Doctors used to consider a desire for travel a medical illness called ‘dromomania’, or ‘pathological tourism’. I’d never heard this term until it came up in the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. This poses questions. Is the ‘ceaseless desire to travel’ truly a medical condition and, apart from the social and environmental harm air travel and mass tourism is causing across the globe, is it dangerous? If a desire to travel is an illness, is travel itself a cure or a symptom?
This prompted me to wonder about my own wanderlust (a German word with a similar meaning). My first experience of ‘foreign’ travel came on camping trips to Scotland as a child – definitely a different country, even for the other natives of the British Isles. The horrors of Scottish camping weren’t enough to put me off, and since then I’ve lived in five countries on three continents and travelled to another fifty-nine.
The end of communism in Europe ensured that four of these have the distinction of no longer existing. Thanks for the memories (mainly of bad food) East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Some countries, like Syria, have become war zones that no sane person would visit. Others, like Sri Lanka, have emerged out of a period of war. I’ve travelled for work, as a tourist, and as part of longer travels, backpacking for months at a time in Europe, India, the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Since this blog was born in Bolivia, I’ve written about 41 countries. Twenty-three remain unrecorded, except in old diaries, browning photos and fading memories. One day, I might add these past travels so that the memory doesn’t fade entirely. Along the way, I’ve met many good people willing to share their advice, hospitality, food and even money. I’ve tried to reciprocate. What goes around, comes around, as an old friend says (mainly about the ordering of beer).
Viewed through the global news cycle, the world may seem like a terrifying place. That has not been my experience. There was the time when a pickup truck screeched to a halt next to me in the darkness of early morning in the streets of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. I was lost looking for the railway station, the driver told me this was no place for a “stupid f**king gringo” to be if he wanted to live. He gave me a lift to the station.
A car accident in the Tunisian desert showed me the warmth and generosity of this North African nation. Where else would the strangers who pulled you from a car wreck show up the next day to check on your health? Once, still a teenager, I was broke and unable to get money until the banks reopened two days later. A young French woman shared her food, wine and cigarettes with me on an overnight train to Marseille. When we parted, she gave me some francs so that I didn’t go hungry.
Equally, there have been times when I’ve questioned my sanity for leaving the comfort of my own home. Once, I woke to find a big cat, possibly a leopard, in my bedroom on a houseboat in Indian Kashmir. I felt lucky to survive but, when I mentioned it, the father of the family I was staying with shrugged and said, “Yes, they come to the boats looking for food.” At night I heard gunfire in the surrounding hills. I may have been the only tourist in Kashmir.
There was that time when we were trapped on top of a ten-story building in Mendoza, Argentina, because the security guard, who was with us, had left his keys on his desk on the ground floor. We were on that rooftop under a fierce Andean sun for hours. Not to mention the time in a Catholic area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, when a British military patrol in full camouflage gear emerged from behind a house and trained their weapons on us. That would have been an ironic way to die.
I won’t go into the diabolical stomach problems suffered in Bolivia, Nepal, India and Mexico. Let’s just say, there’s a 14-hour journey on a Bolivian bus without a working toilet that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Well, Boris Johnson, perhaps. Or the shared bathroom in a Katmandu hotel that I didn’t leave for 48 hours. If you were one of my unlucky fellow guests, I apologise. I took a dozen Imodium to survive the 20-hour bus ride to a village in western Nepal that I’d call home for the next several months.
Perhaps travel is a psychological disorder after all. Or perhaps people should just avoid bus travel when suffering with a dodgy stomach.