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How Traveling to 83 Countries Made Me Who I Am

Adapted from Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years, by Andrew Solomon (Scribner, April 2016).

At Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, 1995. Photo: Sue Macartney-Snape.
At Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, 1995. Photo: Sue Macartney-Snape.

As a little kid in the late 1960s, I was afraid of the world. Even if I didn’t get caught in the draft that was sending American teenagers to Vietnam, there was always the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack. I made constant escape plans and imagined a life going from port to port. I thought I might be kidnapped; little wonder I developed an anxiety disorder in early adulthood.

Running in counterpoint to these reckonings with destruction was a growing affection for England, a place I had never visited. My Anglophilia set in about the time my father started reading me Winnie-the-Pooh when I was two. Later, it was Alice in Wonderland. I developed a strong taste for marmalade and for the longer sweep of history. In response to my various self-indulgences, my parents’ usual reprimand was to remind me that I was not the Prince of Wales. I conceived the vague idea that if I could only get to the U.K., I would receive entitlements (someone to pick up my toys, the most expensive item on the menu) that I associated more with location than with an accident of birth. Like all fantasies of escape, this one pertained not only to the destination but also to what was left behind.

I understood that going where I would actually be foreign might distract people from the more intimate nature of my defining otherness.

I was also a pre-gay kid who had not so far reckoned with the nature of my difference and therefore had no vocabulary with which to parse it. I felt foreign even at home; though I couldn’t yet have formulated the idea, I understood that going where I would actually be foreign might distract people from the more intimate nature of my defining otherness.

My preoccupation with discovering a foreign refuge was matched by an intense curiosity about the same world I found so threatening. Although England lay at the forefront of my imaginings, I also wanted to know what Chinese people ate for breakfast, how Africans styled their hair, why people played so much polo in Argentina. I read voraciously, immersing myself in Indian fairy tales, Russian folk stories, and Tales of a Korean Grandmother. My mother brought home a Kleenex box illustrated with people in their native costumes. Believing that everyone in Holland clunked around in wooden shoes and all Peruvians wore jaunty bowler hats, I imagined meeting them all, and kept the box long after the tissues had been used up. I wanted to visit every country in the world at least once.

Fortunately for me, my mother loved travel. Our first non-beach family trip abroad—to England, France, and Switzerland—came when I was 11, and thereafter we often tagged along on my father’s European business trips. Before we went anyplace, my mother would teach us about it. We’d read relevant books, learn local history, find out about the food we were going to eat and the sights we would see. My mother said you should always travel as if you would return; if you tried to see everything, you wouldn’t really see anything. “Always leave something for next time, something to tempt you back,” she said.

In high school, I began to connect these geographical adventures to the epic narratives of my history classes. During my junior year, our glee club was scheduled to perform in the USSR, but then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rerouted us to Romania and Bulgaria. Several teachers and other elders advised us that whereas Bulgaria was a terrible Soviet puppet state, Romania had a brave, independent leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who refused to obey orders from Moscow. Once we arrived in Bulgaria, however, we experienced unaffected warmth—even when our lead soprano and I were briefly carried off by gypsies when we stumbled onto a wedding procession. In Romania, by contrast, we saw stark scenes of repression. A patient waved at us from a hospital window, only to be pulled back by a policeman who lowered the blinds. Anxious locals asked us to smuggle out letters. When the Ceaușescu regime later toppled, it turned out that Romania had been possibly the most repressive place in Eastern Europe. That was a good lesson about intuition: Places that seem lovely at first glance may actually be sinister, but places that feel creepy seldom turn out to be glorious.

Familiar landscapes cushion you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous.

Several years later, our family planned a trip to the Galápagos Islands because my younger brother was studying evolutionary biology. Included with our boat tickets was a tour of Ecuador. My parents were uninterested, so my brother and I went alone. Our guide warned us of unrest near the Inca ruins at Ingapirca, but we wanted to go, and had the ruins to ourselves, interrupted only by the occasional llama. On the return, we stopped because of a large boulder blocking the steep road. A bunch of agitated people sprang out from behind a shrub and rushed the car. One slit the tires; one smashed the windshield; one brandished a gun. The guide suggested we get out, pronto. We were locked inside a shack while the driver negotiated with the revolutionaries, who had declared their independence because they didn’t want to pay taxes. We explained via the driver that we didn’t much like paying taxes either. The driver warned that the U.S. military could poison their crops, and after about two hours, we were released. We shuffled down the mountain until we were able to hitchhike back to Cuenca. It was of course frightening, but it summoned a resilience I hadn’t guessed I had, which stood in gratifying contrast to my protected childhood.

Travel is an exercise partly in broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place, where people make different assumptions about you. Those expectations may relate to your nationality rather than to your manner of speech, the cut of your clothing, or the indicators of your politics. Equally, travel provides a disguise; you can feel oddly camouflaged and anonymous wrapped in the sketchy preconceptions of others. I dislike social constraints, and traveling has helped me to be free of them.

At the same time, I am also unsettled by such social anonymity. When you must learn the unfamiliar rules of a new place, you become callow again; what is prestigious at home can seem irrelevant or ludicrous abroad. You cannot rely on the weight of your opinions in a country where standards are different. You often cannot understand why something is funny or why something else is somber. Familiar landscapes cushion you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous. In a strange place, you become more fully evident: Who you truly are is what persists at home and abroad. Tennyson’s Ulysses said, “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees.” I cherished travel for the ways it stops time, forcing me to inhabit the present tense. Augustine of Hippo legendarily said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” and I wanted to go cover to cover. I set out to see the change I wanted to be in the world.

I’ve made it to 83 of the 196 recognized countries around the globe, working as a journalist from South Africa and Brazil, China and Romania, Guatemala and the Solomon Islands. In each place, I’ve explored the unfolding of history largely through the people who are creating and being shaped by it. I’ve spoken to former political prisoners, transgender bartenders, rape victims, shamans, and dogsled drivers. I’ve been punched in the jaw in Taiwan and left adrift at the Great Barrier Reef when I surfaced after scuba diving to find the boat that had brought me had gone. I’ve contemplated Antarctica from a dilapidated icebreaker and Mongolia from the back of a reindeer. I have stared down tanks on the barricades in Moscow during the putsch that ended the Soviet Union; caroused all night in Kabul with local musicians free to play their instruments immediately after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; and been brought in for questioning in Qaddafi’s Libya.

Andrew Solomon with penguins on Macquarie Island, 2008. Photo: John Habich Solomon.
Andrew Solomon with penguins on Macquarie Island, 2008. Photo: John Habich Solomon.

Some of my traveling has been glamorous, some of it terrifying, but it has had a cumulative humbling effect. I started traveling out of curiosity, but I have come to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift. You cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered. If all young adults were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country, two-thirds of the world’s diplomatic problems could be solved. Travel is a set of corrective lenses that helps focus the planet’s blurred reality.

When Chinese intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, a situation that sometimes allows for more visionary ambitions. In Moscow in the 1980s, I became close to a group who called themselves “paper architects.” Knowing there were no supplies with which they could build to their specifications, they harnessed their architectural training to their imaginations; they designed the Tower of Babel, proposed whole cities, suggested a structure for a theater floating on the sea. No Western architect governed by materials has ever thought so freely.

I grew up in a household in which there was a preferable approach to everything. Travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself. I continue to move between the internal abroad and the external abroad. Each enhances my relationship to the other. My last book, Far from the Tree, dealt with the nature of difference within families: how parents learn to cherish children who aren’t what they had in mind when they set out to have kids. My new book is in some measure about a similar process: embracing alien points of view and ways of doing things.

I won’t undersell the effort involved. If accepting unlike children is tough, this is tougher. Natural instincts propel parents toward their children; natural instincts propel us away from strangers who are different from ourselves. Like all engagements, internationalism must be a rendezvous of human beings. The ubiquity of Coca-Cola speaks on our behalf, and “boots on the ground” have increased American sway in some beleaguered nations. Yet it is in transnational civilian-to-civilian interactions that we find solutions to our disaffection. “If one does not understand a person,” Carl Jung wrote in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, “one tends to regard him as a fool.” Both parties lose in that scenario. In national as in personal relationships, it is easier to resolve tensions when you can figure out what the other is thinking. The art and culture and even the cuisines and monuments of other places can help us to do so; the people of those places help us most of all. America uses such soft power for suasion abroad, but often we do not allow ourselves the luxury of being persuaded by others. Travel is not merely a pleasant diversion for the well-to-do, but the necessary remedy to our perilously frightened times. At a time when many politicians are stoking anxiety, telling people that it’s too perilous even to leave the house, there is new urgency to the arguments for going out and recognizing that we are all in the game together.

In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, a situation that sometimes allows for more visionary ambitions.

When my husband and I had children, we began taking them with us on long trips as soon as they learned to walk, because we wanted them to have a sense of the world as a large and varied place overflowing with possibilities. Children are malleable for a short time only, and whatever limits you set soon become their norms. We wanted those norms to include what is surprising, enchanting, uncomfortable, disorienting, exciting, and weird about travel. They can decide to be home­bodies when they grow up, but at least they will know what they are setting aside.

Our children’s delight in new things kindles our own delight, returning freshness to a ride in a gondola, a Rocky Mountain vista, the Changing of the Guard. Further, the advantages of traveling make a worthy legacy. I am lucky that I was given the world so early; in passing that gift along, I honor the memory of my mother, who died 25 years ago. Finally, children can return a sense of purposefulness to travel.

I’ve been to so many places and seen so much that it sometimes feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments. My mind has been stretched by the world’s diversity, and may be approaching its elastic limits. In addressing the minds of my children, an urgent sense of purpose is renewed. I do not expect that they will settle the conflict with ISIL, but the knowledge that they are accumulating will broaden their intuitive kindness and thus increase the planet’s depleted stores of compassion. But though travel can intensify life, it also evokes dying; it is a detachment. I grow anxious at takeoff not because of the air pressure but because I feel myself dissolving. I was brought up to value safety more than comfort, and comfort more than courage, and have spent adulthood striving to invert that hierarchy.

As we climb above the clouds, I practice letting go of the place I’ve come from or the place I’ve gone. Though I am sustained by the prospect of arrival, separation always tugs me toward at least momentary regret. Even in that sorrow, however, I know that I failed fully to love home until I went repeatedly abroad, and could not appreciate abroad until I had returned home time and again. Valediction is, at least for me, a precondition of intimacy.