Why I travel

I have a secret about traveling that I haven’t told many people. I think I’m a little embarrassed about it because it feels so much like a secret, one that belongs to a version of me that’s still a small child. It is this: once when I was young I drew up a list of all the countries in the world, and I printed it out on several sheets of paper, and I promised myself that in my life I would visit every single one of them.

I’ve had to update the list from time to time as new countries have been formed and old countries have merged and been renamed. I still have the list and it’s prestiked to the inside of my wardrobe door. Whenever I visit a new country I mark it with a highlighter so that’s crossed off but I can still see it, and sometimes in the morning as I’m getting dressed I stand there staring at my list in satisfaction at how much of the world I’ve visited, and then also feeling a little panicky at how much there is left.

When I first made the list I was confident that I’d cross off every single country. My biggest worry was what I would do when they were all done. Would I feel empty and sad? Would I have lost my purpose? But now I’m noticing how the years rush by and I’m starting to have just the opposite fear. What if I don’t make it? I’m already working on new strategies. When you’re a child you eat the worst food on your plate first and save the best for last, but now I have to swap that around: if I don’t have time to see them all, I must make sure that the ones I don’t see are the ones I won’t miss. North Korea, for instance. Chad. Australia.

I want you to understand: I’m not usually a guy who makes travel to-do lists. I don’t tick off the sights and get the t-shirts, so for a long time I was puzzled about why my list of countries has such a hold on me.

Of course, it’s my dad. Once, before I was born, he caught a train from Durban to Victoria Falls. He was impressed by the falls, of course, but whenever he told me about that trip, back when I was very young and he was still alive, it was the light that he kept mentioning. The light was different there, he said – the colour of it, the way it came down, the angle of the sunshine. It felt different on your skin – it had a different weight. Everything smelt subtly different there. The air felt different in your lungs. Not better or worse, just different. Everything felt so different that you somehow felt more alive.

If it was so different there, he wondered what it would be like even further away: in Egypt or Russia or Peru. He tried to imagine. He collected travel guides and read them novels, especially after he became sick and couldn’t go about much. He had a beige leatherette La-Z-Boy recliner and he would sit and read about places he knew he’d never see. He could give you directions from Notre Dame cathedral to Café Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain. He could tell you which subway lines to use in New York to go from Central Park to Coney Island, and the best place to buy hot dogs once you get there. He told me all about the bright tiny fish that live in Lake Malawi, and about the swimming iguanas of the Galapagos and how if you go far enough north on clear cold nights you see great sheets of lights dancing in the night sky.

Sometimes the things he told me sounded like fairytales, and I think they did for him too. He never did see any part of the world further away than Victoria Falls. He didn’t have the money, and then he also didn’t have the time. If he felt bad about that, he never let me see. He told me: “The world is so big you’d need two lifetimes to see it all.”

Sometimes I would tell him my plans to sail around the world on my own yacht, or travel over the Alps in a hot-air balloon, or whatever new adventure struck me, and then he would grow serious and tell me that it doesn’t matter if I don’t do everything I want to do. He knew that he didn’t have much to leave me, and that without money life has a way of coming between a person and their dreams, however lovely those dreams might be. He didn’t want me to be disappointed. He wanted me to be satisfied with whatever happened in my life, however it panned out, and I try to remember that.

But still I have my list of countries, and when I visit a new one I cross it off. I do it because it feels like I’ve done it. I’m not living one life: I’m living two. When I get off the flight and walk across the tarmac towards a new airport, I think: “Look, dad. That’s what the sky looks like in Ethiopia. This is the way it smells. This is how it feels.”

Traveller24, 27 Feb 2018