What You Can Do With Traveling That You Can’t With Sex

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The thought occurred to me mid-flight between Vancouver and Salt Lake City. Why I was flying from Vancouver to Salt Lake City was a mystery known only to the Expedia gods. I was on a three-week travel tour in support of the charity I work for. I needed to get from Portland, Oregon to Bismarck, North Dakota. The airline’s ticketing algorithm thought that I should first leave the country, go through Canadian customs and then five minutes later pass back through U.S. customs before then twice dropping me off in airports further away from my destination. The 1,000-mile trip scored me 3,400 frequent flier miles. And we wonder why the airline industries are going under . . .

But back to the thought. It occurred to me while reading Matt Gross’s recent “Lost in Ireland” piece in the NYT. I realized that in the midst of traveling, I had been reading travel articles for the past four hours. Before your “so-what?” alarm kicks in, think about it. Sure, it’s no secret insight that people who like to travel are the people who like to read travel stories.

But, there are very few activities like this. I had plenty of airport time to think about this, and I couldn’t really come up with anything exactly equal. Ironically, as much as I love reading about traveling, it seems to be only when I am traveling that I find the time to do so in earnest.

Skydiving enthusiasts read about skydiving, but not while they are plummeting to the earth. In sports, you can read about a sport and practice it, but not simultaneously. You cannot watch a movie as you make one, just as you cannot go rock climbing with a book in your hand. Sex, is certainly a widely read about and practiced endeavor, but I can’t imagine someone being able to engage in it while reading “Sex for Dummies”  (check it out people, it’s a real book).

Gross’s article may have helped bring out my deeper reflection on the subject of travel. It’s about his trip to Ireland, but it is more of a commentary on travel than it is an exploration of the island. Gross did not just want to go to Ireland; he wanted to get lost there and also to verify that the Ireland he suspected existed really did.

I rarely meet Americans in a bar who do not claim to be part Irish. I know I claim to be part Irish (with the middle name Maguire to aye the naysayers). Whether it’s just the Guinness talking in the bar or the truth, being American means being a little Irish — as we all are anyways on Saint Patty’s Day. Ireland’s lore permeates American culture. Gross says that because Ireland’s history is such a backdrop to American culture that he “never felt the need to think about Ireland as an actual place.”

But it is. As Gross found out when he spent a week “getting lost” there. But at first he found only loneliness as his rental car sped along on what seemed to be the wrong side of the road. Contrary to his expectations, he did not find village pubs filled with Irish keen on finding out what had brought this stranger to their land. Instead, he drank alone — a sin in the Ireland that we want to exist.

Finally, a local band, the Calvinists, brought him out of his shell and into a socially accepting and Irish crowd.  He writes beautifully about the moment that brought him there: “Here’s something I always forget about travel loneliness . . . When you finally accept that you are on your own, when making friends no longer matters and when you turn your attention to other subjects, it vanishes.”

This sentiment resonated with me. I remembered a recent trip to Morocco. When I was an ocean away from it, I romanticized spending a night on a Sahara-bound train, but when I finally was there in an empty carriage looking at the setting sun, it felt less adventuresome than I had imagined. I felt lonely. It was the worse kind of loneliness — the kind that struck at just the moment I felt I should be feeling something wistfully wonderful.

I watched the horizon as it blazed a blue orange, and I missed being in the company of people who knew my name. I thought about my girlfriend, and wondered if she really understood, as she said she had, about my need to board a plane headed for countries I had never laid eyes on before. I even thought about work. My contact with humanity over my first week there had only involved the handful of French I knew, but that no one understood when I tried to speak it.

As it was with Gross, it was the loneliest moment of that trip that preceded the best parts of it. He writes, “by not trying to find what I’d been looking for, I’d found it.” I think it happens like this almost universally. A trip is just a trip. It isn’t a lover. It isn’t a new identity. It isn’t happiness. But a trip, like life, can lead to any of these things. I recently warned a friend who was worried she would never find love to be careful. It is in that state of mind when love inevitably finds us, I told her.

These things are not the only reason to travel, but they seem to be a pretty darn good ones. And that’s why we rarely remember the loneliness when the our flight home lands. It’s the moments after being lonely that make it all worthwhile.

And getting back to that 30,000-mile insight. Traveling is not just about the trips. It’s a way of being. We read about it, and then we do it. And unlike sex, while we are doing it, sometimes we are reading about it. We’re just that hardcore. We might be in Morocco thinking about Guatemala, or in Bangladesh reading about Budapest, geography really does not matter. And like Matt Gross, most of us leave feeling larger than when we set out.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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