Armchair travel brings the world into your living room

A sunset glows over Hawaii Kai Beach on Oahu in this vacation photo from the Hawaiian Islands. While some people may get on a jet and travel to this warm spot, others will visit via their armchairs and a travelogue. Armchair travel sometimes is the surest way of venturing beyond the living room.



“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.” This beach photo was taken in Tulu, Mexico.



This white sand beach can be found at the Tulum ruins in Mexico.



QUICKREAD

ADVENTURES IN PRINT

There are so many means these days by which the armchair traveler can be inspired — Buzzfeed lists and Anthony Bourdain, Animal Planet and far-flung Tweets — but the original inspiration for armchair travelers was in books.

Adventurers came back from the far away and transcribed what they’d seen and done for publication, to be eagerly consumed by armchair travelers with Ceylon dreams. The tenor of these travelogues varied widely, from the hairy-chested fighting wolverines sort, to the “I say! These natives are dirty!” or the “I’m such a dork! I took the wrong train and ended up an honorary member of the village” or “I got a divorce and decided to find myself via la dolce vita in ________.”

Whatever the texture of the tale, the words on the page built images in daydreaming spirits. Here are a few good ones to get the armchair traveling started:

 

“The Histories,” by Herodotus (c. 440 B.C.)

Who: Called the Father of History, Herodotus was a 5th century B.C. Greek historian whose Histories, his only known work, also read like a travelogue. A mesmerizing, sometimes weird, occasionally horrifying travelogue.

Where: all through the known-at-that-time world.

Armchair travel away: “The Ausean maidens keep year by year a feast in honour of Minerva, whereat their custom is to draw up in two bodies, and fight with stones and clubs.”

 

“The Travels,” by Marco Polo (c. 1300)

Who: Not just a swimming pool game, Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant whose writings about his 13th and 14th century travels broadened the world for many in Europe.

Where: Central Asia and China.

Armchair travel away: “Pein is a province five days in length, lying between east and north-east. The people are worshippers of Mahommet, and subjects of the Great Kaan ... They live by manufactures and trade. But they have a custom that I must relate. If the husband of any woman go away upon a journey and remain away for more than 20 days, as soon as that term is past the woman may marry another man, and the husband also may then marry whom he pleases.”

 

“Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries,” by John Wesley Powell (1875)

Who: A Civil War veteran who lost an arm in the war, John Wesley Powell was nonetheless a hardy explorer and scholar who traversed the west in, sometimes, the flimsiest of water craft.

Where: Colorado and Green rivers, including a memorable passage through the Grand Canyon.

Armchair travel away: “What a headlong ride it is! Shooting past rocks and islands. I am soon filled with exhilaration only experienced before in riding a fleet horse over the outstretched prairie. One, two, three, four miles we go, rearing and plunging with the waves.”

 

“Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World,” by Mark Twain (1897)

Who: America’s foremost man of letters and wit, Mark Twain took steamships and trains around the world on a lecture tour and wrote about his experiences.

Where: So many places — India, South Africa, the Sandwich Islands…

Armchair travel away: “The journey to Benares was all in daylight, and occupied but a few hours. It was admirably dusty. The dust settled upon you in a thick ashy layer and turned you into a fakir, with nothing lacking to the role but the cow manure and the sense of holiness.”

 

“West with the Night,” by Beryl Markham (1942)

Who: A Kenyan-born, British adventurer and aviator, Beryl Markham wrote a memoir of growing up and living in Africa that is so, so good. Read it immediately.

Where: on land and in the skies above Africa.

Armchair travel away: “The trail ran north to Molo; at night it ran straight to the stars. It ran up the side of the Mau Escarpment until at ten thousand feet it found the plateau and rested there, and some of the stars burned beneath its edge. In the morning the plateau was higher than the sun. Even the day climbed the trail to Molo.”

 

“Travels with Charley,” by John Steinbeck (1962)

Who: John Steinbeck, American treasure and author of classic and somewhat depressing novels, set out to discover America in a camper named Rocinante, with a French poodle named Charley for a companion.

Where: America.

Armchair travel away: “As I was not prepared for the Missouri boundary, so I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding.”

 

“The Great Railway Bazaar,” by Paul Theroux (1975)

Who: one of America’s foremost travel writers who should inspire crippling jealousy, but he’s just so darn good at it.

Where: a four-month rail journey through the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia and returning through central Asia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Armchair travel away: “The train rattled; the waves crashed on the shore. Nearer Colombo, the monks in the last carriage (FOR CLERGY, said the sign over the door) serenely watched the sun go down; second class held a school outing, gaping in starched uniforms; in third, where I was, nearly everyone sat silently in the dark shuttered compartments.”

 

“Road Fever,” by Tim Cahill (1991)

Who: Tim Cahill is an editor and writer whose adventures fill books and fuel daydreams.

Where: the 15,000 miles from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, along the Pan American Highway (in an insane 23 days).

Armchair travel away: “There was a casino at our hotel. A large sign at the entrance to the gambling hall featured the silhouette of a handgun. A thick red line slashed diagonally across the gun. ‘No pistols in the casino.’ It was the sort of gay, madcap sight tourists can expect in Honduras.”



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.

Aaaahhhhhh...

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.


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