All my life I have disagreed with Henry David Thoreau: Unlike him, I think it is “worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” That’s why inveterate travelers find the return to post-pandemic travel an exhilarating experience.
This spring, my husband and I were excited to resurrect an aborted trip abroad planned almost four years ago. We were so excited you might have thought it was something we’d never done before. The truth is, travel is in our DNA so having to stay close to home for so long was hard.
The joy of travel began when I was a child and the high point of summer was a family trip to Toronto to visit my father’s relatives. On the eve of the journey, my sister and I laid out new shorts, T-shirts and sandals to be ready when the alarm rang at 6 a.m. Teeth brushed and hair combed, we skipped to the back of the black Buick and didn’t argue with our brother for the window seat. We were too busy savoring breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, part of the annual ritual that always began our trip to another country.
Every year, we took a different route to enjoy the scenery. Pre-interstate and Holiday Inns, we drove through Pennsylvania Dutch country or New England or New York state, where we visited Ithaca’s gorges, the 1,000 islands, and of course, Niagara Falls. Every night, we looked for AAA-approved cabins in which to sleep, with their worn linoleum floors, chenille bedspreads and inevitable spiders. We thought it was pure heaven (except for the spiders).
Crossing the border was like going to a forbidden country. We had to answer questions about where we were going, why, and for how long, and reassure customs officials that we had nothing illegal with us. Once cleared to proceed, we headed to the falls to ride in the Maid of the Mist boat that went behind the falls, spraying us with water.
In Toronto, we checked into the Royal York Hotel where a little man in a maroon uniform roamed the lobby every day calling out, “Call for Mr. Smith!” “Call for Mr. Jones!” The next morning, before heading to my grandfather’s cottage, we ate breakfast in The Honeydew Restaurant. Only then were we ready for the obligatory visits that lay ahead.
Later, in my early 20s, I took my first solo trip to Europe. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven as I experienced Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome and the Swiss landscape, relying on travel books that promised you could do this kind of thing economically. Relishing every moment and every conversation with fellow travelers from different cultures, I thought I’d go mad with the pleasure of it all. I marveled at the sight of Michelangelo’s David, wept in San Marco Square, thrilled at the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard, sat in cafés on the Champs-Élysées and smiled back at Mona Lisa. I even fell in love twice. More importantly, I knew my life had changed, and I would never stop traveling.
Luckily, I married a Brit who loves traveling as much as I do and with whom I was able to travel internationally because of his work, then mine. We even lived for a year in Thailand when I got a teaching gig there. We traveled like cockroaches then, scurrying around Southeast Asia, discovering new foods, new art and music, new friends, beautiful rituals and other ways of living.
Travel also offers a diverse and sometimes dramatic education. History, art, literature, religious beliefs all come alive as we are exposed to other cultures, rituals and norms. We become more curious, learn new ways of thinking or expressing ourselves, and grow in ways we never imagined.
Traveling also offers challenges. Before there was a single currency in Europe, I had to learn how to convert currencies, to communicate without a common language and to know the difference between the Alps and the Pyrenees. It was instructive and fun. I also had to develop bargaining skills and to know how to deal with dangerous situations. Luckily, in my experience, there is always someone to help.
Travel, if it’s possible, can be simply a pleasurable experience or a profound life-altering event. For me, it was both, and I view it as a great blessing.
That’s why I continue to agree with Mark Twain who claimed travel is enticing, not least because it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Like Twain, whose account of one trip gave us “Innocents Abroad,” I think “it would be well if such an excursion could be got up every year and the system regularly inaugurated.”
Traveling may have seemed a thing of the past during the pandemic. Now we may find ourselves changing venues because of the climate crisis or different opportunities. We may prefer more café crawls and fewer cathedral and museum visits along with more chatting with the locals. But I am among those travelers who are not ready to let a passport expire because I never know when I might have a fierce urge to weep again in Venice, to learn something new, to make new friends, or to count cats in Zanzibar.
Elayne Clift lives in Brattleboro.