The Trip to Nowhere

3929858184_b3a88c1a21_z (1)There are many good reasons to get on a plane or pack up the car. But travel writer Pico Iyer makes an ironic case for not. His The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is a tiny book I read in one sitting this weekend, and it gave me pause. Quite literally. It has cured me from an insidious malaise and a first-world problem I’ve been guilty of—vacation envy.

Iyer’s point is that we can all build stillness and pauses into our lives right where we are, and these small retreats can perhaps fuel us, stimulate us, and satisfy us even more than travel. If you find it hard to meditate or to sit alone for a long while and just think, maybe a trip isn’t going to clear your mind the way you hope it will.

I’ve noticed that sometimes what comes under the guise of an adventure or vacation, is more about running away from life—from the stress, the busyness, the seemingly unsolvable problems—than seeing the destination. No matter how far you go or how often you take these trips, you always come back. To you. And your crazy life.

In our culture of achievement, too, travel can be a compulsion of more. It becomes a hunger to just go, go, go: I’ve never been to fill-in-the-blank. We need to use up our frequent flyer miles before they expire. Time to check off some places on the bucket list. There’s that cruise that’s such a great deal.

A number of years ago I got worked into a frenzy, thinking my husband and I were running out of time to show our kids the world. I plotted out the trips we needed to take and how we could fit them in, between work (parents’ and kids’), school and budget. Then I realized there would never be enough time to show them everything I wanted to. There could always be regret that we didn’t do that trip. Or that one. So, a few well-chosen journeys would have to do. Take a breath. Enjoy the days at home. Help them explore their inner worlds. That, I hope, will serve them at least as well as a European grand tour or a Disney cruise.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with travel, and I’m sure Mr. Iyer would agree. But I was glad to be reminded by him that the journey within is where the real adventure begins. If only we take the time to stop going places and sit still.

Photo: Flickr/Marius Waldal

Nature’s Crucible and the Quest

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Quests are in fashion. Tough Mudders. Ironmans. Mt. Everest. The Appalachian Trail. Running a marathon in every state. It seems more and more of us are using our travel and leisure time to test our limits–our physical and mental toughness–with outdoor quests. Perhaps the more comfortable our physical lives are, the more we crave that challenge.

This week I picked up the 2012 bestseller Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and found myself unable to put it down. In the memoir, she describes her 1,000+-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I have a backpacking trip in Yosemite’s high country coming up so was curious about her experience. But it turns out her personal journey was about much more than backpacking. She used nature as a crucible to test her in every way possible and ultimately to find and heal herself.

It made me think about why we turn to nature for this. Why, for example, are our everyday frustrations and tests—and travel is full of them—just irritating? But when we face down nature or our bodies, it feels pure and deep. The crucible tells us what we’re made of. I suppose everyday tests, like traffic jams and delayed flights, are too tame. We need the intensity of real pain to burn out whatever we’re looking for from the crucible. But it also feels less like a test when there’s someone, a real person, to blame the pain on, like that bad driver or the airline. Mother Nature, she’s a tough one to blame.

I’m not really looking for any kind of personal transformation in Yosemite, just a happy vacation with exercise, companionship and scenery. The quest that intrigues me more right now is the crucible of finding beauty and truth in the everyday irritations. I have a big work trip coming up, so I guess the hike through customs will be my crucible.

(Photo credit: Flickr/Miguel Vieira)

A map label, politics and a pickle

“Can we change Arabian Sea to Persian Gulf?” the copyeditor asked. A simple question, right? Not so simple, it turns out. The body of water was labeled on an illustrated map of the UAE within a story on Abu Dhabi I was editing.

I did a little search to get up to speed and learned there is a politically sensitive controversy surrounding this. In a nutshell, many Arab countries (such as the UAE) prefer now to call this the Arabian Sea because it abuts the Arabian Peninsula. Between the lines, the dispute also plays into a growing rivalry these countries have with Iran. The name puts a stake in the ground–or in this case, the sea–for the Arabs.

How to handle? Executive Travel uses a modified AP style, and AP suggests Persian Gulf, except in direct quotes. But it has always been our policy to use local writers for travel pieces and to reflect an insider’s view of a city or country. After some discussion, we decided to stay true to our “local insight” approach and go with Arabian Sea. It’s a small matter–just a label on a map–but this pickle is an example of what makes travel writing so interesting. What would you do?