tell at first if it was my sister’s or my mother’s voice.  That, too, I must admit, was the one thing I dreaded, though it hardly preoccupied me – calling home and finding out that someone in my immediate family had suddenly died.  I know a man this happened to, who came home from Europe only to learn that his father was dead and buried.  Very sad.  But other than that one concern, I can’t think of a single reason why anyone has to lug a laptop around.  Or how someone’ s life becomes so digital that they can’t use an ordinary map, and have to pull up a map on their smartphone instead.  Like my sister, in southeast Asia, just before all this Covid nonsense started.  Hopeless.

The only other way to communicate, to or from home, was by snail mail.  Most people reading this have never heard of poste restante, but that was a big thing back in the day.  Before leaving home, you’d tell family and friends that you intended to visit a certain city around such and such a date, and they could write to you, dropping the letter in the mail a week or two in advance of your estimated arrival.  I remember one long letter in particular that my mother wrote and mailed to Calcutta, which was filled with engaging tidbits of local and extended family news.  It was addressed John Massaro/Poste Restante/Calcutta/India.  That’s all you needed.  Every main post office in all the world’s big cities had a poste restante window, where you’d show your passport, then the clerk would go through the envelopes in that special bin, which were sorted alphabetically and held indefinitely, and if there were one or two letters for you, you were thrilled, you couldn’t wait to open and read them.  Ah, those were the days, the days when it was real​ to be a long, long way from home!

I want to add one more memory.  It seems like another lifetime, but on half the trips I made in the 1980s I left home with a one-way air ticket (purchased from one of the many shady operators, always Indians, who placed tiny ads in the New York Times​ Sunday travel section and rented tiny suites in Manhattan office buildings), because I had no idea, or only a vague idea, where I was going to end up.  And wherever it was that I ended up, I bought a flight back to the States from a local travel agency, which in some cases were what they called “bucket shops,” which always had cut-rate student tickets which they were happy to sell even if you weren’t a student.  The airlines never asked.  Once, however, without knowing it I bought a seaman’s discount ticket in Athens which was​ questioned by the KLM check-in agent, though when I admitted I was not a merchant marine she just frowned.  Cities like London, Amsterdam, Athens, Bangkok, and some in Australia were bucket shop meccas with many fly-by-night storefronts.  But I was also able to find some excellent bargains with respectable businesses as well.  In this manner, among other final days, I flew to New York from Arica, Chile, with a stop in Miami, on LAN Chile, and from Larnaca, Cyprus on CSA, the communist Czech airline, to New York, with a change of aircraft in Prague (where my bag was lost, the only time that ever happened to me, though it was anonymously dropped on my porch a month later).  After my 1986 stop in San Francisco, mentioned above, I flew standby to New York, paying for my ticket in cash right in the airport.  Can you imagine getting around like this today?  As I said, it was a great time to be a world traveler.

This has all given way to the faceless transactions with Kayak, Orbitz, and the rest of them, the dehumanizing airport ID and security gauntlets, and now, finally, a worldwide digital and medical gulag where the livelihoods of so many in the travel industry have been trampled into the dust, where the joy of adventure and discovery and the goodwill between nations that travel fosters have been erased.  At the moment we’re in a twilight zone where permission to travel may have to be bought with an injection that may lead to premature suffering or death.  Tight restrictions or outright denial of traveling privileges, especially across land borders, was always a feature of communist dictatorships, so the current situation under the worldwide Covid pandemic, which like communism is a monstrous lie and a program to reduce billions of people to utter degradation, is what one would expect.  It remains to be seen how much and for how long people who love to travel are going to tolerate all this.  God, if there was only a way to round up the rich and powerful scum who gave us this nightmare, ship them to a remote island, and drop an atom bomb on it.

At this point, I’d be disappointed though not heartbroken if I never leave the U.S. again, even if I just take mini-trips no more than four or five hundred miles from home.  As a matter of fact, in August 2021 I broke out the old Rand McNally atlas and took a trip of five days on the rural backroads of northeastern Pennsylvania.  I enjoyed it; it was an eye-opener.  Even if I never go anywhere again except in my own car – and it’s beginning to look that way – I know there will always be something new to see and new to learn.