Not long ago I was packing for a trip to Kenya in the middle of the British winter. Nairobi temperatures in February oscillate around 25-30 C, while London was experiencing a big freeze with below zero temperatures and a chilly wind.
So I dig out my summer clothes tucked away at the bottom of the wardrobe. I pack a few dresses, a pair of sandals, a sun hat, sun screen, and a bathing suit.
This feels surreal. I mean, in my mind I know that it is much hotter where I’m going, but I can’t really feel it and at some level I remain incredulous. After several months of winter, my body doesn’t seem to remember what 25C feels like any more. It feels warm, sure, but how warm? ‘No gloves’ warm or rather ‘flip flops’ warm?
As part of my preparations I get a yellow fever jab, I buy antimalarials, a mosquito net and a DEET mosquito repellent. And not to forget the diarrhoea kit for real emergencies… I buy a guide book and browse the internet to find out more about my destination. Following tips on Tripadvisor, I book a hotel in Dubai for my stopover, I arrange a visit to Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and a desert safari. Then I book myself into a hotel in Nairobi, and I transfer a deposit for a safari on the Serengeti plains. I do all this without leaving my chair, credit card in hand.
Just stop for a moment to think about how amazing and how weird that is. I’m at home in London, wearing a woollen jumper, and I’m making reservations for sights and places a thousand miles away, in Africa and the Middle East. I have never been to these places, yet I have faith that they exist and that a few days later a plane is going to carry me there in just half a day.
Planning for a journey is almost as important to me as actual travelling. The moment you make that decision ‘I’m going’, symbolically you are already on the road. You are imagining yourself in that other place: what you will be wearing, what you will eat, where you’ll sleep, what the place and the people will be like. What you imagine may be very far away from the truth, but the act of imagining, planning and preparing is exciting in itself. In fact, it is like travelling before leaving home.
When you are back and start unpacking, when you shake sand off your sandals or find an old receipt or a coin from that place far away, you get to travel yet again. You look at photos, you share stories with others and you construct a narrative of ‘what it is like out there’. Our experience of the foreign place is of course entirely subjective, plus time and our cognition distort what we actually saw and felt, so what we are doing in our head is making fiction. But it doesn’t really matter, as we’re still travelling, only without buying a ticket or leaving home.
Every time we leave on a journey, we in fact travel not once but three times: when we are preparing, when we are there, and when we are reminiscing. That’s one of the reasons I love to travel.