What a Long Strange Trip it's Going to Be
I am less than a week away from leaving on a trip around the world, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot keep the following vision from running through my head: I am in outer Mongolia being pursued by a pack of wild dogs, all of whom are frothing at the mouth. As I scramble across the uneven frozen terrain, the pack gains on me. It's raining and the grey light of day is getting weak.
Two months ago, I visited a travel clinic so that I could be inoculated against some of the diseases that still rage across various parts of the globe like scarlet fever, polio, pertussis (something I'd never heard of, but involves a lot of coughing), hepatitis, the measles, what have you. I received seven shots, and I am just now able to lift each arm above the shoulder again. But there was one shot I did not get, because it cost $500: rabies. The doctor asked me about my route, and eventually narrowed his inquiry to this: Will you be hiking in rural Asia? I said that I would. He went on to inform me that there are a lot of stray dogs in Asia, and that rabies is a much bigger problem there than it is here. Then he told me the price. "Do you know anyone who'd ever gotten rabies in Asia?" I asked. He said no, so I politely declined the shot. I was on my way back to the car, not more than 30 feet from the clinic, when the wild-dogs-in-Mongolia visions began.
Of course, it's impossible to imagine oneself scrambling across the Mongolian tundra without confronting the following problem: I haven't a thing to wear. Which leads us to my next issue, packing. Is it even possible to pack for an 80-day journey? A voyage of this length demands the paradoxical combination of a varied and extensive wardrobe packed into a small and portable suitcase. I will be experiencing temperatures from below freezing to well into the 90s and my body will be assaulted by snow, rain, sea water, wind and blistering sunlight. Luckily, a number of clothing and gear companies have furnished me with everything I will need. But it still doesn't seem like enough. How could it?
The conditions of this trip are as follows: I cannot take a plane or helicopter, I cannot travel more than 100 miles per hour, and I must complete the journey-travel west out of New York and arrive from the east-in precisely 80 days. The intention is to rediscover "slow travel," of the way humans moved across vast distances back when Jules Verne wrote his famous book about Phileas Fog and before commercial airliners painted their lines across the skies.
Instead of taking off at point A and then landing at Point B, I will see, smell, feel and taste the multitude of points in between. I will cruise across the Pacific ocean, horseback ride across Mongolia, sea kayak Italy's Amalfi Coast, and walk across an entire country (albeit a small one, Liechtenstein). In short, I will experience geography, which is something people don't really do anymore.
In anticipation of all that geography, I went on a supply run to the drug store this morning. As I grabbed a tube of Crest toothpaste, a thought occurred to me. Am I lessening the experience by bringing my own toothpaste? Shouldn't I experience the toothpaste of the cultures I will be visiting? Is terroir reflected toothpaste? I bet the Swiss make a good toothpaste. But I won't be in Switzerland till May, so I'll stick with the Crest for now.
I also purchased sun block, anti-nausea medicine, antacid, bandages, antibiotic cream, and painkillers. It was impossible to look at the contents of my cart-this was the first time in my life that I have had need to use a shopping cart in a drug store-without imagining myself sunburned, nauseous and bleeding in some distant land.
Inevitably, this led to a contemplation of the diseases for which there are no vaccine. Bird flu H5N1 is a good example. Everyone's been talking about that one lately. This strain of avian flu is alive and well in Asia and not long ago, a group of children contracted it after entertaining themselves one afternoon by playing with a dead bird. But rather than let this kill the anticipatory pre-tip buzz, I have decided to augment the conditions of my journey: no planes, no helicopters, no traveling over 100mph, and no playing with dead birds. Problem solved.
The good news is that unlike so many world travelers, I have a sweet budget. I owe my good fortune to the fact that I will be writing about this journey in the pages of Conde Nast Traveler, a magazine with a taste of the good life. They are paying me not only to see the world, but to live well while doing so. As journalistic assignments go, it doesn't get better than this. How I lucked into it, I cannot explain.
I start Monday. I'm driving from New York to Los Angeles in a brand new Mercedes E320 CDI. So I don't imagine I'll be needing any painkillers or bandages for the first leg. At least, I sure hope not.