Grounded

During the pandemic, a lifelong travel writer takes a journey inward to reflect on what he has learned around the globe
Illustration by Spiros Halaris
By

In the Before Times, I often composed my travel writing in the present tense. You know how the trick goes, the way the travel writer strains to swiftly bring the reader into a scene: It’s a balmy night in Panama City, and I’m sipping a rum at the bar of the largely empty Ocean Sun Casino. ... I’m lounging on the sunny bow of the expatriate’s boat as we shove off from the historic city of Granada, Nicaragua, and into one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. … The sleight of hand is to make it seem as though we’re jotting off these dispatches on hotel room stationery or poolside or from a tray table in business class. As the days of shutdown drag on — as we Americans are forbidden from traveling to most nations in the world — this approach begins to feel as old-fashioned as an epistolary Victorian novel.

What, exactly, is a travel writer who cannot travel? I’ve thought a lot about this over the past few months. These particular pages in the magazine you are reading were supposed to have published an article about my summer trip to Spain. That was canceled when the European Union announced its travel ban, and I’ve now been grounded at home for more than half a year — the longest I have gone without getting on a plane in at least three decades. Of course, just stating this exposes the travel writer’s existential dilemma as one of immense, laughable privilege. Yet here we are. Do not cry for me.

Most days now, I write about travel in the past tense, generally in my old bathrobe at the kitchen table. For instance, I’ve recently been sifting through notes and snapshots of my last trip, to France this past winter, only a few weeks before the pandemic hit home. On the evening that Chinese authorities closed down Wuhan, I wandered the ancient streets of Chinon, in the Loire Valley. I’d spent all day with winemakers touring their 15th-century limestone caves, then tasting dozens of wines I was supposed to review on assignment for a wine magazine. I had to get up early and do it all over again in the morning, but I was restless.

Even though this was hardly the first winter I’d spent in some European wine region, sipping and spitting and scribbling, I’d begun to question what the point of all this travel has been. My Airbnb rental stood just down the winding cobblestone path to Chinon’s 11th-century castle, about a hundred meters from where a 17-year-old Joan of Arc arrived in 1429, after hearing heavenly voices. She’d traveled to meet future king Charles VII, who would give her an army to fight the English in the Hundred Years’ War; two years later, she’d be captured and burned at the stake in Rouen, then declared a martyr, then canonized. My own visit to Chinon wasn’t as noble or epic as Joan’s. That night, I ended up at a bar in the town square, where a local guy bet me that I couldn’t identify, blind, the very bitter herbal spirit he set before me. He lost that bet, but it was still more like the rake’s progress than the hero’s journey.

If there are certain moments when I question the value of travel writing, I also know that it’s important for the traveler to eventually return to where he or she came from, to write and try to capture the experience of being an outsider in an unfamiliar place. Yes, much of travel writing is soulless and transactional, listicles and charticles and “if you go” tips. Yet at its most ideal, the worth of the genre lies in exploring the tensions of our interior journey vs. our exterior itinerary, in examining our expectations (and hopes and biases) of a destination vs. the reality of what we found, and by measuring the person we are at home against the person we become abroad. As I sit working at my kitchen table, I realize I’ve come a long way from the young man who, 30 years before, had been given the shaggy old bathrobe that I now had cinched around my middle-aged waist. That person could scarcely have dreamed a future of almost ceaseless travel.

Santa Maria Assunta cathedral in Cremona, Italy, in June 2020. The author went to school in Cremona when he studied abroad at age 19 and formed a bond with his host family in the nearby village of Pieve San Giacomo. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

That 19-year-old arrived in the northern Italian village of Pieve San Giacomo, at the home of his summer program hosts, wearing Birkenstocks and a University of Vermont Bong Team T-shirt. That summer I lived with a family — Anna and Paolo, and their daughter, Daniela — in an aging, rustic but warm and tidy farmhouse with a stone fountain in the garden, and with dark antique furniture and yapping dogs inside. The chickens in the coop outside my window woke me early in the morning, and I took the train to school in nearby Cremona. In the afternoons, I played soccer with the local boys or rode my bike through the village, and every night I ate homemade salami, hand-stuffed pastas, meat from their animals, vegetables from the garden, and drank funky, unlabeled wine. I learned some of the local dialect. By summer’s end, I had become an adopted part of la famiglia.

A vivid meal took place on the Saturday afternoon before I left Pieve San Giacomo. Paolo was working in his fields, and Daniela was in Milan, so Anna and I rode bikes to visit the family’s recently widowed Aunt Gina, who, as a surprise, had prepared a tremendous feast in my honor, with tables teeming with food in the sunny courtyard. At the end of the hours-long meal, when I could eat no more, Aunt Gina insisted that we tour her house. The three of us entered the cool, dark living room. Aunt Gina fidgeted with a yellowed photograph of a young man in a soldier’s uniform and told me it was her husband. There were no other photos of sons or daughters, only a crucifix and an image of Jesus Christ hanging over the sofa.

Aunt Gina motioned for me to stay where I was and shuffled down a long hallway. Anna whispered and crossed herself. We waited for what seemed like 20 minutes and could hear the older woman rummaging through the bedroom, calling “Un momento, un momento!” Finally, she emerged from the hallway cradling her dead husband’s bathrobe. She thrust it into my hands and urged me to slide it on over my clothes. I hesitated and looked wide-eyed at Anna, who also urged me to try it on, so I wrapped it around my Grateful Dead T-shirt. Silence enveloped the room. I stood with my arms wide, modeling the robe that presumably her husband had worn most mornings while he sipped his caffè corretto. I stood dumbfounded, staring at the sleeves of the heavy floral-patterned robe — cut too big, less than absorbent, pocket sitting too high for a hand to rest in.

“Molto bello! Elegante!” Aunt Gina exclaimed. She then burst into tears and hugged Anna, whose eyes also welled up. What the heck was I going to do with this? Could this whole presentation possibly have been all just for me? The one preparing to shove off in a few days with a rail pass and a hostel itinerary? “You’ll promise to wear it?” asked Aunt Gina. I knew I had no choice but to smash down what I could in my already stuffed backpack and leave some of my belongings behind. Even as a stupid young American, I knew you didn’t refuse gifts from Italian widows who’d just prepared you an afternoon banquet.

Illustration by Spiros Halaris

That robe was the first of many articles of clothing I’ve acquired in my travels and carried with me all these years. There are, of course, plenty of souvenir items that I rarely wear. I never find quite the right occasion to show off the brightly colored poncho I found in Peru or the high-collared Sami jacket I got near the Arctic Circle in Finland. The expensive red pants I bought at a boutique in Milan and the Alpine trachten vest I got in Vienna seemed like good ideas at the time. The handmade Mallorcan shoes sadly don’t fit very well. While I still appreciate the idealism of it, I rarely wear the Portuguese anti-bullfighting T-shirt I received from the two young activists whom I met at a vegetarian restaurant in Lisbon a decade ago. But there are a few cherished items that convey some larger, more essential part of my life as a traveler.

For instance, I own a hand-sewn guayabera, gray with four pockets and two ribbons of intricately stitched designs, that I bought for a few dollars from a woman named Mirna at a craft market in Masaya, Nicaragua, only a few years after my summer abroad in Italy. During my 20s, I spent a lot of time in Nicaragua, which was emerging from more than a decade of civil war, natural disaster and our own government’s role in trying to oust the Sandinistas from power. I haven’t returned for a dozen years, but every summer when I bring that guayabera out of the closet, the lessons of those journeys come back to me.

Driving on my way to Masaya, to visit the craft market as well as to hike the nearby volcano, I was suddenly stopped and waved over by two police officers standing on the side of the road with automatic rifles. The officers wore buttons with Nicaragua’s then-official slogan brazos abiertos (“open arms”) and were smiling but still demanded to see my passport. I handed it over, and they studied it silently. They said they’d have to keep it. I would have to go to the police station the next day and pay a fine to get my passport back. “What can we do here and now?” I said, flashing my wallet. “Can I pay the ticket in cash right now?” They asked for 60 American dollars, which I handed to them and then drove on to Masaya.

I spent a couple of hours at the volcano and then the market — I was so happy with my new guayabera that I took off my T-shirt and put it on right in the market. Then I drove back to Managua, the capital, the same way I came. Near where I’d been pulled over, there stood an open-air bar with a thatched roof. In the shade, I could see both of the policemen I’d paid, hats off and guns leaning against the bar, lounging and drinking beers. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I honked my horn and they waved, raising their beer in toast, still smiling.

Back then I was like many travelers of my post-Cold War generation who lit out for Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Central America, enthralled by destinations that had been off-limits to most Americans for a long time. I had never been anywhere like Nicaragua, and in my sheltered suburban naivete I marveled at how chaotic and alive it was: how in Managua I could exchange my dollars to córdobas on the side of the road from random men waving money, while hawkers tried to sell me live parrots, monkeys and armadillos through the car window, and people gave directions such as “turn left at the big statue of the man holding the machine gun and sickle.” The reminders of the Sandinista regime were everywhere: Lada taxis, Aeroflot billboards, giant murals, the former soldier camped out in the Plaza de la Revolucion guarding the “eternal flame” (which by then was a plastic light) across the square from a cathedral that had been destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. I once stood there with a crowd of 20,000 to watch a huge twilight outdoor mass that had been called in the name of solidarity, holding a candle and a tiny flag I’d been given by a group of schoolchildren.

Granada, Nicaragua, as seen from a church. Early in his career, the author spent a lot of time in the Central American country that had been beset by civil war, natural disasters and political strife. (SL_Photography/Getty Images/Istock)

Everything in Nicaragua felt so dynamic and immediate, and completely the opposite of the life I lived at home. I would return from my trips with hundreds of pages of callow journal entries in Moleskine notebooks. Soon enough I began to persuade magazines to send me back on assignment. Since travel editors can never resist the allure of The Next Hot Place, pitching always felt ridiculously simple. In those days, the notion that Nicaragua was opening up to vacationing tourists after two decades of strife was irresistible. In buzzy travel-publishing shorthand, Nicaragua was “The New Costa Rica.”

In 1996, I was assigned a number of sunny features on the country for mainstream magazines — the kind of articles that would appear between ads for luxury hotels, cruises and expensive watches. On one occasion I arrived for a breezy assignment with a friend on the day before a heated presidential election, what would be only the second peaceful transition of power in the country’s modern history. All bars and restaurants were closed for three days, as votes for former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and right-wing Arnoldo Aleman were counted. One night, as we returned late to our hotel, everything was dark and locked. We banged on the window and were let inside by a shirtless man holding a machete who claimed to be the night manager. It was not exactly the type of vacation the gentle readers of this travel magazine were likely imagining.

Tourists at an old fortress in Masaya, Nicaragua. (Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

On another evening, while staying at a rustic resort at a mountain coffee plantation in a cloud forest full of howler monkeys, my travel companion and I decided to drive down into the city of Matagalpa to find a restaurant we’d seen in our guidebook. When we arrived in Matagalpa, that restaurant was shuttered, along with three others we tried. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were streaming into the streets. Some were shouting and carrying signs. Teens spray-painted storefronts. Pickup trucks crowded with angry-looking men, some carrying baseball bats, circled the center of town. We drove the wrong way down a one-way street, causing the crowd to shout at us. We stopped and tried to read our guidebook by the dashboard light just as a police truck made a sweep of the central square. With guns drawn, they asked us to roll down the window and were flabbergasted to see just two gringo tourists looking for a restaurant. “Matagalpa is closed, jefe,” they said. The police truck escorted us directly back to the mountain road. I cringe now at how clueless I was to the larger, complex implications of my own cultural voyeurism.

When I returned home to write my assigned pieces, it was nearly impossible to convey the truth of my experience. A consumer travel magazine had to run a long sidebar titled “On Caution’s Side” advising readers: “Walking around Managua at night is a bad idea. … During the day Nicaragua’s roads are terrible; at dusk and at night, they’re treacherous.” A men’s magazine insensitively teased my article on its cover as “Guerrilla Vacation in Nicaragua.”

I would return to Nicaragua for more assignments, including one about Americans buying up cheap properties for vacation and retirement homes. An American real estate agent took me by boat through an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua called simply Las Isletas, a collection of over 350 islets formed from eruptions of the purple-coned volcano Mombacho. The water was placid, and gorgeous palms, mango trees and giant water lilies surrounded us. A whole Indigenous community lived in the tiny coves and channels of Las Isletas: men throwing fishing nets off rocks, women doing laundry, children paddling to school in their canoes. But brand-new homes had sprung up on a number of the islets, as well as the huge “For Sale” signs posted next to the Indigenous families’ shacks on others. A growing number of wealthy North Americans were snatching up Las Isletas. The real estate agent told me he’d sold a half-dozen, and there were four islands available to buy that afternoon.

“We’re running out of places to go,” he told me. “There are very few undiscovered places left in the world.” To the younger me, this statement felt like a moment of deep truth, and I included the real estate agent’s quote in the article that I eventually wrote, which the magazine teased as “Nicaragua’s New Wave,” touting the country as “the next new thing under the sun” and explaining, “Americans, it seems, are buying up the place.”

When I wear that guayabera now, I can barely recognize the fearless, insufferable thrill-seeker I had been. But part of the education of travel lies in seeing things with fresh and ignorant eyes — and in being wrong. Which is why it’s important to check in with that younger traveler from time to time, to retrace the journeys that remain vivid in our minds, to ask new questions of where we’ve gone before.

The Christiania area of Copenhagen, Denmark, in May 2020. Once an abandoned military fortress, the 80-acre section of downtown Copenhagen is now home to squatters who started their own community in 1971. (Tariq Mikkel Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps no other piece of clothing encapsulates my youthful travel more than a well-worn red hoodie, bearing three yellow dots and the words “Bevar Christiania" — Save Christiania. Christiania is the hippie-tastic 80-acre section of downtown Copenhagen that once was an abandoned military fortress and now is home to free-loving squatters who started their own community in 1971 — houses, schools, businesses, sanitation and postal services, newspaper and radio — opposed to the whole idea of government and police. By the late 1980s, the Danish government recognized Christiania as a “social experiment,” and it has several hundred residents. As you leave the area, a sign reads: “You are now entering the EU.” But what Christiania is most famous for is Pusher Street — one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions — where market stalls openly sell cannabis. Fat pre-rolled joints are for sale next to big blocks of hash displayed like baked goods.

Occasionally a right-leaning government threatens to shut down the area, but the citizens of Copenhagen always rally to keep Christiania alive. It was during one of these periods of Pusher Street crackdowns, on a cool summer night about 20 years ago, that I first visited, attending a music festival/political demonstration with hundreds of others, waving Christiania’s flag (three yellow dots on a red background) and dancing to electronic music and a few Danish rappers. Our group that night included a bassist for a death metal band, a bossa nova singer, a former circus performer and my old artist friend Trine, from whom I borrowed the red hoodie that I never gave back.

The author's "Bevar Christiania" (Save Christiania) sweatshirt from Copenhagen. (Jason Wilson)
A guayabera the author bought in a market in Nicaragua. (Jason Wilson)
LEFT: The author's "Bevar Christiania" (Save Christiania) sweatshirt from Copenhagen. (Jason Wilson) RIGHT: A guayabera the author bought in a market in Nicaragua. (Jason Wilson)

Oddly, when I wear the sweatshirt now it signifies for me less about Denmark specifically and more about a wandering, aimless period of my life — one that, as I now reflect, holds way more significance than I could have ever imagined. In my late 20s and early 30s, I spent what some might consider to be an eccentric amount of time in Iceland, living there for periods and traveling the island extensively. I would like to tell you that I had a grand purpose. But no, when I wasn’t driving around on gravel roads of the most gorgeous, haunting landscapes in the world, I was vaguely writing a travel book about Iceland. That meant most of my time was spent hanging out in the bars and cafes of Reykjavík.

One of those visits, in late summer, was when I’d met Trine. She was living with a Finnish woman named Eeva-Liisa in a little apartment near the bus station. Trine was shooting photos and waiting to hear if she’d finally be accepted into the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Eeva-Liisa was an artist, cleaning rooms in a guesthouse, and her ex-boyfriend was a journalist from Helsinki whom I’d met backpacking in Nicaragua. So, basically all of us were connected in that beautifully random and serendipitous way that seemed to define Gen X travel life in the late 20th century, before social media changed everything.

As the summer came to an end, Eeva-Liisa, Trine and I decided we should leave Reykjavík and see the country. We rented a car and drove the countryside, with the intention of observing the annual sheep roundup, a tradition called the rettir. In Iceland, there are half a million sheep — nearly twice as many sheep as Icelanders — who roam freely throughout the summer, grazing. Rettir is a festive time, full of songs and drinking, as whole farming communities gather to drive one another’s sheep to a common pen. It’s amazing to watch thousands of sheep driven across the vast empty spaces by people on Icelandic ponies. At one point we tried to photograph sheep running toward us, but we spooked them so badly that the whole flock veered left and started running in the wrong direction. Angry Icelanders on horseback shouted at us as they tried in vain to get the sheep going back toward their farm.

Soon after, I stopped the car at a field full of wildflowers, underneath a glacier, with the blue sea stretching out from the cliff below us toward the Arctic Circle. Trine got down on her hands and knees and rummaged through the grass, consulting a book titled “Nordens Svampe” (“Nordic Mushrooms”). Less than 10 minutes later, our car became stuck in several feet of mud. Eeva-Liisa pulled on long rubber boots, and the two of us tried to push our way out while Trine simply laughed and shot photos. An old Icelandic couple eventually came by in a four-wheel-drive and pulled the stupid foreigners out with a rope.

Later that evening, we arrived in the northern city of Akureyri to meet up with Janus, a guy from Greenland that Eeva-Liisa loved but who did not love her back. After dark, we watched the northern lights in the clear sky above the fjord. Janus bragged that he saw the aurora borealis “five or six times a week” at home. He told us that if you whistled, the northern lights would move. I was amazed when he whistled and the yellow streaks shimmered green and wiggled toward us.

Trine and I wanted photos of the northern lights, and so we all drove up to a hill above the town. She set up her camera on a tripod and pointed it at the sky as the car radio played Icelandic pop music. The shot needed a long exposure. Trine left the shutter open, and we stood there waiting, as if we had all the time in the world. We knew we didn’t, of course. We knew in the awkward silence of that night that our driftless days would soon come to an end.

It was Eeva-Liisa who eventually sighed and suggested that, just like all the sheep we’d observed at the rettir, we’d soon enough be rounded up, sorted and sent back to our homes. It seemed too bleak of a thought at the time. Home as our own personal stockade. All three of us would surely face shearings of one kind or another in our immediate future. Trine would return to Copenhagen and be rejected by the Danish art academy. Eeva-Liisa would return to Helsinki, struggle as a freelance designer and return home to her family’s small village in the north. And I would go back to the States and throw yet another false start of a book into the garbage heap.

“Well, we could always come back to Iceland,” I said.

“Yeah,” Trine said, “but it would never be the same.”

As we whistled at the aurora borealis, I wondered aloud if sheep in their winter pens could dream. And if sheep could dream, did they dream of green grasses and a glorious summer with no darkness? Of blue fjords and glaciers and mushrooms? We all agreed that they must.

The northern lights in Iceland. In his 20s and 30s, the author lived in Iceland for periods and traveled the island extensively. (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images)

As I sit here now, wearing the musty old Bevar Christiania sweatshirt (its pocket hanging by a thread), typing in the present tense, all this feels like another lifetime ago. We are different people now. When I visit Trine these days, I stay with her family, and we trade stories about our children. We’re much more likely to eat at one of Copenhagen’s world-class “new Nordic” restaurants than to visit Christiania. I am no longer the sort of naively adventurous person who lights out for politically unstable places with a backpack. In Italy, on my visits to Pieve San Giacomo, I now take time to stop by the gravesites of Paolo and Aunt Gina, who both died years ago.

We aren’t the only ones to have changed. The places themselves have, too. So many foreign tourists visit Iceland that, in recent years, it has become a cautionary tale of the consequences of overtourism. Nicaragua has slid backward, run for the past decade by authoritarian Ortega, whose paramilitary forces have killed hundreds. Even the Italy I first encountered is quite different than it was three decades ago, and likely will be transformed even more after its oldest generation was hit hard by the pandemic.

What travel has taught me is that the things of the world are only ever temporary — though, once in a while, the temporary can become eternal. I hope that we will be able to travel, to interact with and witness the world again in the near future. When we do, it will certainly seem strange. But when has travel not been strange? We don’t need a pandemic to show us this, but the pause we’re experiencing can highlight a basic truth: We may or may not walk this way again, and even if we do, we will never be precisely the same people who experienced that journey in the first place. Travel is only ever about a moment in time and space, but it’s also about how we choose to hold that moment in our memories. It is always both present and past.

Jason Wilson has been the series editor of “The Best American Travel Writing” since 2000. You can find his work at jasonwilson.com.

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