The second worst travel experience I ever had was on a misbegotten trip to a marvelous place that I had returned to for all the wrong reasons. The trip was a few years ago; the place was Bhutan; the reason was love, or what I mistakenly identified as love, which is probably, statistically speaking, the greatest and also the stupidest reason to ever go anywhere. It was not my first time in Bhutan. I had gone there about six months earlier for a story about couples who were attending Bhutanese fertility festivals in hopes of heading home with the ultimate family souvenir. The timing happened to be quite awkward for me – I was writing about happy families fulfilling their dream of having children, but the trip itself, coincidentally, marked the beginning of the end of my marriage. My then-husband had planned to come to Bhutan with me, and we figured a trip somewhere interesting and beautiful might extend the lease on our relationship; instead, I headed off with the fertility group, and he stayed back in New York to start clearing out his half of the apartment. I was pretty blue, but after a few days in Bhutan (where, by the way, most houses are decorated with large, celebratory paintings of penises) I fell in love with the tour guide and I started to enjoy the trip a whole lot more. When I returned to New York I was ecstatic. I was convinced that Tshering was my soul mate, notwithstanding the fact that he lived on the other side of the Earth, was somewhat age-inappropriate, and shared with me no cultural, social, intellectual, or religious common ground. Still, I adored him, and I think he adored me, and over the next few months we burned up hundreds of dollars on long-distance phone calls (this was in the pre-Vonage age), planning our future together (doesn’t everybody live part-time in Manhattan and part-time in the Himalayas?), trying to figure out how to wangle a visa for him, and reminiscing about every detail of our long (two-week) shared personal history.
Finally, the phone calls didn’t feel satisfying enough and Tshering’s visa wasn’t forthcoming, so I mustered the frequent-flyer miles and the nerve to go back to Bhutan to visit him. My trip itself was a trial: the flight from Bangkok to Bhutan was diverted to Calcutta because of fog or smoke or something, so we were led off the plane, stripped of our passports, and locked in a Grade D Calcutta airport hotel. We weren’t allowed to leave the premises because we didn’t have visas to enter India, and no one would say when we might hope to get to Bhutan. The owners of the hotel – twin men with what looked like twin wives – doled out skimpy portions of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and seemed not happy to have us as guests. We had no idea when or how we were going to leave – in fact, we were warned that we were probably going to have to finish the trip over land, a three-day trip via Indian Air Force transport vans, crossing through Assam, which was convulsing with civil war. I was one of only two Americans in the stranded group; the other was a guy who owned a fishing lure company in Minnesota, being flown to Bhutan by the king, who wanted some special flies tied for a spring trout outing.
Finally – probably just as the hotel was running out of rice and the owners were scheming to get rid of us somehow – the flight was cleared for departure and we arrived in Bhutan, and I had what I realize now was the inevitably awkward reunion with Tshering. Anyone who has ever fallen in love while traveling – I think it’s safe to say it is not a small group – has probably gone through this same jarring experience: The person you so effortlessly and ebulliently connected with while you were traveling requires a little more effort and inspires a little more awkwardness when you see him or her again, and ordinary life intrudes. Tshering and I were a little shy with each other, and I had moments of wondering what on Earth I was doing, but what else could we do? We headed off through the ragged gorgeousness of Bhutan, and after a few days the same giddiness we’d felt first time around started to return. What is it about traveling that inspires that feeling? Is it that when you’re with someone and you’re not at home, you’re in a sort of bubble together, floating through the world, peering out at it together, bound to nothing – jobs, chores, social obligations, dry cleaning that needs to be dropped off – but each other? Is it that when you travel you can invent yourself anew, and the new person you become is freer and more engaged and more engaging than the persona you left at home? And even if you’re not in love, is this still what makes travel so seductive – the creation of a new buoyant version of yourself, unpunctured by the familiarity of people who know you and know that you have another self? Whatever it is that makes it feel this way, travel is utterly romantic and the experience of it is the experience of life idealized, and it makes you feel romantic, and romance-able, and this transformation seems more what makes it magical than any particular lovely landscape or fascinating culture you might encounter. Even bad experiences when you travel seem almost mythical – they are bad experiences, but also stories that you will tell around a table sometime, exotic in their badness.
Five days into my trip, Tshering and I arrived in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan – a town on a mountainside with a scattering of little shops and a paved road or two. It was a Saturday night, as I recall. I thought we might rest a while and then go out for yak tea and some sightseeing. We arrived at the guesthouse, and as I tossed my suitcase on the bed, I noticed that Tshering was lingering in the doorway with an odd look on his face. I asked him why he wasn’t coming in, and he finally muttered that he needed to tell me something. He had a girlfriend. And not only did he have a girlfriend, he had a girlfriend whose family owned the guesthouse we were in, and therefore he couldn’t be seen with me since…well, for all the obvious reasons. He was depositing me in the room and would join me in a day or so. And then he left.
There are always moments during travel when you feel lonely, even when you’re traveling with the closest of friends, but those moments are usually subsumed quickly by the moments of delight and fascination and excitement and marvel. This was not one of those moments. I have never, ever felt so profoundly alone. I was in a country where I knew absolutely no one at all except for the jerk who had just ditched me, where I was as far away from home as it was possible to be and still be on Planet Earth; I was in a small country – fewer than a million people – where everyone really and truly knows everyone, where there are practically no strangers and certainly no culture of comfortable stranger-hood, no cafés or pubs where you might unobtrusively spend a day or two people-watching and nursing a cup of coffee. There isn’t even any coffee. There weren’t any other tourists – Bhutan has always limited its visitors to a thousand or so a year and makes sure they are scattered about, and what’s more, I was there during the off-season. I have always winced at the sight of tour buses, but for the first time in my life I really would have welcomed one, and would have been very happy if I could have insinuated myself into a big, loud band of, say, Texans on a tour of Bhutanese souvenir shops…anything. Usually when I’m on the road and feeling low, if I can’t go to a café, I hole up in my room for a few hours and watch CNN and declare the experience relaxing. This was not an option either: Television was, at that time, illegal in Bhutan. Also, there was no Internet. Also, there were very, very few telephones. I didn’t have a cell phone that worked in Bhutan, and anyway, it was the middle of the night anywhere I might have called. There was no movie theater, no gym, no shopping to speak of, no diversion to distract me from the profound sense that I was entirely by myself in the whole wide world. In my many years of traveling, I have developed many excellent ways to pass time when I’m bored or a little lonesome. Some are admirable (going to museums and historical sites, talking to local people, exploring neighborhoods) and some are, perhaps, something else (once, when stranded for many days on a story in Mississippi, I spent what seemed like most of my time practicing running on a treadmill with my eyes closed and dyeing my hair different colors). I didn’t feel like doing anything useful or edifying and there wasn’t much in Thimpu that I could picture as a satisfying time-waster. I thought I might possibly go crazy.
With whatever little energy I still had, I forced myself to leave the guest house and walk up and down the little streets. It was early evening. Kids were chasing stray dogs and kicking pebbles; groups of teenage girls, their heads bent together, rushed by whispering and giggling; a small, stout woman with a round-headed baby strapped to her back leaned on a wall and watched me somberly. There was no one, no one, no one to talk to. The few shops nearby were already shuttered except for a small bookstore. A bookstore! Perfect! I hurried across the street, picturing myself browsing for a few hours until I would be tired enough to go back to the dread guesthouse and sleep. The store was dusty and drafty, with high ceilings and rough wooden floors. The shelves were mostly empty except for English-as-a-second-language manuals, Bhutanese grammar-school textbooks in Dzongkha and Nepali, secondhand Penguin editions of Shakespeare, Indian movie magazines, Buddhist histories. I kept trying to make myself take great interest in pictorials of Bollywood actresses. After a few minutes, I realized that I couldn’t even pretend. I gave up, put the magazines back in the rack, nodded my thanks to the storekeeper, and walked out to the street again. It was even emptier, and I was even more aware of my isolation. But somehow, at this point, I gave in to the pure experience of being alone, and while making my way back to the guesthouse I had the distinct sensation of dematerializing. It really was as if I had vanished, become disembodied, and was watching time unspool in front of me, untouched. It was, after I finally yielded to it, kind of fascinating to feel so light and invisible, unnoticed, unremarked upon, unknown.
To make a long story short, I did rematerialize a day later when Tshering sheepishly retrieved me from the guesthouse. By then I had walked every inch of Thimpu, repacked my suitcase, figured Tshering for the cad he was, and determined that my future was probably not going to be as one-half of a Bhutan-Manhattan commuter marriage, but that I would at least make the best of my last few days on the trip, since Bhutan is, truly, the most beautiful place on Earth. I’d also figured out something about the nature of travel. For the first time, it seemed clear to me that travel is not about finding something: It’s about getting lost – that is, it is about losing yourself in a place and a moment. The little things that tether you to what’s familiar are gone, and you become a conduit through which the sensation of the place is felt. It’s nice to see the significant centers of civilization, the important buildings, the monumental landscapes, but what seems most extraordinary is feeling yourself lifted out of your ordinary life into something new. Sometimes, as was the case for me on that trip, there’s a little more lift than you’re prepared for, and you get that short-of-breath, wide-of-pupil heart skip-thumping that accompanies the powerful feeling that you should have never left home. (I have to confess here that, inveterate traveler that I am, I also feel that before I start a trip, too. As I’m packing I feel myself resisting, resisting, resisting, thinking to myself that I really would prefer staying home, that home is very nice, that I have everything I want at home, that I can just take it easy in my very own living quarters and eat my very own familiar food and have no difficulty using the telephone/getting cash/finding my way around/understanding things, and that this travel business is just a headache.) And yet, I still go, and once I’m on my way I feel like I’m sitting in a Phenomenon-a-tron, where everything is incredibly interesting – the shape of street signs, the clothes people wear, the way things smell. I once took a trip to China with a group of very conservative folks from Utah. They seemed to hate everything about being in China, but most of all they seemed to hate the food, and fortunately (for them) one of the group had brought along several cases of granola bars, which they ate for most of their meals. I was delighted by this, since I got to eat as much of everything as I wanted (not to mention drinking all the beer) while they gnawed on Nature Valley Oats ’N Honey. I wondered – and still wonder – why they had bothered to come at all. Which brings me to one last comment: You now know the second-worst travel experience I ever had. The very worst one would have to be any trip I didn’t take for one reason or another – sloth, lack of time, lack of imagination, inadequate luggage, whatever.
By the way, Tshering and I are still friends. He e-mailed me recently and encouraged me to come visit Bhutan again, which I would love to do. He’s married now, and has a daughter, and I’m married and have a son. Our kids are about the same age. I think we’d all enjoy going out together some Saturday night in Thimpu. •
“Introduction” by Susan Orlean from the forthcoming collection Best American Travel Writing 2007 edited by Susan Orlean and Jason Wilson (series editor), which Houghton Mifflin Company is publishing in October. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Susan Orlean. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.