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Circling the globe without stepping on an airplane. – By Seth Stevenson – Slate Magazine

April 10, 2010


From: Seth Stevenson
Subject: A Freighter Across the Atlantic Ocean

We have no tickets for our freighter. Just a piece of paper I printed out at home so I’d remember the name of our ship???the Independent Endeavor???and the address of the terminal. The travel agency assured us our arrival would be expected.

A few decades ago, you could walk out onto a shipping dock and talk your way aboard a freighter, convincing the captain to give you a bunk or a spot on the floor. Maybe you’d work for your passage by swabbing decks. Maybe you’d just slide the captain a wad of cash. Whatever the arrangement, it was not unusual for a cargo ship to accept last-minute passengers.

Those days are long gone. The golden era of freighter hitchhiking came to an end sometime around the mid-1970s. As with all great adventures, casual freighter travel stopped the moment the lawyers showed up. Shipping companies decided that, due to some pretty glaring liability and security issues, it would be insane for them to continue allowing their captains to take on random passengers. Nowadays, you can’t get on a container ship without making reservations weeks in advance.

(Unless you secretly stow yourself inside one of the containers. Which I don’t recommend. You could die that way. Even if you survived, you’d endure spooky darkness, brutal heat, and unbreathable air. A 1994 New York Times story about a group of stowaways from the Dominican Republic featured the evocative subhead “Three Days at Sea in Foul Box.” The stowaways were discovered when a deckhand heard desperate shouting and banging coming from a container perched forty feet above the ship’s deck.)

The boarding process for your average cruise ship???one of those big, white Caribbean gluttony tubs???begins with thousands of passengers in a snaking velvet rope line on the pier. A squad of cruise ship workers, all fake smiles and elaborate epaulets, will load piles of luggage onto bellhop trolleys. They’ll lug these bags to the passengers’ cabins, make sure everyone’s safely on board, and then point the way to the pasta buffet.

There’s no such service as we board our freighter. Instead, a single Filipino deckhand, wearing a blue jumpsuit and orange hardhat, leads us in a scramble a hundred feet or so up a temporary metal ladder that’s been lashed to the side of the ship. At the top of the ladder, we step over a yawning precipice and onto the freighter’s deck. Here we’re briefly introduced to the ship’s first and second officers???one German, the other Romanian, both far too busy to pay us any mind. The deckhand leads us up a dimly lit interior staircase, then down a claustrophobic hallway lined with mysterious clamped hatches. He points to a door and nods. Apparently, we’ve arrived at our cabin.

I actually prefer this gruff efficiency to the icky sycophancy of a cruise ship’s hospitality workers. In fact, Rebecca and I are sort of pleased that we’re not???as we would be on a cruise ship???the central focus and purpose of this journey. We’re just two ancillary pieces of cargo that the crew needs to deliver safely.

The ship’s 3rd officer is a smiley Filipino guy named Gregorio. After breakfast, he takes the only four passengers on board (me, Rebecca, and Frank and Daphne???a retired couple in their seventies) out onto the main deck for our required safety lecture. In halting English, he describes the procedures for various emergencies.

First, Gregorio demonstrates how to use the “immersion suits” the ship has provided us with. These suits are thick, one-piece, neoprene coveralls that zip over our clothing. They feature a built-in lifejacket, a blinking distress light, and a whistle. They’re meant to help us retain core body heat if, for some unfortunate reason, we are obliged to enter the frigid Atlantic Ocean without aid of a lifeboat.

The suits look like a child’s footie pajamas. They’re puffy, to provide warmth, and they’re bright orange so they can be easily spotted from the sky. Daphne is appraising them rather doubtfully. I imagine her tiny frame bobbing gently in the swells, waiting for rescue.

The immersion suits explained, Gregorio moves on to the ship’s alarm signals. Each different signal has a specific meaning. One pattern of horn blasts signals an emergency, “like if the ship sinks,” as Gregorio delicately puts it. If we hear this signal, we’re supposed to gather at a designated muster station. (This assumes the muster station is still peeking out above the waves.)

A second horn pattern signals a fire???in the event of which, again, we are to head for the muster station. (Assuming the muster station is not itself aflame.)

The third and by far most intriguing alarm is for a security alert. “Like if there are pirates,” says Gregorio. I ask if, in the event of a pirate raid, we should gather at the muster station. “No!” says Gregorio. “Stay in your cabins and wait for the captain to give instructions over the loudspeaker. Because the pirates might be at the muster station!”

As we learn on our first day at sea, there’s not much to do aboard a cargo freighter. No TV. No Internet. No restaurants, no bars, no fitness centers. No cliques of passengers to meet or planned activities to join.

There is, however, a lot of peace and silence. We’d grown used to the noisy bustle of our D.C. lives???cell phone calls, television blather, honking rush hour traffic on the streets outside our apartment. The quiet we experience lounging on the fo’c’sle is almost startling.

The isolation of the ship is also a very welcome data detox. I can’t remember the last time, before today, that I went more than a few waking hours without checking my e-mail. Rebecca and I and everyone we know are all addicted to the constant flow of data and chatter. But after one afternoon out here on the freighter, I find I couldn’t care less what’s piling up in my in-box or streaming across my favorite websites and blogs. What does it matter? It suddenly seems so trifling set against the ancient silence of the ocean.

During the day, when we’re not at meals, Rebecca and I read in adjacent plastic deck chairs in the sun. When we want a break from our books, we stroll around the open-air parts of the ship???scouting with our binoculars for seabirds and maybe dolphins or whales. We’ve had no luck so far spotting ocean mammals, but hopes remain high.

At night, we put on sweaters and brave the salty evening chill. The stars twinkle against a pitch-black sky. No city lights here to turn the atmosphere milky.

We get our sea legs after the first day and become accustomed to the ship’s slow, steady roll. It’s wonderful to be rocked to sleep by it. It’s so constant and powerful, it even seeps into our dreams. Rebecca keeps having this nightmare that she’s back in her law firm’s office tower and the building is undulating as though it’s in an earthquake. File drawers rolling open. Casebooks spilling off shelves.

Then she wakes up and remembers that she left all those things behind.

From: Seth Stevenson
Subject: The Ferry From Rostock, Germany, to Helsinki, Finland

Our ship across the Baltic Sea is named the Superfast VIII and is operated by an Estonian ferry line. Question: Why is an Estonian company operating ferries that travel between Germany and Finland? Answer: I don’t know???but I’m sure looking forward to that legendary Eastern Bloc customer service.

A private cabin on this ferry costs $700, which seemed steep. Instead, Rebecca and I paid $125 each for what the ticket clerk described to us as “airplane-style seats.” We’ll be sleeping in these seats for the next two nights, so we envision they’ll be like those wide, reclining thrones that you’d find in the first-class section of a plane.

Upon boarding, we discover that our seats are more like what you’d find in an airplane’s economy section???if that airplane had no windows and was shaped like a small shoebox. The forty bolted-down chairs are crammed together in a dark, airless closet on a lower deck. When we arrive, the room is already filled with other people, and their piles of luggage, and their cranky children.

Having spent the previous night on a train, and all day today wandering the boulevards of Rostock, Germany, we’re fairly exhausted by now. So we suck it up, find a spot against a wall to drop our bags, and settle into our assigned seats. We try to pretend they are fluffy beds instead of narrow, hard pews.

I can’t fool myself. The chair’s metal arms jab into my kidneys as I search for a sleeping position. My knees are jammed against the seat in front of me. From behind me emanates a sound I cannot for the life of me identify. Is it an armored personnel carrier grinding its gears? A high-powered blender liquefying coat hangers?

I crane my neck around. In the seat directly behind mine sits an elderly man swaddled in clumps of wool blankets. His eyes are closed. He isn’t moving. Then suddenly the blankets rise up with great force. His mouth gapes open. And there’s the sound! I’d never imagined it could be produced by a human being!

It is an atomic sort of snoring, with a relentless rhythm. One deafening blast is followed by another, over and over. I lie awake picturing the awful things I would like to do to this old man’s trachea.

When a ferry employee making the rounds ducks his head into the room around 2:00 a.m., another sleepless passenger???having reached the limits of his patience with the snorer???unloads with a salvo of primal anger. “This man is snoring so loud!” he shouts, pointing his finger toward the heaving blankets. The ferry worker shrugs and makes it clear there is nothing he can do.

Frustrated, the angry man shouts, “It is also smelling!” Which is true. Many shoes are off. The air is thick with the odor of feet and there’s no sign of a ventilation system down here. Again, the ship employee shrugs. When he turns and leaves, a sudden roll of the ferry slams the door behind him with a percussive force. It briefly stirs the snorer???but within a few seconds he’s settled back into his groove, louder than before.

It’s time to break out my secret weapon, which involves two ingredients. The first is a small bottle of scotch that I have been saving for a special occasion. The second is a small bottle of Valium that I brought from home for just this sort of emergency.

Let me pause here to pay tribute to Valium and its many useful applications for the traveler. It’s perfect when you can’t fall asleep and need to tune out the bestial snorer in your midst. Also handy when you’re nervous about missing your train or ferry connection. Or you can just use it to take the edge off the afternoon when you’re lying out on a fo’c’sle.

Within minutes of downing the pills and chasing them with liquor, I am feeling no pain. The loud snores float off into the ether. I’m so relaxed, and so not fitting into this chair, that I slink down to the floor and melt into the space between our row of seats and the row in front of us. This position puts my face adjacent not only to the filthy carpet, but also to the snoring man’s stockinged feet???which reek of a particularly fierce strain of toe jam.

We’re awakened at 9:00 a.m. by an announcement over the ferry’s loudspeaker. It’s the voice of an eastern European woman, I presume Estonian.

“Hi, keedz,” she says, profoundly bored. “Now ees facepainting in cheeldren’s area.” Her tone straddles the line between droning indifference and mild hostility.

I rouse myself from my Valium stupor. Most of our cabinmates are already awake, and farting. It occurs to me that this is the worst room I have ever been in.

Leaving our packs behind (there’s nowhere else to put them, so we just have to pray that nobody steals them), we climb several flights to the ship’s main deck. The sunlight here is blinding, after all the time we’ve just spent holed up in a fluorescent-lit cave. We find a pair of seats in front of a window looking out across the water.

The ship left the dock four hours ago. We’re now cruising along at a relatively speedy???for a ship???35 mph. But we’ve still got more than twenty hours to go before we reach Finland.

A small child scurries past. A few desultory streaks of facepaint wobble across his cheeks. Rebecca is inspired to do a quick impression. “Hokay, keed,” she says, eyes half closed, one hand waving a pretend cigarette. She halfheartedly slaps at the nose of an imaginary toddler. “There ees paint. Now you leave.”

Those of us booked in the cheap seats down below have been granted a one-hour time period during which we are permitted to take showers in the ship’s “spa.” When the designated time comes, and I make my way up there, I find that the men’s side of the spa is a small tiled room with one plastic bench and one moldy shower stall. There are no lockers, no towels, and no attendant. (Were there an attendant, I imagine he’d just grunt and toss a wad of paper napkins at my face.) I leave my clothes out on the bench and take a quick, hot shower. It’s my first since we left Antwerp two nights ago, and by far the best moment of the ferry trip thus far. I dry myself off with the T-shirt I slept in last night, on the dustballed floor of the world’s worst room.

When lunchtime rolls around, we peruse the offerings at the snack bar. It has some unlabeled sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. The condensation droplets on the packaging make it impossible to see what’s inside. All I can glimpse is a limp piece of lettuce, browning at its edges.

At the table next to us, two young, blonde backpacker women are playing cards. I noticed them last night in the windowless snore-chamber. They seem like nice, reasonable people. Which makes us wonder what on earth they’re doing here. Unless you need to transport your car to Helsinki, and don’t feel like driving it, it’s difficult to see why anyone would take this ship instead of flying (or, for that matter, walking) to Helsinki. Rebecca’s so curious, she leans over to introduce herself and ask their story.

After apologizing for their limited English (which turns out to be much better than your average American undergrad’s), the two women tell us they’ve been traveling on Eurail passes through Germany and Poland. They’re now heading back to Finland, where they live. “But why would you take the ferry instead of a plane?” Rebecca asks them, pointing out that a plane would have been not only much faster, but possibly much cheaper and also more comfortable.

“Because,” says the taller one, “we thought we take ferry, big advwenture.” She throws her hands high and wide on the last word, and the two women giggle. “But now we are here, no advwenture anywhere,” she says, surveying the depressing vista of the ferry lounge. Their laughter fades. They return to their cards.

“What game are you playing?” Rebecca asks them. After a quick discussion in Finnish, the shorter one answers, “English name is ‘asshole.’ “

From: Seth Stevenson
Subject: The Trans-Siberian Railway

The train itself has an elegant shabbiness to it. Our carpeted first-class cabin is paneled with dark, worn wood. There’s a stately picture window and a small wooden table with a little white tablecloth. The two narrow bunks are made up with crisp sheets. This genteel mood is dampened by the bad Russian pop that plays through a speaker bolted into the ceiling. (There’s a knob on the speaker that reduces the volume but???in a rather Orwellian detail???there is no way to turn the music all the way off.)

There are three classes of tickets on Russian trains. First class (called spalny vagon), which we’re riding in now, has private cabins with two bunks each. Second class (called kup??) has four-bed cabins. Third class (called platskartny) stuffs fifty-four bunks into a single, open carriage.

We’re intimidated by platskartny. It’s a lot of humanity in not a lot of space. When our train makes its first station stop, we watch the platskartny passengers piling out like escapees from a P.O.W. camp and at that moment basically rule out the idea of ever casting our lot with them. A pair of incidents at subsequent stops reinforces our feelings on this matter: 1) We watch a platskartny rider buy a whole fish???eyes intact, slimy gleam reflecting off its scales???from an old woman on a station platform, which he then brings back onto the train. (You could smell this thing from thirty yards away. I have no idea how he planned to cook or eat the fish, and I wept for the other people in his carriage.) 2) At another stop, we see a drunk, vomit-flecked man hauled out of a platskartny carriage by a pair of angry policemen. (If there’s one thing that smells worse than a whole fish, it’s a whole pool of vomit.)

There’s also the issue that the fifty-odd platskartny passengers share a couple of painfully oversubscribed toilets at the end of the car. We’re much better off in spalny vagon, sharing a toilet with only fifteen or so people. Though even in first class, the bathroom is bare-bones. It’s all hard metal surfaces and constantly reeks of bleach, which I suppose is better than reeking of dead fish. There is no shower, so people take sponge baths using the sink.

On the floor next to the toilet is a flush pedal???which I’d assumed would trigger a rush of antiseptic blue liquid, ushering the toilet bowl’s contents into a chemical tank. Instead, pressing the pedal just opens a flap at the bottom of the bowl. When this flap opens, it sends a shock of sunlight up into the bathroom, revealing the blur of the train tracks beneath the car and carpet-bombing the ground with human waste. We’re not permitted to use the toilet while the train is stopped at a station, for obvious reasons.

No matter which class we ride in, we will be forced to deal with a provodnitsa. Perhaps the most iconic figure in Russian rail, the provodnitsa is the person (usually a woman???if he’s a man he’s called a provodnik) who is in charge of each car. She rules her fiefdom with an iron fist. You can find her vacuuming the hallways, restocking the bathroom with unnecessarily coarse toilet paper, and generally clucking at her subjects as they disappoint her with their behavior.

Our car has two provodnitsas. They work in shifts and are constantly bickering. Both sport dyed hair the color of maraschino cherries. At station stops, whichever one is off duty will stand on the platform in a tattered robe and slippers, puffing on a cigarette and scowling at all who pass. If you step outside to get some air, and are the least bit slow reboarding the train before it sets off again???perhaps because you are fascinated by a transaction involving a fish???she will wag her finger at you and bark angrily in Russian.

A couple of hours and several stops outside Moscow, we move beyond the crowded city sprawl and into the countryside. We begin to pass a series of mournful-looking towns. People walk aimlessly along the train tracks, and feral animals roam about. The view out the window is sometimes patchy forest, sometimes clusters of small wooden houses, and sometimes crumbling, cement-block factories surrounded by barbed-wire fences and stagnant puddles of mud.

At each station stop, locals wait on the platform with baskets of food for sale. Sausages, cucumbers, blocks of cheese, potato chips. Many of the merchants are wrinkly babushkas, with thick ankles and deep-set, suspicious eyes. Often they wheel their goods around in baby strollers. Given the state of things in these towns, it would not surprise me if some of these women were selling actual babies.

That evening, as our train rolls through a moonlit Russian forest, Rebecca fiddles with her GPS to see where we are. She sits up straight in her bunk with a start. “Hey!” she says, still looking at the screen, wiggling her hand to get my attention. “We’re about to be in Asia!”

The Ural mountain range marks the divide between the continents, with the official boundary falling at just about 60 degrees east longitude. We turn off the lights in our cabin and press our faces to the window, keeping our eyes peeled for some sort of marker. Rebecca glances down at her GPS to track our progress. “Should be any second now …”

And there it is. A small white obelisk by the side of the tracks. The train rumbles by it at 50 mph, but I manage to make out Cyrillic letters spelling “Europe” and “Asia” etched into the stone, with corresponding arrows pointing in opposite directions. There’s nothing else here but a quiet glade of birch trees.

Unexpectedly, a wave of accomplishment passes over me. We’ve conquered the Atlantic Ocean, and now Europe. An entire continent in our rearview mirror. To celebrate, Rebecca goes to the dining car and brings back a bottle of vodka. We drink it all, chasing it with a tube of Pringles we’d bought from a babushka on a station platform earlier in the day.

The next morning, we arrive in the city of Irkutsk. You may remember this name as one of the territories on the Risk game board. I half expected to see ten-foot-tall, plastic Roman numerals wandering the streets.

The main attraction in Irkutsk, as far as Rebecca’s concerned, is a small aquarium that features a pair of nerpas. Nerpas are the earth’s only freshwater seals, and they are adorable. They have eyes as dark and deep as nearby Lake Baikal, where they live. (Lake Baikal is in fact the deepest lake in the world. It’s more than a mile from its surface to its bottom???which at least one Russian minisubmarine has reached.)

The nerpas’ “aquarium,” when we find it, turns out to be three rooms in the basement of a strip mall, located beneath a retail store called Fashion House. The seals’ aquatic habitat is essentially an oversized bathtub. The two nerpas???one male, one female???do a show here every half hour, ten shows a day.

The audience for the show we attend consists of me, Rebecca, and two small children accompanied by their grandmother. It kicks off with a trainer leading the nerpas through a set of tricks. These tricks include “singing” (making fart noises through their nostrils); “breakdancing” (turning around in a slow circle); “painting” (having a brush shoved in their mouths, which they then whack intermittently against a piece of paper); and “the lambada” (a sort of awkward flipper shimmy).

The promotional brochure at the aquarium claims that nerpas have the power to “hypnotize” people with their huge, black eyes, and that sometimes the trainer, under the spell of this hypnosis, will begin feeding the nerpas and then forget to stop. I have no doubt that this is true, as the male nerpa here is so grotesquely fat he can barely perform any of the tricks. He struggles just to haul his blubbery mass up onto his designated, floating platform. Mostly, he bobs upright in the water like an overinflated buoy. He has about eight chins, and his facial expression conveys at all times a childlike anticipation that he might be thrown a fish.

“Except for you,” Rebecca says to me when the show has ended, “that is the most ridiculous animal I have ever seen. In its defense, it’s much cuter than you.”

From: Seth Stevenson
Subject: Driving Across the Australian Outback

I haven’t driven a car since we left the States and I’ve been itching to get behind a wheel. A drive across the Outback seems like potentially the best road trip available on this planet. Granted, we don’t have a car. Nor do we have any clue as to the possible perils involved in crossing the Outback. But we’ve managed to get ourselves three-quarters of the way around the world so far. We’re feeling cocky.

Our initial hunch is that renting a car will be pricey. (After all, we’ll be asking the rental agency to let us drive their vehicle across an endless expanse of desert doomland before we ditch it on the other side???thousands of miles away.) But it turns out that one of Darwin’s rental outlets is offering a relocation deal. They need to quickly ship a sedan to a sister franchise in Sydney. If we can drive the car there for them, and complete the journey in four days or less, they’ll give us a massive discount on the price. Total rental cost: one dollar per day.

We can’t believe our fantastic luck. Until we hit the road and look at a map. “Hmmm,” says Rebecca, sitting in the passenger seat of our newly acquired Toyota Camry as I drive us south toward the dead, empty center of the continent. She’s studying the Australian road atlas that we bought at a bookstore on our way out of Darwin. “It’s come to my attention that Australia is very large,” she observes.

To make it from Darwin to Sydney in our allotted time we’ll have to cover about six hundred miles a day. We’ve tied ourselves to waking up at sunrise, getting in the car, and then driving without much pause until dusk. (We daren’t drive at night on these dark, lonely roads???for fear of breaking down, leaving the car to seek help, and being devoured alive by a pack of ravenous dingoes.)

No matter. It’s worth it. I’d forgotten the amazing rush of driving fast down an empty two-lane highway. Sure, we’ve had a measure of autonomy with other vehicles on this trip: our bicycles in Vietnam, the scooter in Malaysia. But there is nothing like a car. The private, mobile world of its cabin. The picture windows front, sides, and back. Point the grille in any direction you please, depress the accelerator, and feel the freedom. With an Australian country song blasting from the radio, we begin eating up the miles.

Darwin on its surface appears to be an unremarkable suburb???the type you might find anywhere in heartland America. But its generic, two-story buildings and sleepy culs-de-sac belie its freakish setting. It is in fact an outpost. A fragile fortress surrounded by the most brutal forces of nature. On one side is a deadly, unswimmable sea. (“Don’t worry about the sharks,” a taxi driver reassured us. “They’ve all been eaten by the saltwater crocs or poisoned by the box jellies.”) On the other side is the barren, pitiless Outback.

Within a half hour of exiting the rental car company’s parking lot, we leave all hints of human existence behind. There is nothing out here but red dirt, lime green scrub, and a broiling orange sun. The deeper into the Outback we go, the more desolate it gets. We can drive for forty-five minutes without passing a single car and go hours without seeing a house or a building of any kind. No gas stations. No billboards. It’s a startling emptiness???an absolute emptiness???of a sort that is difficult to find in America these days. Which makes sense, given that Australia is nearly as large as the continental United States but is home to 20 million people instead of 300 million.

At one point, we drive past a massive brush fire burning not a hundred yards from the side of the road. The flames are ten feet high. There’s not a single soul in sight. We’re the only witnesses to this hellacious, raging inferno. With nothing to block the wind, a fire like this can suddenly sweep across the plain, inhale all in its path, and breathe out a wispy trail of ash. During a recent set of fires near Melbourne???one blaze stretched sixty miles long???survivors spoke of having twenty seconds from the time they heard a crackling roar approaching until the moment the flames overtook them.

The overwhelming impression I get is that this continent hates living things. It’s like a part of earth that refuses to assimilate. The creatures that make it are forced to get by either on their wits (as humans have) or with bizarre, weaponous mutations. Basically half the animals you encounter here are capable of killing you in a matter of seconds. And only Australia could produce the platypus???a venomous, egg-laying mammal, which naturalists at first thought must be a prank some trickster was playing on them. Or the kangaroo???whose ridiculous, propulsive hopping, sometimes with an infant roo peeking out of an onboard pocket, seems to have been a prank played on the animal by its creator.

We’ve already seen dozens upon dozens of dead roos, lying in the road and in its ditches. But it’s not until our second day of driving that we spot our first live one. And now we understand why: Kangaroos have a death wish. They hop in packs along the roadside, and as our car approaches at least one roo will invariably gauge our speed, gather his hoppy momentum, and zag across the pavement directly into our path.

I don’t blame him. Australia is a constantly menacing environment, and no doubt there comes a time when you’re just ready to give up the fight. So far we’ve managed to swerve around these suicidal roos???mostly because we’ve learned to hit the brakes at the moment a troop comes into sight. I sometimes shout out my window at the roos, preemptively: “Don’t you do it, Matilda! You’ve too much to live for!”

The other cars on the road all have beefy front grilles, designed to buffer a roo collision by deflecting the tawny-colored limbs and crimson guts over and around the windshield. Most cars are also equipped with exhaust snorkels that extend above their roofs, presumably to allow the vehicle to drive through chest-deep floods. The sight of all these rugged armaments has left us feeling less sanguine about our own naked-grilled, nonsnorkeled, factory-issue family sedan.

When we (very occasionally) pass another car, its driver will always wave. Initially, we’d assumed our brights must be on or that we were dragging a roo carcass or three from our undercarriage. But then we realized these friendly hellos are just an effort to forge an ephemeral moment of human contact. You take it any way you can get it out here. And you never know when you’ll run out of gas one hundred miles from nowhere and need to siphon from a friendly Samaritan.

From: Seth Stevenson
Subject: Heading Home

Fifty years ago, an American tourist on vacation might well have taken a ship to get to Europe. Fifty years before that, it was not unusual to ride in a stagecoach. For someone growing up in the first half of the twentieth century???watching the automobile and the airplane evolve into everyday conveniences???it must have seemed that humankind’s advances in the field of transport were only just getting started.

But then, sometime around the mid-1960s, the progress stopped. Air travel had its golden age in that era, and since then flying really hasn’t improved. With notable exceptions like the now-defunct Concorde, the jets never got much faster. Meanwhile, they did get a whole lot less comfortable, as airlines crammed in more seats and cut out the amenities.

Whatever romance may have existed up there in the clouds, once upon a time, it’s long gone now. These days, the experience is relentlessly drab. Still, there’s no puzzle as to why people continue to fly. Airplanes equal convenience. They get us places faster???orders of magnitude faster.

I wouldn’t want to deny people the option of flight. At the same time, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that progress comes with tradeoffs. Yes, we’ve gained convenience. But along the way we’ve deprived ourselves of some extremely wonderful things. The starry skies of an Atlantic Ocean crossing. The bleak beauty of an old Russian train chugging its way through Siberia. The jaunty freedom of a road trip with a carful of friends.

And there’s no going back. Along with the ability to cross an ocean or a continent in six hours comes a societal expectation that you’ll do so. Your two weeks of summer vacation time are predicated on the assumption that you’ll fly to Italy for your honeymoon???not take a full week to float there, look around for an hour, and then take another week to float back.

As a result, when people think about travel these days they think purely of destinations. They barely give a nod to the actual … traveling. The problem with this isn’t just that we lose out on the pleasures of trains, ships, bicycles, and all those other terrific modes of rationally paced, ground-level transport. I think we also dim our experience of the destinations themselves. We’ve forgotten the benefit of surface travel: It forces you to feel, deep in your bones, the distance you’ve covered; and it gradually eases you into a new context that exists not just outside your body, but also inside your head. (It eliminates travel sicknesses, too: Rebecca and I never once got ill as we moved slowly and steadily between clusters of regional bacteria.)

Teleporting from airport to airport doesn’t allow for the same kind of spiritual transformation you undergo whenever you make an overland trip. When you take a seven-day vacation bookended by flights, I would in fact argue that your soul never completely leaves home. You’ve experienced it, I’m sure: Your airplane has landed in Quito, but your heart and mind are still stuck back in Boston. The sudden, radical change in your surroundings sparks a glitch in your processor. You know you’re physically standing in Ecuador, yet the sensation is more like watching a really immersive television documentary about Ecuador. And then, at last, when you begin to feel whole again, your feet firmly planted in the foreign soil (no longer some hollow seedcase that’s been dropped, weightless, into an alien world), it’s time to teleport straight back to the comfortable familiarity of home.

I acknowledge that for most of us, it’s no longer feasible to take an ocean liner to South America on our summer holiday. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a better, richer experience if we did. So my advice to you is this: The next time you want to travel???I mean really travel, not just take a vacation???please consider getting wherever you want to go without taking a plane.

I promise you will look at that globe on the shelf in your study in a whole new light. You will run your finger along the curve of the sphere and think: I know what this distance feels like. What this ocean looks like. What it means to trace the surface of this earth.

Back in D.C., our first night in our empty new place, we sleep on an air mattress we bought for fifty bucks at a local discount store. In the morning, it hits me full force: There’s nowhere to go next. I haven’t the energy or resources to continue this adventure. I’ll sleep in this same room again tonight, and the night after that, and the night after that.

The readjustment is brutal. The little victories and losses of day-to-day existence seem ridiculous. When we get our furniture and clothes back from the storage company, I’m almost physically repulsed by the sight of them. It feels like someone else’s possessions. Why on earth did we ever buy all these things, and, worse, take the trouble to preserve them while we were away? Everything I need, I now know for sure, I can fit into a backpack.

But of course the fierceness fades. Week by week, I grow softer. Comfort and routine begin to creep back in. We trade out our air mattress for a real bed and get a flat-screen TV and an Internet connection. We go out to the same bars and restaurants that we did before. We’re right back in the thick of it, carving new ruts.

One day, though, a few years down the line, I know we’ll blow it all up again. Perhaps we’ll be walking along a beach and we’ll see a sailboat, out past the breakers. I’ll catch a little gleam in Rebecca’s eye. And we’ll both be thinking: I wonder how far away we can get in one of those.



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  1. usedplanes permalink

    Great info…….

  2. Glenn Nishimoto permalink

    just finished Grounded-I can relate very well. I did my RTW trip after a job stint in the arctic in the early 90’s as a lab tech and 2 nurses convinced me to "do it". Amazing how 3 pairs of underwear will make do with some antifungal powder in the sweat of SE Asia. 5 days in a houseboat on Dahl Lake in Srinigar will change your view of life forever. This was all before internet and mail was by post restante. How convenient was American Express!! You just had to find the right office.

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