THIS YEAR I am living a fantasy. I am taking a year off from my "real" life to travel. This sabbatical has been 16 years in the making. More, if you count the years of schooling and part-time work before full-time career.
The seed of wanderlust was planted in my Minnesota childhood in ways I cannot articulate. It grew into a firm faith in the beneficial powers of travel--a faith reaffirmed many times as longer and more exotic vacations became a reality.
For me, the crucial test of the value of travel is memorability. Days, places, people encountered in my travels retain their clarity years after the fact. Freezing in an unheated hotel during an April blizzard in the Alps; the Indian family who "adopted" me and insisted I spend the night with them in their suburban Bombay apartment; the hike up the mountainside "stations of the Cross" with a 5-year-old Bolivian boy who presented me to his startled family at the top of the cliff as "my friend, Ellen"--all of these experiences are unforgettable.
Yet entire weeks and months of my "normal" life in Washington usually pass so routinely that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other except by referring to notes on a calendar.
When mid-life crisis approached and an interesting and challenging job became less of a challenge and more of a job, I began to consider making the fantasy of a year off a reality. Many friends encouraged me to dedicate this time to travel. Others had set an example by doing it themselves. Nearly six years ago I visited a friend who had left a prestigious job to live in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Spain and write a novel. What a life! The walks on the goat trail to the market in town, picnics on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean--the image stayed with me.
The 1980 election indirectly brought me a step closer to living my fantasy. My traveling companion for a long-anticipated trip to South America was suddenly out of a Senate job. I took a giant step and went to Peru alone for three weeks, proving that it is not necessary to travel with a friend to have a good time.
The 5-year mark had brought changes in each of my Washington jobs. As the time approached, the idea of a change of venue and daily life became more firm in my mind. A decision made in 1977 to join a private public interest organization rather than a more rigid bureaucracy was vindicated when my request for a leave of absence was granted.
Instinctively, not knowing why, I had lived for years below my financial means. Since it was unlikely anyone would pay me to spend a year in "creative travel", this penny-pinching made a year off possible.
Precipitious as the departure from friends and family and a city that has been home to me for many years was, like the decision to take the year off, the departure was many months in the making.
The request, made more than six months before leaving, was two-fold: to do a special project while phasing out of my normal responsibilities in the fall for several months, and to begin a leave of absence Feb. 1. Thus I could help recruit someone for my slot for the year and also work with my successor for a few weeks. The long advance notice provided for a phase-out, rather than a sudden disappearance from the job.
With a winter departure established six months earlier, the major question remaining was what to do with such a large slice of unfettered time. Archaeology has been a major interest of mine for years and offered one organizing theme for travel. Another possible theme was travel writing--which had been a minor but reassured part of my journalistic background.
Where to go was part of the dilemma. Around the world? I studied the air fare bargains and became exhausted just thinking about the wear and tear of such a trip. Should I go to South America, to improve my Spanish and explore tha Amazon and the many archaeological sites I have not visited there? Or to Europe, where it would be cold in February? To a friend's ranch in Mexico? To Asia, land of Himalayan treks and exotic temples?
"Where are you going? Exactly when are you leaving?" The questions came more and more often and my answer until a couple of months before leaving was always "I don't know."
In those months of reading guidebooks and studying alternatives some fundamental principles emerged:
* Constant travel was not my goal. The adventure of not knowing in the morning where I'd sleep that night was fine for short trips but not for a year.
* The year must be used to do something that could not be done on a limited vacation.
These principles pointed to settling down somewhere at least for a few months, experimenting with living in another culture and working on a language. Knowing my discomfort in cold weather, I began to study the Equator--seeking a place to study my French or Spanish and live for at least a few months in a reasonably comfortable climate. The Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands, both part of Spain, came into focus. After searching libraries and book stores for more information, Minorca, one of the Balearics, got my nomination.
It is part of Spain, has a moderate but not severe winter, is convenient to many places I'd like to visit in the Mediterranean, and appeared to be less developed and overwhelmed by tourism than its nearby sister island, Mallorca. My research revealed the pie ce de re'sistance that differentiated Minorca from the other Balearic islands. It has many hundreds of megalithic ruins--a veritable treasure trove for an archaeology buff.
With Minorca newly on my mind, I explained to a friend my intention to aim for a Spanish island. Before I uttered the word "Minorca", my friend interjected that friends of hers owned a house on the island and that they rarely used it.
Communication with the globe-trotting owners of the house took some time. While I waited to hear from them, I resolved to go to Minorca even if the house were not available.
Once the use of the house became a reality--although the length of my tenure was uncertain--it was finally possible to respond positively to that nagging question: "Where are you going?"
The anchor of the house allowed me to do a psychological balancing act between my wandering instincts and my need for some stability. The house was a place to live, but not necessarily for the whole year. If isolation became a problem, friends and family could visit and write to me. I could take more luggage than if I were constantly on the road--allowing for the comfort of guidebooks, the use of the travel literature I'd collected for years, the luxury of clothing for a variety of climates, a radio; and some personal items--the miniature brass llama from Peru, the tiny bronze Buddha I bought from a little boy in Afghanistan and a cookbook.
Having the Minorca house as a base also offered the opportunity to become knowledgable about a small (about 35 miles long, 9 miles wide), interesting corner of the world and to dedicate myself to as much or as little free-lance writing as seemed desirable.
The weeks before I left were a blur of packing both for my trip and to move from my house of 7 1/2 years; shopping for the "essentials" one never expects to find outside the U.S.; conversations with editors about writing assigments, hundreds of tiny decisions about what to take, what to store, what to throw away; and a maze of financial and other logistical arrangements--partly while still on the job and then for two full weeks before my departure.
I was reduced to making new lists daily and taping them on the increasingly bare walls of my bedroom: luggage--try broken lock, new key; shopping--batteries, film; movers; international driver's license; cancel Georgetown University field house membership; travelers checks; car arrangements.
However, there was no need to buy a plane ticket early. No bargains exist for someone who will be out of the country for 11 months and doesn't have an itinerary.
The ritual of farewells in Washington, with family and friends in Minnesota and then in New York, was an important and enjoyable counterpoint to the blizzard of minutiae threatening to engulf me.
The night flight from JFK Airport in New York to Madrid was uneventful but sleep would not come because my chair would not recline. A 5-hour layover in the Madrid Airport waiting for the Minorca flight did not do much for my mood or my health. But I somehow emerged from the plane in Majon, capital of Minorca, rode across the island to "my" town, and found the caretaker waiting for me at the house of Calle San Miguel.
I awoke from 18 hours of sleep in my new bed in a more than 500-year-old house on a narrow, twisting street in the city of Ciudadela, Minorca.
The year off from my "real" life had finally begun.