Last year was a flurry of passport stamps and longhaul flights as I traveled coast to coast here at home, and circled the globe. I cruised the Mediterranean, ate my way through Italy, drank my way through Portland, Oregon, crossed Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam by bus, and managed to cover a lot of ground here in Kentucky as well.
I live for travel. The thing is, I’m really not cut out for it. A travel writer, you might expect, would have the constitution of a billy goat, be able to sleep at the drop of a hat, and have the stamina to walk all day and party all night. Me? Not so much.
My mind may thrill to the challenges of travel, but my body, oh does it protest. I spent all but 24 hours of a trip to New York City early last year confined to bed at the hotel, wretchedly sick with the norovirus. You can catch that anywhere, though, so we won’t even count that. So let’s talk about sleep. I don’t sleep on planes. Not with pharmaceuticals, not with an eye mask and ear plugs. Not on little hops, not on the never-ending flight to Bali. I start trips exhausted, and build from there.
Jet lag throws my circadian rhythms into a centrifuge, whether it’s a three or 12 hour change, leaving me wide-eyed all night, and staggering with weariness all day. Even in my own time zone, if I’m not sleeping in a pitch dark, meat-lockeresque cold room, with the background white noise of a fan, I can’t fall asleep. If the air kicks off and on, I can’t sleep. If I don’t have a knee pillow, I can’t sleep. If I’m excited about what I’m doing tomorrow, or did that day, I can’t sleep. If I’m too full or drank too much, I can’t sleep. As a consequence, I build up a sleep deficit throughout the trip that leads to increasing crankiness.
Flipping back through old trip journals, I find scrawled on every page “I’m so tired,” or “I still didn’t sleep last night.” The only thing I see more in old journals is the line “my feet hurt.” Since I was a little girl traipsing around after my mom shopping, my feet have hurt when I walk for very long long. Foot doctors over the years have prescribed various and sundry shoe inserts for plantar fasciitis, anti-inflammatory medications, and an air-cast at one point for a stress fracture. It doesn’t matter. My feet are traitors. My most vivid memories from many a long day of sight seeing are of my desperate search to find a place to sit and rest my feet. By the the return flight, it’s such blissful relief to not be walking I don’t even mind being crammed into a coach seat for hours on end.
My feet may be wimps, but I try to make up for it on the culinary front. I’ll eat (almost) anything. And I seem to have an endless appetite for street food, especially. Despite being careful to only eat at places popular with locals, my system revolts on a regular basis. I’ve had food poisoning on a 13 hour flight following an overnight food crawl in Seoul, parasites after some bad fish in Cambodia, and regular old run of the mill Montezuma’s Revenge in any number of far-flung locations.
But wait, there’s more. I also have a marked propensity for losing or forgetting things and as a result have left my passport in an airport bathroom, coats (yes, more than one) behind in hotels, prized souvenirs in taxis, and a slew of other things that I’m forgetting. I have a bad temper that flares up when I’m tired (see can’t sleep, above), a tendency toward low blood sugar if I don’t have my usual breakfast of Greek yogurt and trail mix, and I can’t abide cigarette smoke. And we won’t even talk about how accident and injury prone I am (though visiting doctors in faraway places often makes for an interesting tale).
When you see these shortcomings, you might wonder if it’s possible to be more ill-suited to travel. Maybe not. But looming larger than all these idiosyncrasies and physical failings is an insatiable curiosity and sense of wonder that propels me to keep going. I have to see what’s beyond that next corner, no matter how much my feet protest. I have to taste that mystery meat sizzling on the roadside no matter the potential consequence. I have to get up after only a couple hours of sleep to see sunrise over the Sahara/the market at Rungis/a call to prayer at the Blue Mosque because you only live once, and there’s oh so much to see in this world. I can’t let a body that’s not cut out for travel get in the way.