On the Unpredictable Pleasures of Travel

It used to be a privilege of the very rich and of the young and daring. Now it is mostly the middle class, some on vacation, some retired. People live longer, have more money and traveling has gotten easy. The world seems smaller. I can fly almost anywhere and regardless of where I go, I will find the locals eager to profit from my curiosity by showing me around, selling me things I don’t need and services I have not asked for. It’s less about being adventuresome, and more about commerce.

Forty years ago I was a refugee in Athens waiting for my American entry visa. My wife and I saved enough money to purchase two round trip tickets for the ferry from Piraeus to Mykonos. The journey lasted over five hours and we spent our time sitting on the upper deck in full sunshine. Mykonos rewarded us with its pristine beauty — jagged shores, blue waters, sunbaked hills, poppies, windmills and whitewashed streets and houses. A few young people with long hair lay on the beach and smoked dreamily. We stayed overnight in a sparsely furnished room that we rented for a few drachmas from one of the locals. The next morning, we caught a small boat to Delos. What I remember most from that trip, is how immaculate those two islands were, how clean and charming.

I returned to Mykonos a few years ago, on a cruise ship that anchored in the blue harbor in the morning, discharged three thousand eager, camera-toting people, and left in the late afternoon. The island was waiting — the same mild hills and crystal water, but the beach was empty and there were no flowers in the fields. The old windmills looked like abandoned props in an amusement park. The cobblestoned streets vibrated under the weight of tourists and every small, whitewashed house opened its door to reveal a souvenir shop with plastic trinkets and rayon scarves made in China.

It’s getting crowded everywhere you go. I read that cities like Venice and Barcelona limit the number of visitors by not allowing new hotels to be built in the touristy areas and regulate rentals by locals. I hear that to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem one has to wait in line four to six hours.

I like revisit places that have meaning to me, like Bucharest, Romania, where we were born, or Israel, where my wife has family, or Denmark, where we lived in the eighties and have very good friends, or Denver and San Diego where our children live. I travel because it’s interesting and rewarding, and because for the duration I escape life’s troubles and routines. I feel special, satisfied. High. It’s like a drug — the more I do it, the more I need to do it, and luckily the world is endless.

This fall we signed up for a Mediterranean cruise that starts in Barcelona and ends in Venice with eight stops on the way — Marseille, Monte Carlo, Florence, Rome, and so on, six to eight hours each. We’ve been to these places before. Eight hours is a joke. To see them, to really see them, you need weeks in each city, but we go for the thrill, just to be there, take a walk along the Las Ramblas, a Tartufo in Piazza Navona, a gondola ride on a Venetian canal.

The travel bug first bites with trips in this country, followed by Canada or Mexico, then Europe. Asia comes soon afterwards and before long you want to plant your feet on each of the seven continents. You want to fly, climb, swim or paddle. You need to be moving, on and on. You want to try new foods, now drinks, new luxuries, listen to new music. From Cuba to the Great Wall of China, from Machu Picchu to the Russian Taiga or the Mongolian yurt or the African safari, the more exotic the better. The further away and more difficult to reach, the more appealing!

We have friends who have gone on a car trip through North America lasting two entire months, staying in B&Bs and hotels. Others have a house in one place, a yacht anchored in a marina in another, a camper and a small car they hitch to the RV when they travel on land. They also take their miniature schnauzer along and that reminds me of that other traveling canine companion and mountaineer by the name of Atticus (see Following Atticus by Tom Ryan).

And then there are those who like to travel, but only as long as every detail is planned and well organized. They are anxious and uncomfortable before each trip. I’ve seen it up close. My wife is a perfectionist, while for me travel fun is all about unpredictability. I don’t care what the conditions are, sooner or later during a trip the unexpected will happen. You’ll arrive late to a meeting point, they’ll steal your wallet, or you’ll eat something that will make you shiver and throw up.

“I need to bring an umbrella,” she starts with concern. “We have our raincoats,” I say. “And what if we are on a beach? “Then take the umbrella,” I say. “The temperature varies,” she says. “It can be 90 degrees in the sun, and 60 at night. We need layers.” “OK, layers it is.” “I bought a city guide and a map.” “We’ll have our phones.” “You never read anything.” “I’ll read on the plane.” “Yeah, sure,” she says. We take medications with us, purchase travel insurance, and hide small wads of cash in secret pockets sewed inside my jeans. We make Xerox copies of our passports. We make lists. The suitcase is as big as a car. I complain about how crowded it will be on the plane. “What happens if the airline loses our luggage?” my wife asks. “No biggie, they’ll deliver it to us the next day.” “Are you kidding? Every day we’ll be in another country and a different port of call.” She has a point and I have no solution. We stay awake half the night.

Yet we travel, nevertheless.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.