It was a pivotal year, yet it felt somehow quiet. Perhaps because I write this from a quiet place. But it wasn’t so most of the year.
My husband & I said hello to 2013 in a plush suite of a five-star resort, waking up to the sunshine of southern Portugal and an unobstructed view of the Atlantic from our private garden – all this, of course, for a magazine assignment. That was followed by a week of hotel-hopping in Portugal, while I wrote frantically about Cape Verde (where we had spent three weeks in December 2012) in order to meet my guidebook deadline.
We returned to New York in mid-January, and blissfully didn’t budge for nearly three months. It felt great to spend almost an entire winter in our Brooklyn home. I took that time to clear out the apartment, in which I’ve lived for ten years. I donated some 15 huge bags of clothes and random items I no longer needed. The purge felt downright liberating, followed by the realization I can live happily out of two bags. With that out of the way, what followed was a short trip to New Orleans, the first time for both Hoji and I. It was meant to be a holiday but as it happens with 99% of my trips, I ended up writing about it.
Three weeks later, come late April, we were back in Portugal kicking off a six-week research trip for the next edition of Lonely Planet Portugal (slated for publication in March). We explored mainly the north of the country, sleeping in a different hotel almost every night. While we were discovering otherworldly spots and exploring remote corners of the country, I detected a feeling of indifference. It felt strange at first, because I love Portugal and I love my job. Yet I felt somehow blasé about my discoveries. Looking back, I now know it wasn’t anything to do with Portugal. It was all to do with me, where I was in life and career. It dawned on me only later, when I could give the sentiment a name: it was a plain old burnout.
At the time, I couldn’t afford to dwell on it. After those six weeks in Portugal, it was on to Croatia, where I had just a few weeks to write up my trip findings in three updated chapters of the upcoming guidebook. I sat tight and wrote for nearly a month. These are the extremes of travel writing: You travel like crazy, then you sit tight and write. But I met my deadline. Phew.
The rest of the summer was marked by more travels. Except escorting a group of US journalists on a ten-day trip around Istria and Dubrovnik, it was mostly for leisure – a rarity. Hoji and I hit the coast and spent five weeks on holiday – three weeks at my family’s beach house, then a spot of island hopping with friends, then solo. In late August, we headed to Sarajevo for the film festival, but we cut the stay short because I had an unsettling bout of food poisoning.
Back in Zagreb, we moved into an adorable one-bedroom sublet in my favorite neighborhood, with this view from the back balcony. The apartment is where I’m happily writing this post on the first day of 2014.
Except a five-day jaunt to Switzerland in September to see my travel writer friend Adam, I’ve been around since. I don’t count a couple of side trips to Ljubljana, since that’s less than a two-hour drive away. So, in my mind, that doesn’t qualify as a trip proper, even with three overnights at a hotel.
Professionally, it’s been a great year for me. I got four writing awards, including the coveted Lowell Thomas; finished two guidebook projects; appeared as a voice in the thought-provoking Gringo Trails documentary; and wrote a bunch of articles I’m quite proud of.
Yet a little voice has been increasingly nagging, the voice of doubt whether I’m on the right path. It’s not something that happened overnight. Far from it. I slowed down my press trip schedule a couple of years ago. Then in October 2012, with a junket to India as the grand finale (for now at least), I stopped taking press trips. Of course it’s not easy to turn down invites to destinations on my bucket list, but I’ve managed to say ‘no, thank you very much’ to Bhutan, Burma, Tanzania, Maldives, Japan, and many more.
There’s that pressure to produce after somebody has wined and dined you in excess. Plus I’ve learned I’m too much of an independent spirit to adhere to somebody else’s itinerary. It was this independent spirit that got me into guidebook writing back in 2000. I still see the guidebook world as my alma mater, so to speak, yet even that has changed a great deal for me. The glorified fact-checking (read: guidebook research) ceased to be a challenge. Yet I’m still often presented as a Lonely Planet writer (the guidebook company I’ve joined as an author seven years ago). And I am – although not currently on assignment – but it’s not what defines me.
So, on the first day of 2014, I sit down to reflect. What does define me? So far it’s been the constant movement, the ‘everthenomad’ spirit, back-to-back travels, insatiable curiosity about new places… In a recent email exchange about travel writing, my friend Adam wrote that he “begun to wonder if wanderlust is no more meant to be succumbed to than greed or gluttony. In fact, is wanderlust greed?”
My response: “I’ve started to wonder about that too, whether my peripatetic lifestyle with the obsessive stacking up of experiences and stimuli gathered around the world is in fact masking an unhealthy type of hunger, camouflaged gluttony. I tend to look down on the beauty of what my eyesight takes in, feeling that true beauty must be far ahead, somewhere behind seven seas and mountains, or at least a seven-hour flight away. But what if it’s all right here? Then why travel more?”
What I feel at this moment is that the stacking up of experiences is quite like gluttony. I’d rather have one memorable trip per year than back-to-back stints that ultimately leave me jaded. Can you really swoon over places on a constant basis? The danger is: You end up blasé. It’s the last thing I want, to feel quite indifferent about my biggest passion, traveling.
I’ve also been thinking more about my carbon footprint, inspired by my talks with Adam, who wrote a great blog post that, among other things, discusses the environmental impact of travel and, in turn, our jobs. While I don’t fully identify with all that Adam says in his 2013 Year End Report, I admire him for the integrity to speak his mind.
As for speaking our minds… Long gone is the time when wide-eyed explorers went out to chart new hidden corners without an eye on profit. Travel today is a trillion-dollar industry and I am just a tiny cog in its humongous wheel. I started in the industry as an editor in 2000; 2014 marks the ten-year anniversary of my going freelance. I went into it with a romanticized notion I’d travel the world and bring back stories to share with fellow travel enthusiasts. And in many ways, I’ve been doing that for over a decade now, making a living with a passion.
But some place in the process, travel has changed. And I’ve changed too. For a while I didn’t mind writing roundup articles, top ten lists and 150-word pieces that were supposed to tell a vivid tale. And to this day, in addition to guidebooks, these are my bread and butter. Few editors assign long-form travel narratives, which I love to write, and those who do don’t have much of a budget.
And so, as 2014 kicks in, much seems uncertain. What I do, where I live, and how I make my living are all on the cutting board. While there’s slight anxiety about what’s next, what I really feel is gratitude for the privilege I’ve had to see the world and turn my biggest passion into a profession. There’s much more to see – and the curiosity is still there – but it’s time for me to take a breather.
One thing is certain: 2014 means big changes and new challenges. Only this time: Ready… steady… stay.