A large shopping bag stuffed with lightly used polar gear sits on my bed at my parents’ house in Massachusetts, waiting for something to happen. Return it? Sell it? I need to do something with it. Except I can’t. My mother and I bought the garments for a two-week trip in Antarctica, an adventure that overlapped with the rumblings of a mysterious virus in China. Since then, we have been hunkered down in our respective homes nearly 400 miles apart. My mother is of a certain age and can’t return the items without taking an unnecessary health risk. For her sake, I can’t fly north.
Measured against other challenges I have encountered during my travels as a journalist — stolen luggage in St. Martin, fire-ant attack in Florida, confrontation with the religious police in Saudi Arabia — this one is piddly. But the difficulty speaks to the larger problem: I am a travel writer who has stopped traveling. Since March, I have been staying — or, more accurately, fidgeting — in one place. And I am not very good at keeping still. After college, I purposefully chose a career that allowed me to switch up my setting and cast of characters on a regular basis. One month, I might be drinking cold beers with former rebels in the Colombian jungle; weeks later, I could be chasing after the northern lights in Alaska or camping in Zimbabwe, hoping the monkeys didn’t steal my shoes while I slept. For me, home is for a change of clothes; away is for everything else. And I do mean everything: I feel more alert and alive when I step into a new environment and culture. The thrill of the unfamiliar knocks the mundaneness out of me.
The travel industry is putty in the pandemic’s hands. No one knows when it will come back — or in what shape. So I sit and wait and reflect with an intensity that is more than wistfulness; it is more like self-preservation. Through travel, I have learned to adapt to novel experiences, including the one we are currently facing. My pre-covid way of living also taught me about humanity. Without travel, I am isolated; with it, I am part of the world.
As someone who travels nonstop for work — my heavily stamped passport once caught the attention of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official at Dulles Airport — people are often curious about where I go on vacation. To be honest, without an assignment, I am a bit lost. I want to go everywhere and lack the discipline to choose a destination that I can squeeze into a reasonable time frame. My ambitions are too big for a week or two of vacation time.
Fortunately, several years ago, a more focused friend, Eric, had time off and was looking for a travel pal. He suggested Lesotho. I countered with Bhutan, and somehow I won the vacation showdown.
The diminutive Himalayan kingdom sits between the outsized nations of India and China. The Buddhist country has led a cloistered life: Its first commercial airport didn’t open until the early 1980s; nearly two decades later, the king legalized cable television and Internet. Before, residents sneaked Bollywood movies into their homes via contraband satellite dishes. The government bases its social and economic policies on a Gross National Happiness Index. One of its tenets is environmental conservation. More than half of its land is protected, and about 70 percent is carpeted in forest, statistics that made my happiness indicator rise.
Bhutan casts a cautionary eye on tourism. It has peered over the border and seen the perils of an unregulated industry. “We don’t want to become the next Nepal,” our guide, Jigme Goenpo, told us. To stanch the flow without endangering its economy, visitors must spend at least $200 to $250 per day on a travel package arranged by a licensed local tour operator or international affiliate. They must also acquire a $40 visa. Over two weeks, our guide acted like a chaperone on a very exotic school field trip, though he was much more permissive than any PTA parent.
Goenpo was a former Buddhist monk — he had a rebellious side, hence the “former” — who was devoted to Bhutanese traditions. He taught us to tie a gho, the traditional attire for men, without revealing too much leg, drink yak butter tea without gagging, and identify the cannabis plant on our treks. On our first day in Bhutan, we met the crown prince, a dashing man with raven hair, molded cheekbones and an endearing smile. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who took over his father’s job in 2008, was attending a festival in the capital city of Thimphu. At Goenpo’s urging, we walked right up to him and said hello. He welcomed us warmly before returning to the children jumping up and down for his attention.
On our last day in the country, Eric and I were on the same flight to Bangkok as the crown prince’s mother. I stopped by the queen’s row and, crouching by her seat, told her how much I adored her country. (I wasn’t sucking up to royalty; I truly meant it.) Once airborne, a flight attendant handed me several volumes of Buddhist texts. “A gift from the queen,” she said. I never had a chance to thank the queen, though. By the time I reached the front of the plane, she was long gone, whisked off by security.
Eric is a professional photographer, and throughout our trip we talked about collaborating on an article about Bhutan. I am not very good at keeping silent about my trips. I always want to share my experiences, hoping that my writings will inspire others to visit that destination and unearth similar joys. It’s my way of paying it forward, I guess. Back home, Eric frequently revisited the idea of a piece, but I couldn’t do it. Bhutan had become more than a vacation destination; it was a sacred place that had tugged on my emotions. For the first time as a journalist, I worried that words would trivialize the experience. If you could only look inside my heart, you would learn so much about the country — my feelings as guidebook.
When I cover a destination, I set out with the mind-set of a journalist: I have a story to pursue, and I can’t stray from this mission. For the sake of the piece, I have to push ahead, even if it leads me into uncomfortable territory. Occasionally, my professional shell cracks and exposes my vulnerabilities. For example, when I stayed at an eco-lodge deep in Brazil’s Amazon, I relied on a monkey named Conchita to alleviate my loneliness. On a trip to Sochi, Russia, I stayed up all night watching the lights flicker and listening to the bones of my Soviet-era hotel groan. I knew that I was being paranoid — and channeling John le Carré — but I couldn’t stop imagining KGB agents ramming down my door and shoving me into the trunk of a car. On a fall cruise in Canada, I ended up in a Nova Scotia hospital with an infected lung and a fear that the ship would depart without me. While waiting for the doctor, I imagined the ending to my piece: “I flew home, wheezing, while the ship sailed on.”
In every event, I handled the crisis in question — medical or emotional — and completed the task. But, over the years, I have discovered that a little discomfort or onset of the jitters can lead to a profound moment.
Last December I flew to Hong Kong to write about visiting cities and countries plagued by civil unrest. After several peaceful demonstrations, Hong Kong had suffered a spate of violent protests involving tear gas. I had signed up for a Kowloon walking tour scheduled on the Friday before a Sunday march. The guide delved into some darker themes, such as the housing crisis. He showed us a rooftop slum on top of an apartment building and a caged home, a lower bunk bed enclosed by a locked metal gate to safeguard the inhabitant and his personal belongings. After we parted, I looked harder at my surroundings.
I reached out to the owner of the tour company to thank him for the provocative excursion. Michael messaged back that he was leading a group at the protest and invited me along. At our meeting spot, he informed us that we were not participants; we were spectators. And he warned us that at any moment, we might have to bail. On a previous outing, he and several guests were exposed to tear gas, and he didn’t want to risk the safety of his visitors again.
We joined a crowd dressed in black and carrying umbrellas for protection against everything but rain. Pro-democracy supporters handed out masks. Along the way, one member would call out a phrase and the others would respond. Michael translated the slogans for us. I didn’t sense any danger until we neared the police station. I looked up and saw armed riot police lined up along a bridge that we had to walk under. Suddenly, umbrellas started to pop open. I didn’t have an umbrella; I was just a spectator, after all — not that the cops up high could recognize the distinction.
I had been discussing the protesters’ demands with a young woman, but she fell silent once we reached that tense spot. Without any exchange of words, she angled her umbrella so we both fit under it. We passed through without incident. The pace picked up, and the surge pulled the woman from our pack. But she looked back at me and flashed a peace sign, acknowledging that demonstrators and spectators were in this together.
As a journalist, I am usually observing from the fringes, never wanting to overshadow or interfere with events. But for a fleeting moment, I was in the thick of a movement that was both terrifying and exhilarating. The next day, I resumed my itinerary. Waiting in line at Victoria Peak, I knew that Hong Kong Island’s tallest mountain would not have the same emotional lift as what I had experienced on the ground. Nevertheless, I boarded the tram and felt myself rising up for an entirely different reason this time. Part of being a travel writer is never lingering long in one place or on one moment, even when my private self wants to stay.
“I have this crazy idea,” my mother said to me on the phone one night last year. Semi-excruciating pause. “I want to go to Antarctica, and I want you to come with me.”
Antarctica would be a first for both of us, but also a last: We have visited six continents, and Antarctica would be our number seven. The trip would also be my mother’s final epic journey. Because of her age, she planned to retire her wanderlust after Antarctica. I was there, in part, to provide support: carrying her bags, pulling off her polar boots, telling her how proud I was of her grit and guts. But I was also going for us, the bittersweet finale of our mother-and-daughter adventures.
On the two-day journey to Antarctica, we watched South America fade in the rearview window. Without the shoreline to distract, we turned our attention to the sea and sky. A Scottish ornithologist, one of several wildlife specialists onboard, pointed out albatrosses and petrels dancing on the wind currents. I searched the water for penguins and nearly knocked my mother over when I spotted a group arcing over the waves, their small inky bodies shaped like commas. We attended every lecture on every topic: birds, whales, the Antarctic Treaty, environmental conservation. At dinner we traded travel yarns with other passengers, swapping recommendations for future trips that I might take but my mother never would.
For shore landings, the crew divided us into groups. When they called our section, I helped my mother collect all of her layers and escorted her down to the dressing area. I zipped up her expedition coat and adjusted her hat over her ears. She waddled to the boat landing like a toddler stuffed inside a snowsuit. We boarded a Zodiac and balanced on the edge of the inflatable dinghy. My mother was content to touch Antarctica from inside the boat, pressing her palm against a rock on the water’s edge. Our romantic view of Antarctica was abruptly interrupted, though, when a leopard seal snatched a penguin from an ice shelf and shook it inside-out before dining on it. (A reminder that not only travelers are on a mission.)
After a few days, my mother’s energy started to wane, and I often went on shore without her. Upon returning, I would excitedly share stories about, say, a minke whale that swam under our boat or the Gentoo that courted me with his smooth penguin moves. But I could feel her slowly slipping away from these types of experiences that are unique to traveling, and, for many reasons, I dreaded the end of the trip: leaving a place of unparalleled beauty and fascination, completing a lifelong goal. And moving on to new places and possibilities without my mother.
When we returned to the States, I could think only of sleep. A few weeks later, we were all sent home from work — the pandemic was spreading across the globe. I had to cancel all travel plans. My world had shrunk so suddenly, and has stayed that way, but I know it will expand once more. When it does, I can leave again for home.
Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post staff writer.
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