Life on the road – Catharsis at 35,000 Feet

This is a confessional… and it’s fitting that I’m writing it on a plane (JAL flight 079, Honolulu-Tokyo; est. arrival time 4:49pm) because I spend an above average amount of time on jumbo jets, an occupational hazard or novelty, or something… see, I’m a travel writer. For me, the traveling came first. The sweet, endless scent of an Ecuadorian rose sent me off on a six-month journey to, well, Ecuador. That’s where I rode on the roof of chicken buses through the Andes, took psychotropic plants with a shaman, got lost in the rainforest. Got dysentery… twice. Fell in and out of love, and witnessed the forced resignation of a sitting President in Quito. The people rose up, stormed the streets, through bricks into bank windows and demanded change… all because the president removed the propane subsidy, which meant most Ecuadorians could no longer afford to cook. It was an outrage that would not and did not stand. This turn of political fortunes was something I considered to be historically significant, until the same exact thing happened to a different dude two years later. This time I read about it in my cubicle.

I won’t bore you with the details of how I went from being a frustrated hippie in a cubicle to sitting on JAL 79 as a seasoned traveler. A traveler who has spent recent nights in the most elegant rooms in the world’s most elegant hotels (many of which continually gouge customers for internet and room to mobile phone calls, two modern necessities that ought to be included in the unspoken room rental agreement. Remind me to share a Ritz London horror story one-day soon. Just a little matter of $400 for six domestic telephone calls. Ouch!), sandwiched around nights in certifiable fleabag joints in far-flung third world corners, where things are simpler and more precarious, and in many cases brimming with life force.

But that’s all backstory; neither here nor there. The point of this confession is that I’m addicted to travel. Frozen in perpetual motion. I couldn’t stop now if I wanted to. How else would I make rent? I’ve become unemployable. It’s true. Between trips once, I needed some extra cash so I went to a temp agency. The women who ran the place put me through the paces. I took typing tests (I’m a hunt n’ peck guy, didn’t go over), word, excel and power point tests. I failed magnificently and never got a call. Which proves that I’ve officially written and wandered myself out of the white-collar world and into a way of life I dreamed about but never actually prepared for. Now I can competently suggest hotels and wine and airlines (JAL rocks, by the way), and I make strange and exciting friends – like the Swiss Steve Martin look alike, Gonsag, an iconoclastic dive master in the Togean islands. I flirt internationally, but I also suffer surreal bouts of loneliness. Before you berate me for complaining, try staying in tropical mega suites by yourself, surrounded by honeymooners and tell me you don’t feel it.

I might even go so far as to confess that I’m more prone to tears while watching poignant, quirky films on miniature seat screens surrounded by 300 strangers than I would be if I saw the same film in the theater. See, it isn’t the movie, or the strangers – the frizzy haired Japanese violinist with the warm smile or the young family of 4 crammed into 3 seats in the middle section, or the balding exec leafing through US Weekly in Business Class. It’s the biochemical response of being off on an adventure. That palpable buzz from “life on the road,” to quote my hero, Jack. It heightens our awareness, dissolves boundaries, and encourages awkward empathy.

Still, that’s not the confession. Here it is… until a few minutes ago, I had forgotten about all this. For the past few months I was still traveling, but a lot of the time, I was on autopilot. I would engage with my story subjects but would forget to lose myself in the great on-rushing magic of the road. I was just like any other business traveler – caught between the job and fantasies of home. And that ain’t how it’s done.

At its core… traveling is simply a way to brush up against life, without pretense or preparation. There’s electricity in that kind of surrender, a vitality that invigorates the soul and opens the mind. Getting lost in the jungle, that $400 phone bill in a snooty hotel, the middle-aged exec with an Us Weekly Jones – these are gifts to ponder and remember and share.

And I’ve noticed something else… even when I’m on the road alone, this life infusion binds me closer to the ones I love back home. It binds me closer to everyone and everything. No, travel isn’t the only way to cultivate such connection or tap into a wellspring of inspiration that can crack mundanity’s spell. But it’s the best way I know… which is why I’ll never, ever stop.

– Adam Skolnick