Perhaps more than other travelers, foreign correspondents grow attached to talismans.
It was a small thing. A dopp kit. If you’re British, you might call it a sponge bag. Or, inelegantly, a toilet bag. Mine was made of sort of a dull gray vinyl and was not much bigger than a fist. It had one zipper and just one compartment, and though it never frayed and could hold everything I needed—razor, toothbrush, contacts, a small bottle of saline solution—it was an ugly little thing.
Yet when I lost it last month—left behind on the sink in some hotel room or perhaps on the train north of Madrid—I mourned. Even back home I kept thinking it would turn up somewhere in my luggage, so I didn’t bother ordering new contact lenses. A week I spent squinting at the world, grieving like a fool for the toilet bag that had, in my mind, been a loyal companion through my travels.
Whatever thrill we get from feeling the world move beneath our feet, there’s always some small part of us that wants to be connected: to home, to safety, to luck.
Perhaps more than other travelers, foreign correspondents grow attached to talismans. Whatever thrill we get from feeling the world move beneath our feet, there’s always some small part of us that wants to be connected: to home, to safety, to luck. If it’s not a dopp kit or some other amulet, it’s a routine. For a lot of us, it was that first cigarette on the first morning in some new place: nicotine works the same on the addict’s blood no matter what the brand, whether it’s ubiquitous Chinese-made Kents or hard-to-find, harder-to-smoke Belomorkanals in Russia. As for me, I always preferred a lager as soon as was practicable: one thing that colonialism has left the world is a somewhat uniform taste for beer, so a Mahou is a Lao is a Kingfisher is a Quilmes, and any of them can remind you of a dozen other places you have been.
This was what correspondent Daniel Howden was after when he entered Timbuktu in January, just after the Islamists had been driven from the town. To his disappointment, instead of a cold lager, the only beer in town was Guinness, and even that had gone sour after having been buried in the hot earth for months to keep the Islamists from finding it.
The tools of the trade can carry emotional weight, too. There are lucky pens and favorite camera bags, and who hasn’t grown unreasonably fond of their old SIM phone—those battle-axes made by Nokia a decade ago couldn’t do a damned thing but take a local SIM card and make perfect phone calls, which is all we ever wanted anyway. War photographers wear loose scarves not just to wipe down lenses or protect themselves from sand and grit, but also because an old and oft-worn scarf is the best security blanket there is for nervy assignments.
In my healthier seasons, I would look inward for that sort of calm. I spent my days in Juárez nearly sick with fear, being tailed by cartel halcones (hawks) with tinted windows and opaque intentions. But after the photographer and I had gone to the last murder scene each day, and I had returned in my half-fortified hotel, it was Ashtanga yoga that stilled my mind. Breathing is the deepest touchstone of them all and, if you need them, the memories of all your best days and all your warmest homes are right there, in the rhythm of your breath.
There is always work to be done on the road, stories to file, sources to contact, editors to fight. In my years at TIME, a lot of that work did make it into the magazine. But it slowly dawned on me that the best part of journalism for me wasn’t collecting bylines nor was it the policy debate, or the big interview, or whatever argument I had tried to make in my articles.
... journalism wasn't escaping the world, it was diving headlong into it.
For me, journalism was travel. Not in the sense of lolling on the shore somewhere (although lord knows that the last time I covered war, in the sweltering mountains of northern Burma, I wanted nothing more afterwards than to fly south and lie in the shallows of Ngapali Beach like an oversized ray full of no thoughts at all). But mostly for me, journalism wasn’t escaping the world, it was diving headlong into it. It means travel through a world, as a colleague of mine once put it, that is both terrible and wonderful at the same time. You would weep with widows one day and eat some incredible one-pot meal the next, and the totality of the two experiences is a lot less like tourism and a lot more like life.
So I quit my job at Time, and not long afterward started an online magazine with two friends who thought the way I thought (most of the time) and traveled the way I traveled (all of the time). We called it Roads & Kingdoms, and we decided there would be no policy discussions, no politics at all, unless it could be told through a story about travel, or music or art, or especially food. Howden told that story about the buried Guinness in our magazine, and it was the perfect way to talk about the headier issues of Islamism in the Horn of Africa or French colonial hangovers or the liberation of Timbuktu.
Roads & Kingdoms is now a bit more than a year old, and I love the way the whole world washes up on its pages, thanks to the raft of writers and photographers who work with us. For a time, before it started growing, I was able to be one of those who traveled for stories. But this year, there has been a lot less travel. I am stuck in New York almost exclusively, editing the work of others. You could say, I suppose, that it’s a kind of travel of ideas. In a given day, I’ll Skype with a photographer in Syria or edit a piece about sashimi in the Russian Arctic. In the evenings, I’ll often head to bars and trade stories with people who still travel to these places too.
Wherever I’m headed, I will have a new talisman with me.
But even ideas can’t surprise your senses. They can’t move your body across time zones. They can’t fill your head with smoke and lager, while strange bells ring or ancient prayers drift across a city. The act of travel is a physical thing, whether you go a hundred miles or ten thousand. So I’ve decided to take trip in a month’s time. I’m still working out exactly where I’ll go. I’ve been talking with the Iranians, but I can’t say I regretted my last trip to Sicily, which was an Elysium of seafood but also full of stories about doomed migrants and malingering mobsters.
Wherever I’m headed, I will have a new talisman with me. I broke down and bought a new dopp kit, a bit larger than my old one, but every bit as ugly. I can only hope it will become as well-used and, in time, as well-loved as the last.