Armchair travel brings the world into your living room
The edges of the room begin to fuzz and blur with the first hula sway of a palm tree. A lilting breeze, a fuchsia setting sun and the steady rhythm of the surf, reaching bubbly white fingers up the beach before retreating back into the blue.
Soon, the La-Z-Boy fades into a chaise pulled close enough to the water that a desultory foot lazily drooping onto the sand gets an occasional tickle from the ebb and flow of the sea.
No more walls, no more framed art, no more bookcases and lamps and recessed lighting. Instead, the languorous air, heavy with humidity, warm and earthy. No traffic outside, no blue glare of TV, no Tumblr or GChat. Just the scratch of waves on sand, the rustle of palm fronds, the occasional call of a bird.
It’s nice here in Fiji. Or the Seychelles. Or Dominica. Anywhere, really, that the trade winds blow and the hibiscus bloom. Maybe it’s time for a festival. Or a holiday. Or a night market lit by lines of white lights strung between branches, where the pace is a stroll and the beverage is a coconut with a straw in it.
And then the cellphone dings with a text and a Twitter notice. And the dog barks to be let out. And the brownies may be burning.
But that was a nice little journey, an armchair travel in a world, against all planet-shrinking technological odds, that still is very big.
In fact, and not just as an escape from the gray drear of midwinter, armchair travel is often the surest way of venturing beyond the living room and into the great unknown. While there’s no substitute for feet actually planted on unfamiliar soil, humans have been armchair traveling long before there were even armchairs.
“I think everyone needs to dream about going somewhere,” said Vonnie Hicks, owner of First Class Travel in Grand Junction. “It makes life so much more bearable.”
Consider the National Geographic in all its yellow-bordered glory, arriving in the mail each month, sometimes saved in tidy rows for decades. Since 1888 — the National Geographic Society celebrated its 126th birthday last month — it has been one of the greatest transports in armchair travels, fuel for a billion daydreams: Ooohh, Samarkand. Just saying the name feels spicy: Sssssamarkand. What’s it like there? Or Khartoum, there’s another conjurer. Kota Kinabalu. Nicosia. Killarney.
The armchair traveler savors these names on the tongue, rolls them around in the mouth, studies the photos and reads the captions, and soon enough is wading in daydreams through the jungles of Papua New Guinea, into the drone of insects, pondering how best to approach a Korowai village.
There’s a reason people save their National Geographics.
But even before 1888, there were the likes of Sir Richard Francis Burton and Leif Ericson, Marco Polo and Jacques Cartier, explorers who ventured into the unknown and brought home tales for armchair travelers to gobble up.
It’s a vicarious thing, armchair travel. Others go so their tales can be consumed. Maybe they inspire the armchair traveler to get on a plane or in the car, maybe not.
“(Armchair travel) gives somebody the perspective to say yeah, I’d really like to go there,” said Kim Davis, owner of Tropical Winds Travel in Grand Junction.
And it’s such a pleasant way to spend idle moments, considering the horizon and what might lie beyond it, the unknown vistas and unfamiliar traditions, the temples and turrets, the art, the families, the elephants and camels. Armchair travel is an insatiable wonder about the world.
“Many things cause errors concerning the knowledge of places,” wrote 14th century Italian humanist Francesco Petrarch, “among them: the inaccessibility of regions to men of our age; the change of names, the rarity and lack of clarity of authors; and sometimes the dissent among them; but above all the lack of intellectual curiosity and the laziness of those who care for nothing that isn’t right before their eyes. Not only the general reader but also scholarly commentators neglect to pause over these things.”
Though, he neglected to add — since he was a man of some means — the cost. Traveling beyond the armchair can be expensive. Hicks said she sometimes hears from customers who armchair traveled to Fiji, thanks to the Travel Channel, not realizing that it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to vacation in the South Pacific. So, she said, she might instead recommend a trip to Playa del Carmen in Mexico, which also has the turquoise waters and palm trees and is much more affordable.
And maybe even Mexico is a bit too much after the economic hit of the past several years, Davis said. Maybe it’s dream of Mexico, take a weekend getaway to Las Vegas.
Perhaps this is sad. Perhaps there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to armchair travel, to reading about and dreaming of places but never actually visiting them. But perhaps not. At its heart, armchair travel is about a sense of the world, of trying to know and appreciate what’s out there, to be mesmerized by the differences and strengthened by the similarities despite the geographical distance.
“Therefore it doesn’t matter at all if you travel really far away into unknown regions,” wrote Hungarian poet Béla Balázs. “The nature of this kind of travel occurs within. You stand in a different relation to the external world…. Perhaps you don’t even need to leave your room?”
Plus, malaria is unlikely on an armchair journey.
And that momentary flight is so liberating. Not that daily life is terrible, not that everyone needs a permanent escape, but the armchair getaway — even if the armchair is an office chair, even if it’s just for a few minutes of gazing at pretty, far away pictures on the Internet — is a palate cleanser. Mentally standing on top of the Great Wall of China is like taking a deep breath and venturing out into the familiar with fresh eyes.
Where, sometimes, the walls and buildings and streets fade away, and the palm trees sway, and the warm waves wash at toes dipped into the sand.