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The Disease Called Travel

This week, Nadia El-Awady talks inner gaps, wanderlust, and train-hopping.

There’s a reason people call it the travel “bug”. The chronic need to travel sometimes feels like a disease. When I’ve been home for a couple of weeks after a trip I start feeling an itch that comes from deep within. It’s like a longing for something that is missing; something I need to plug into my inner being to be whole again. This itch, this longing, this hole inside of me then seems to grow larger and larger until I feel it is so large it will fully engulf me and I will be lost to the darkness of it forever.

I’ve learned to feed the hole as much as possible. I no longer wait for that inner gap to start opening up again before I start making plans for the next trip.  I now have a list in my head of the places I want to go to over the next few months. I have general dates in my head of when each trip can happen. And I’ll already have started researching the first couple in line. By the time I’ve settled in Cairo for a couple of weeks, I’m already actively putting together my itinerary for my next trip. It doesn’t matter if that next trip is several months away as long as I know that I’m working on making it happen.

In my sleeping bag while climbing Kilimanjaro

The trips I plan are like meals. I have my annual main trip, my dinner trip, and I have a couple of smaller breakfast and lunch trips. And then I have my snack trips in between to feed my hunger. My snack trips come in the form of a four-day diving trip to the Red Sea, or a weekend hike up Mount Saint Katherine in Sinai, or a quick plane ride down to Luxor to see the sights and fly back to Cairo on the same day. Breakfast and lunch trips are like flying to Europe for a few days, usually for work but then adding a couple days at the end of the business trip to go somewhere nice. My dinner trips are like climbing Kilimanjaro, going on safari in Tanzania, or train hopping in Europe and ending up wherever the trains take me.

There’s a wonderful feeling of excitement in preparing for a big trip. I usually don’t like to be too prepared. I like to go places and be surprised. I don’t like knowing too much about my destination so that I don’t fall into the trap of simply seeing the sights. Going sight seeing loses its luster after the first few trips. The main sights in any city or country are full of tourists from other countries and are set up in a way to give you a certain impression about a place. The real beauty of a city or a country is found by straying away from the sights and away from the tourists. The real beauty of a country is found by getting lost in it. The real beauty of a country is found in mixing with its people, eating their food, lying in their fields, and roaming on their narrow streets.

No matter where I’m going and no matter how excited I am to discover something new, I always feel nauseous as I pack my bags and prepare to leave the house. Always. It’s a horrible feeling of foreboding. The 24 hours before any trip are full of questions like: Why do I keep doing this to myself? Why do I keep throwing myself into the unknown? What if something terrible happens to me while I’m traveling? What if something terrible happens at home while I’m away? This horrible feeling leaves me the second I jump into my car for the long drive or board the plane. It is at this moment that my head focuses with an acute intensity. All my senses are on full alert. It is this drug-like state of full awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings that I am addicted to.

Oddly, I assimilate into my new surroundings very quickly no matter where I go. A feeling of attachment develops with place and person. I recall the difficulty I found during my first few trips traveling alone and trying to settle into a bed that was not my own. I had restless nights and whether I was there to work or for my own adventure I was always tired during the day. I did something to my head to fix that. Now, no matter how shoddy the hotel room or how strange my roommates, I am able to put my head on my pillow and fall into a deep comfortable sleep. I am at home in the world. During one particular trip where I was covering a story, I woke up to the sound of bullets whizzing by my hotel room window. I could hear explosions near by. This went on throughout the night. I woke up when I first started hearing these noises, sat up in bed for a few minutes, then simply told myself to go back to sleep. This is how things are in this country, I said to myself. You have work tomorrow. You need sleep or you’ll have one heck of a headache the next day. So just sleep. And I did. There hasn’t been a single hotel room or hut that I’ve slept in over the past few years that I haven’t felt attached to the moment I step foot in it. This is home for the next two nights, I announce to no one in particular. And so it is. And when I have to leave my home to go somewhere else, even when it’s going back to Cairo, I feel the same sense of nauseousness and foreboding that I felt when I left my original home in Egypt. I’ll leave my room with a final check, a final goodbye, and a sense that I’ll miss this place that was my home for a night.

Photograph taken by me in the Serengeti in Tanzania

I love traveling, but I’m incapable of being in travel mode for too long. I need the instability of movement, of new places, of new scenery, of new smells, of new people. I need to discover, to learn, to make mistakes, and to fix my mistakes. I need the turmoil, the danger, the magic, and the mystery of travel. And when I get it, it takes no longer than two weeks and I long for the stability of home. I long for the routine, the comfort, and the familiarity of my surroundings. I long for my family: my anchors. And it is then that I push myself with urgency to find my way back to what I know.

And the cycle then begins all over again.

There’s a reason they call it the travel bug. It’s a disease. And I have it.