Last week a friend of mine asked me why I travel so much when I live in Vermont, a truly beautiful part of the world. There are probably thousands of reasons, but the main one is the little bag of bridge mix that some regional jets provide to make the journey extra fun.
The reality is that most of my travel is for work – book tours and speeches and research – but I know also that travel is good for me. It feeds my soul. The same is true for my wife. There’s that old joke – attributed to both Al Gore and Bill Gates – that “airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo.” We all know that travel can be arduous and degrading. We all know that the away-from-home toilet situation can be terrifying.
But last May I was in a corner of Turkey I couldn’t have found on a map three years ago: The city of Diyarbakir. I was with a half-dozen friends journeying back in time to Historic Armenia and for two nights we stayed there in a hotel that may forever be among my very favorites, even though it was seriously lacking in the amenities we take for granted here in the U.S. Exhibit A? The hotel room doorways were so squat that munchkins from Oz would have had to duck. Even Tyrion Lannister, the sardonic dwarf in “Game of Thrones,” would have vented some serious snark. Behind those doors was a bed about the width of a placemat, a window the size of a shoebox, and a nightstand. It had its own bathroom, but the sink was a cereal bowl. The walls were barren. Not even a bad painting of a horse or a ship.
But here is what I loved about the hotel. It was built between 1521 and 1527 of regal black and white Urfa stones. To this day it boasts stalls for up to 800 camels. We ate buffet breakfasts in a courtyard of Palm Trees and fountains, surrounded by the 70 hotel rooms and their Ottoman arches, and at night we were drinking Efes beer there well past midnight. The hotel was a block from the Byzantine wall that encircles the old city and looks down upon the River Tigris. It is the closest I have ever been to the Middle Eastern world that existed before – and perhaps during – the First World War. I did not merely feel removed from the Green Mountains or reality TV or the bills I had waiting for me at home; I felt removed from the twenty-first century.
Obviously travel is a privilege. I know how lucky I am to be able to travel, for work and for pleasure. But it’s worth noting that my room in this hotel cost about $50 a night. I spent more on beer in Diyarbakir than I spent for a bed.
Likewise, some of my wife’s favorite trips usually involve solitary drives with only her cameras for company through back roads in America’s high plains and southern deserts. She is likely to be staying at motels where the soaps are so small you don’t bother to steal them. But the sense of adventure and exploration is what motivates her – and what feeds her soul.
Sure, we both look like we’re posing for mug shots after some of these journeys. We wish we looked as good as our passport photos. But travel is not about the regional jets with port-a-potties for bathrooms or the rent-a-cars that lack Sirius radios. It’s about discovery and openness and transcendence. It’s about, to quote E. M. Forster, being “willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
And, of course, there is also this reality: When we are done traveling, we always get to come home to Vermont.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 21. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was just published.)