I am a clown … and I collect moments.
– Heinrich Böll, The Clown (1963)
The first thing I linger over, when I upturn the box onto my bedsheet, is an overexposed photograph of two skinny boys. It depicts me, aged 19, with a collegial arm slung over the shoulders of Ed, an old friend from school. The pair of us are crouched on a boulder on a beach in western Thailand, in the ungainly repose of people who have just hurried into position after setting a camera timer. The image is shot at an angle from below, and the purplish sky overhead prefigures a gathering storm. The rapturous look on my face suggests that I was either unbothered or that I hadn’t noticed. Whatever the case, I was having a good day.
The photo is one of a thousand odds and ends inside a box – specifically, a Reebok shoebox – that long ago became a reliquary for the stash of mementoes I brought home from my first independent trip abroad. It was the sort of journey that was a rite of passage for kids of a certain milieu at the turn of the 20th century, when Gap Year culture was the rage. I’m not sure what propelled me and the two friends I travelled with, beyond some vague cultural determinism; this was just what a lot of British teens did in the hiatus between school and university. Other than the starting point, Cairns, and the return flight from Bangkok, I had little idea of where we were going, or what we could expect to find when we got there.
When I arrived home – 30 pounds lighter, with a penchant for wearing baggy trousers emblazoned with a Chinese dragon, and no doubt insufferable – I transferred the trove of knick-knacks I’d accumulated in my rucksack into a plastic carrier bag from a Bangkok 7-Eleven. Then I crammed it into this shoebox and shoved it in the attic. It’s taken me 20 years to revisit the contents.
It’s anodyne stuff, mostly. There are a few banknotes and coins; street maps of obscure Vietnamese and Cambodian towns; a dozen flyers for backpackers’ bars. Emptied onto a bed, it looks like anyone else’s trash. But to me it memorialises a graduation. By the time I stashed away this box, I think I already knew that I had found an obsession, and a counteragent, potentially, for the fidgety discontent I’d carried through school.
Home, increasingly, had begun to feel like a malaise; away seemed like an instant antidote. It was the escape hatch I’d been searching for.
Sitting at a desk in London 20 years on, those rudderless months in Australia and Southeast Asia belong to an expired world.
I guess it was inevitable, as the pandemic dragged on, that many of us would be plunged into nostalgia for the journeys we took in the past. For while it may be glib to bemoan a lack of adventure in a period of global bereavement and anxiety, the drastic contraction of international movement is likely to be one of COVID-19’s most momentous cultural and economic ramifications. The old way it was practised, at vast scale, and across increasingly porous borders, has begun to look like it might be a terminal casualty. At the time of writing, there are only memories, and the work of reorienting ourselves to a more inert and less hospitable world.
I began travelling independently with that trip in 2000, and in the period since I’ve travelled a lot, certainly more than is usual. In hindsight, the best word to describe my compulsion to move isn’t wanderlust but dromomania, because the second word better hints at its obsessive dimensions. It wouldn’t be unfair to think of it as an addiction. A consuming fixation, unthinkable for the vast span of human history, that even today, after months of immobility, I struggle to imagine living without.
Recalling those travels now, it is tempting to view them as having straddled travel’s golden age. In the first 20 years of the millennium, international tourism arrivals more than doubled, from 700 million in 2000 to almost 1.5 billion in 2019. Over that period, travel, for those of us lucky enough to enjoy it, has become synonymous with wellbeing, a vital adjunct of a fulfilling life.
As I determined to write an elegy to this era, however, I was surprised to find myself feeling not just nostalgia but also ambivalence – at once reeling from the cessation of global travel and quietly resigned to the idea that the breakneck experientialism of the pre-COVID world had to be derailed. Why, for me and others, did the desire to experience other places – to feel the joy animating my face in that old photo – evolve into such a burning need? Was there more at play than simply the decadent joy-seeking of a generation who could? Or was it merely a selfish moment in time, one that we now see, in the stark light of a pandemic’s recalibration of our priorities, for the indulgence it always was?
It seems hard to credit, in a society so utterly reconfigured by the digital revolution that was to come, but, for curious kids growing up in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the world still seemed a depthless prospect. Borders were impermeable; the nations they concealed were incomprehensibly varied and vast. It was a world that could only be glimpsed and never surveyed, in which encyclopaedias and atlases hinted at a planet still rife with mystery.
In elementary school, my favourite books were the Adventure series by Willard Price. Published between 1949 and 1980, the 14 slim novels followed the exploits of two brothers, Hal and Roger Hunt, as they travelled the globe collecting rare animals for their father’s Long Island zoo.
Hal, the elder, was the archetypal travelling hero: 17 years old, adept, absurdly brave, ‘as tall and strong as his father’. But I identified more with the younger brother, Roger, who was eager, but green and accident-prone. The stories were surreal in their eventfulness, each chapter opening on another shoot-out or dangerous animal encounter, as the boys careened from one escapade to the next. In Amazon Adventure (1949), the first book in the series, shy and rare jungle creatures – tapirs, anacondas, jaguars – materialise at their feet each time they step ashore. Together, the boys wrestle this temperamental fauna into submission and stuff it aboard a boat they anoint The Ark, upon which they drift down South America’s great river, pursued all the while by the bullets and arrows of psychopathic rivals and head-hunting ‘Indians’.
Reading it back now, it’s tempting to laugh at the narrative’s unlikelihood. We can only wonder at the rationale of the boys’ father, John Hunt, a man of presumably lunatic irresponsibility and questionable ethics, as he dispatches two teenage sons to pilfer endangered species from the four corners of the world.
However, for all their far-fetched plotlines, it occurs to me in hindsight that the books encapsulated much about the life that I, a fatherless kid, easily bored, would grow to covet. The cinematic, event-filled life. The mythic, shadow father. Hal, the surrogate, surmounting every challenge. The boy, feigning courage. It was a pulp fiction allegory for my state of mind. On page 84 of Amazon Adventure: ‘The truth is the kid was scared to death.’
For the time being, my own adventures, and indeed the mainstreaming of adventurous travel, were far in the future. During childhood, I went overseas a handful of times. But we never left Europe, and whatever happiness I found in those trips was transitory, overshadowed as they often were by my mum’s melancholy. It was on such occasions, when convention ordained that life should be at its most pleasurable, that she most felt her solitude. More often, we camped in Devon, or stayed in Welsh caravan parks. And I cajoled my mum into letting me bring friends along, so that we could spend the week sneaking off to smoke cigarettes and weed, and persuading sympathetic hippies to buy us flagons of potent West Country cider.
The truth was that foreign travel as it would grow to be enjoyed was yet to make its full debut. My parents’ generation had Interrailed around Europe. Since the early 1960s, when the first charter flights unlocked the Mediterranean’s mass tourism market, a growing cohort of British holidaymakers had started to venture south for an annual summer vacation. The bourgeoisie had discovered the joys of Alpine skiing. But as far as most Brits were concerned, the far-off places beyond western Europe could stay that way. The geopolitical volatility of the late Cold War, which presented the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America as theatres of conflict, famine and totalitarianism, didn’t suit the brochures.
Bouncing from bus to border post, I felt restored because I also felt autonomous
Nevertheless, the seeds of my own itinerancy were germinating. It’s interesting to note that, in the argot of the time, a compulsion to travel was often described in chronic terms. A person who loved to go overseas was said to have contracted ‘the travel bug’. A person stuck at home, dreaming of foreign climes, had ‘itchy feet’. What would, within two short decades, grow into a universal pursuit was once analogous to a fungal infection. In my case, the allusion would be fitting, because my compulsion to travel was forged in pathology, even if, in the euphoria of my earliest journeys, I was enjoying myself too much to notice.
Long before it appeared in passport stamps, my itch manifested in a maudlin temper, and a deep-seated dissatisfaction with life at home. In my teenage years, I often found myself gripped by a crushing cynicism that seemed all the more unshakeable as the 21st century arrived with its oil wars, dumb politics and global warming. I had a beatnik disdain for the status quo and often felt stifled by its orthodoxies. Why aim for Oxbridge, start a pension, consider a long-term career path? In some inchoate way, I was convinced I would never harvest the spoils.
Initially, these nihilistic tendencies manifested in typical adolescent misbehaviour, in petty crime, and bongs, and street-corner booze. However, arguably the most peculiar symptom, and perhaps its most consequential, was what I can only describe as an allergy to the familiar, a reluctance to retrace intellectual or physical ground I’d covered before. Anything that was reminiscent of chapters I had already closed – driving past my old school, for instance, or bumping into an old acquaintance I’d once called a friend – made me feel stuck and panicky. After university, as I fell sideways into temporary office jobs of limited utility, sliding my knees under a desk felt like an act of submission. For a spell, walking down to the shops from my mum’s house became a source of despair.
One unfortunate offshoot of this unease was that I often felt ill. All manner of psychosomatic symptoms – that is, the physical presentation of psychological pain – afflicted me throughout my 20s. I’d already become prone to exaggerating the severity of bugs and viruses, wallowing in hypochondriac self-pity with the onset of whatever small malady. But now even minor health complaints would transmute into blue-light medical emergencies: each headache, a brain tumour; each off-colour piss, a harbinger of diabetes; each aching limb, the leading edge of some autoimmune degeneration. Still other ailments were entirely imagined.
The link between emotional anxiety and physical wellbeing was often embarrassingly explicit. I was once working in an office where a colleague related a weekend horror story about her boyfriend having to rush to Accident and Emergency with an ‘impacted testicle’. Two days later, I limped pathetically into the doctor’s office, pleading for someone to investigate an imaginary pang in my own bollock, thinking all the while that I was losing my mind.
It sounds absurdly self-aggrandising to speculate that a few months in Southeast Asia might have presented itself as a cure for this emotional maelstrom. All I can tell you is that, on the move, miraculously, the aches and anxieties would disappear.
Bouncing from bus to border post, I felt restored because I also felt autonomous. The enemy was futility, and my vulnerability was tied to it epidemiologically, like vector and disease. Only by going away, and in so doing defying society’s stifling expectations, could I evade the predestiny clawing at my back. Immobility was a capitulation, a figurative death. So I sought to be untethered.
At home, now, as I pick through the relics of that first, naive journey at the turn of the millennium, each item triggers floods of reminiscence. There’s a cut-out scrawl of a dolphin, drawn by my six-year-old sister, which she handed to me bawling as I shouldered my backpack to leave. A piece of plastic brake handle, which snapped off a hired moped when I lost control of it in a Malaysian alleyway. A page on ‘post-holiday blues’, rudely torn from a discarded Lonely Planet guidebook, which I read in a Khao San Road flophouse on the day we flew home: ‘Life on the road is challenging, exciting and fulfilling while life back home can appear bleak, boring and dreadfully lacking in meaning…’
In many ways, I had stumbled into the arena of international travel at a pivotal moment, just as the New Age backpacker culture that had lured hippies east on a cloud of mysticism and hashish smoke was being fully co-opted by the mainstream.
To be continued in one week
Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London. His essays and features have appeared a.o. in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.