|cartoon by Edward Gorey|
When I was little, my uncle gave me storybooks with pictures of kids around the world: a Dutch girl surrounded by tulips and wearing a starched white cap with wings; a Chinese boy with a pigtail who slept on a brick bed heated by coals. They were cliches so bald it's embarrassing to think about, but I loved those books and wanted to be everywhere those children were. More than that, I wanted to be those children, each of them in turn. I think maybe the first real sadness of my life came when I realized that I couldn't.
Later on, I pinned a map to a wall and drew a red line along the routes I had traveled: Europe, the Andes, India and Nepal; for some reason, I didn’t chronicle the U.S. or Canada. Then I realized that all I had seen was what was on either side of that line, and that made me too sad to continue.
One night in the seventies, friends and I, probably stoned, created a travel agency of the mind. We'd offer package deals to tiny countries (Andorra, San Marino, Fiji), or to countries colored green on the globe, or we'd organize terrorism tours to the sites of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. (Long before 9/11, I used to walk a version of that in Washington on my way to work.) We would call our agency Book in Haste, Repent at Leisure.
And why not, really? Once you eliminate travel for work or family obligation, you have tourism, and tourists have more pretexts than reasons for choosing one place over another. But once you do choose, the world becomes full of reasons: the tart crunch of the apples the Buddhist monk pulled like a magic trick from his maroon-and- saffron robe when we shared a bus seat on the world's highest highway; the Andean air that's ripe as cheese and thin as gauze (music and smells are most evocative of place and time); the moment the lights come on in Florence's Brancacci Chapel and you see the Masaccios for the first - or tenth - time. I have no words for that.