The Colossal Traveler
Irian Jaya, Indonesia – 2007
Compared to Doris, I’m a little travel-ant.
Doris is a world-traveler in a league of her own. She has been to 180 countries, many of them multiple times. Most shockingly, for the past twenty years, she has been traveling for about half a year every year. She is the female equivalent of Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler in history, the only difference being that he traveled continuously whereas she does it piecemeal.
We had both been traveling through the villages of the Dani tribe in the Baliem Valley of Irian Jaya when I first saw Doris: a tall, blond, well-built German traveler in her late fifties. She was traveling alone like me, and we were visiting separately the same family in one of the villages. She was leaving just as I was arriving, and we didn’t talk. Later in the evening, we bumped into one another again at the hotel in Wamena where we were both staying. We soon discovered that we were working on identical parallel missions to either find a guide or some Christian missionaries to take us to the more remote Asmat and Korowai tribes. Over a glass of wine, we started talking about countries and continents, peoples and cultures, our travels and stories. As she opened up, I was so fascinated by her life that I fell silent and let her do most of the talking.
Doris must have been born with a unique and rare “travel gene.” By the age of nine, after earning some money by gardening for neighbors, she traveled alone to a nearby town. By the age of fifteen, she had already traveled to ten European countries with her family, whom she pressed to take her on trips more often. At sixteen, she convinced her father to sign a special permission letter for her to travel alone on the Orient Express from Vienna to Istanbul, something that she actually did! Ever since that trip, she traveled for a few months almost every year, sometimes even for a few years in a row. According to my rough calculations, Doris had traveled a total of fifteen years out of the last forty years of her life! She had managed to do it by having a flexible work schedule: she was a radiologist covering for other radiologists who went on holidays, so she chose her various jobs and their duration based on her own travel plans.
Doris’s husband also loved to travel. Since they had no children, they had the freedom to organize a few multi-year journeys together as well. For example, they traveled by Jeep through the whole African continent, moving north to south, camping along the way; they traveled nonstop for a year in North America; they sailed for a year along the coast of Northern Europe, from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Mediterranean. She had been to Indonesia six times, to Yemen four, to Iran three; she had traveled alone to Afghanistan after the war in 2001; she had visited isolated tribes in Papua and West Africa multiple times – the list has no end. Doris is not just another world-traveler. She is colossal!
Among her many adventures was escaping from a wild and enraged African tribe who ran after her when she unwittingly did something improper; witnessing an armed robbery in Latin America; being incessantly pursued by a tribal chief in Vanuatu who wanted to marry her; and most recently, surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that took the lives of 230,000 people. Amazingly, she and her husband were among the very few tsunami survivors in Northern Sumatra. Although they were at the beach when the gushing wave struck and sucked them in, they both managed to emerge above the water and survive through a series of small details that Doris still considered unexplainable, if not miraculous.
Doris seemed to be neither aware nor conscious of how special her life and travels are. She did not suspect that she might be one of only a handful of people on the planet with such an incredible and extended depository of travel experiences. She spoke of her extraordinary travels as someone would speak about everyday common things, like going shopping or picking up the kids from school. While she recited her stories and adventures, I often exclaimed “wow,” “ooh,” and “I can’t believe it!” But she kept talking as if my reactions to what she was saying were insignificant. I wondered why this was so: Was it because traveling had become such an integral part of her life that visiting the Mongolian desert was like going to the neighborhood grocery store? Was it because she had recited the same stories many times and she was just repeating them without any emotions? Had travel become an unimpressive adjunct to what was now her “ordinary life”?
It was obvious that she took travel seriously, as I did, and sought a better understanding of the societies she visited. But did she really enter into their heart and soul? The following day, we visited some villages together, yet when some locals wanted to engage with us, she didn’t seem to be interested. She was content to just observe from a distance. And I noticed that while we were in one place, she was already thinking about the next – she took a few photos and was eager to move on. Her mind wandered and I sensed a loss of presence on her part, even a level of jadedness in her demeanor. I felt there was a constant “matter-of-factness” about the way she experienced her travels. She seemed to be more concerned with the movement inherent in travel that with its magic. I couldn’t help but wonder whether traveling for her had simply become an end in itself. Was she now traveling just for the sake of traveling? Had travel become an integral and “invisible part” of her life, just as it becomes for international businessmen? Had she lost the ability to experience wonder in travel? Was her apparent insatiableness an expression of her jadedness?
While trying to answer all these questions, I recognized something in her behavior, traces of which I had recently observed in my own: I had developed a new obsession with squeezing more countries, towns, cultures, and natural wonders into my already overloaded travel itinerary; I had a rush to move from place to place, not staying still for too long as I used to do during the early years of my travels. I was disturbed by the thought: was my own journey turning into an end in itself? Was I too on the verge of losing my sense of direction, my sense of wonder at new sights and experiences? I recalled a traveling couple in Samoa who had refused to walk with me down a short path to see a waterfall, because, as they said “it’s just another waterfall; we have seen so many.” At the time, I had found their comment so puzzling, but was I also now becoming like them?! Was I losing myself in a meaningless labyrinth of incessant traveling that knew not its own whence and whither? Was I becoming obsessed with experiencing new thrills, the old ones – such as an impressive waterfall – having lost their magic? Was becoming “Doris-like” the culmination of all world-travelers?
Doris suddenly turned into a mirror in which I could see my worst nightmare. A few months after we had parted, I suffered from extreme travel fatigue – a sort of physical and mental collapse. This marked a most crucial and transformative period in my travels and in my life, for it offered the opportunity to stare hard into that mirror and reexamine my everything: my travels, my intentions, my life’s-path. After a few weeks of critical self-analysis, my darkest thoughts receded as I realized that for all of our similarities, Doris and I were completely different creatures. Yes, I had been a serial nonstop traveler for years, but my curiosity for other subjects in life was too strong for me to just be a traveler. Even as I traveled, I devoted time to reading and writing, which required periods of a stationary life. I also had a desire to linger longer in different countries that I had greatly admired in order to experience the culture on a deeper level. But most importantly, travel sparked my inner childhood wonder that had not yet been extinguished. Even after years on the road, I had not yet tired of waterfalls, amazing landscapes, the laughter of children, talking to locals, trying new foods, listening to strange music.
At the end of this transformative period sparked by my collapse, I had vowed to slow down and mindfully strove never to become like Doris. I promised myself that, irrespective of how many hundreds of waterfalls I would see in my life, I would always walk to the end of the path to see the one nearby.