Abandon. This is the word we carry when we arrive somewhere else. To give ourselves over without restraint. It is a singular thrill, to pitch out of the satisfying but predictable order of domestic life into this state of disarray. We become vagabonds, searchers, giddy tourists. Whatever the case, we are, above all, strangers. So in that sense, we assume a second meaning: to desert, as in our own selves. We know who we are in our homes. We have no idea who we’ll be in Kigali, Racine, or Angkor Wat.
The voyage usually starts with the same script. How strange and wonderful it is to stash only the essentials into a bag and shut the door behind us. We lift off. We land somewhere across the world, usually alone, usually in the middle of the night. Hunched by fatigue and the weight of our luggage, we find our room, switch on the lights. Sometimes it’s decent.
What, exactly, has been left behind? And what might lead us back home? Every arrival is a crash course in possibility, but it does not always open a path to immaculate wide-eyed clarity. Waiting for a bus under a battering sun or breathing the bug spray on a hotel pillow, we crave the safety of our old couch, the comfort and camaraderie of friends and family. But comfort never endures. Restlessness prickles under the skin. Whatever the story becomes, one cannot write about travel without writing about home. Each leads to the other and back again.
Traveling alone and writing about it is my work, a career I began at fifty. It was a discovery at midlife, one that exposed both the escape and the quest I craved as I confronted my life’s second half. One that quelled the hormonal tumult that was as unrelenting as weather. And finally, one that reached back to the most elemental part of me, the younger woman I once was, the child I had been.
In third grade, as soon as my mother allowed me to walk to the center of Winchester, Massachusetts, along a half-mile of flat, suburban streets, I always wanted to go alone.
“Why don’t you ask a friend to walk with you?” my mother would ask. But I didn’t want a friend. Not then, and not now. I preferred to drift unaccompanied, unencumbered, and I grew intimate with my own independence. Even then, I think I understood the restorative power, the joyous exuberance, of these stretches of time spent solo. I loved the company of my friends, but in town—at the record store, the ice cream shop, crossing through the village green—I absorbed it best alone. For a time, anyway.
Sometimes I try to imagine that preternaturally tall girl with a pixie cut, wearing bright red corduroys as she wanders past the worn brick buildings in an old New England town. If the passage of time has offered me any wisdom, it’s the knowledge that our essence changes so little over a lifetime.
In my twenties and thirties, I traveled—for my work as a television journalist, for weddings, and, when I lived in Europe, for the heck of it. And then I stopped. I gave up my career as a producer and media executive and moved with my husband and two children, who were five and eight at the time, to a rural town in Connecticut. During the next several years, I barely set foot on a plane. Vacations were a prohibitively high-ticket luxury for a newly jobless, floundering woman and her sculptor husband.
It was as if this phase of life erected a tough membrane I could not cross out of and back into, the way I once had with ease. I browsed travel magazines, gazed at arty spreads about Sardinia and the Maldives—the province of illusion, but always in the realm of possibility that the prospect of a journey held. During this time, home was where I belonged, where I needed to be.
Five years of dislocation in the wilderness later, I was in my mid-forties, the land of reckoning and diminishing reason. Middle age was less an ebb and flow than a relentless tide. “Your children are all that matter,” is the bromide foisted on every woman as soon as she gives birth, a vague notion about the primacy of mothering above all else that is deeply embedded into our collective consciousness. There were times I was convinced that these sayings are part of a belief system created to allay the mind-blowing confusion that women experience when they have babies, when our identities are co-opted by a squirming bundle of humanity. My children were everything that mattered. But what was I?
The easiest and most satisfying way I grappled with the crisis—the tsunamic love for my children that coexisted with my abundant sense of failure—was to try to be productive. In the daylight hours, I pecked out a novel from the driver’s seat during the kids’ piano lessons (it never sold). Then I taught French for a bit. Finally, adrift on a sea of shifting hormones, I enrolled in a master’s program in international relations. From the opening words of the first macroeconomics lecture, I was galvanized in a way I had not been in decades. The neurons were snapping again.
It turned out that I was primed for something else. While at graduate school, I met another man, an unmarried fellow student, who swept me away. My seventeen-year marriage to Mark was strong, built and sustained on love and respect. He was an ideal husband and for me, the ideal man: optimistic and wise, gentle, handsome, and brilliantly funny. But midlife was a twisted reality disruptor, and with estrogen and sense leaching from my system, I became wrapped up in the idea of another possible life. But the other man did not want a married woman, or me. In the wake of this episode, I crashed. For a while, I floated into and out of the weathered badlands of depression while my family waited for me to touch back down. With my husband’s mercy and goodness, I did.
We were battered but whole, resolute in our love and commitment to keeping our marriage alive and making it better. But if statistics were on my side, there were many remaining years to be lived, and not simply whiled away. I had to figure out how to renew the sensation of hope graduate school had offered me, in realms beyond that of the heart.
After graduation, I could not find a job in policy or development. I knocked on doors in Washington, D. C., and if they bothered to open, it was only to slam shut in an instant. Under the delusion that I could just jump into a job as chief of staff to the Secretary General of the United Nations or as national security advisor to newly elected President Obama, I had a shattered psyche and a school loan that I needed to pay back. Panic-stricken, dispirited, unemployed and on the cusp of fifty, I sought a plan, and something else.
What I found was a voice.
Oftentimes, I recalled the words my husband used to comfort me during the darkest, most terrifying time of my breakdown: “Everything you need is right here, with us.” He was half right.
Ideas began to pile up for essays and stories. I wrote them and one after another I sent them out to editors. There were many rejections—then fewer, which felt like the beginning of something. Buried in my depths was a reserve of ambition, and I drew from it.
I traveled backwards, mining my memories for past encounters from long-ago voyages, people and places I had not been able or willing to shake, retracing old maps. I discovered that, from my vantage point, years (even decades) later, small memories seemed more substantial and sometimes, transformational in retrospect. As I culled through scribbles from a trove of diaries, I pondered people to whom I had not given much thought, but who still populated my dreams.
So I began to travel again. I found myself in airports on my way somewhere, seeking an awakening and a story, gathering pearls for a necklace. The mission was twofold: to devise an exit strategy from whatever was intractable in my life and then to discover the way back into it. On I went, scouring the Earth for windows with infinite views. Once in a while, the lens would turn right back onto me, leading me to understanding, meaning and ultimately home again.
I leveraged everything I could to invest in my new career. I cashed in my measly 401K. I shipped boots to a consignment store in Minnesota. I sold a watch, maxed out a credit card, and asked my sisters for help. I booked one ticket and then another. I left, I came back, and left again, more and more often on assignment, always in pursuit of a story.
Ten years on, I have traveled much and far. Yet, as I cross through Jordan on foot, or follow a herd of elephants in Botswana, or drive from Wyoming toward Montana toward the setting sun, I think of Mark and my children and I wonder: Would we ever come back here together? Is there enough time? How many trips are left? Will I ever see this again? Now and always, travel imparts a liquid language whose sole property is the flow of questions.
Where will I find a pearl?
Like most adults, I’ve been through the ringer. I’ve faced elation, disappointment, joy, loss and almost everything in between. I have many regrets that some days, don’t burden me. I’ve been with one man, an artist, for thirty years now, and seen what can happen when one is deep inside a long marriage whose strength is tested. I have raised two children, now grown, who partake in this patient yet unstoppable universe. I have journeyed to five continents and found solace and purpose in solitude. Above all, a life of travel has made me an optimist.
Since my first major print story was published in Vogue magazine in my fiftieth year, I have written about 140 more. Although surprisingly few of them were travel essays, it is in these where I find the kernels of truth about love, memory, devotion, aging, even the creative life. In this book, the stories from the road explore the reasons we travel, the ways the past lingers, the allure of escape, and how a life created outside of home can reinforce the love and commitment within it. The essays from home are meditations on (and antidotes to) the sensation that time now passes more swiftly than before. I am fortunate to have both a home to return to and work that allows me to travel. And when I do, I fully and gratefully grasp my exorbitant privilege. A person who can measure life in journeys taken is lucky indeed. But there are enticing mysteries everywhere, even within the four walls of my house. The world is full of them.
It’s possible that such an existence, of comings and goings, of departure lounges and arrival gates, might become increasingly rare, and certainly fraught. The reality is inescapable and truly alarming. Burgeoning refugee crises caused by poverty and climate change are causing mass relocation, exposing the inequality between those who travel by plane because they wish to do so and those who travel on foot because their survival depends on it. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated humanity’s existential worries, and solidified a shared sense of paralysis. In addition, it has shined a light on what we’ve known for a long time: that travel can be risky and problematic, a vector for deadly contagions, and that it often exploits local populations and harms the global ecosystem. From carbon emissions to sunscreen residue on the planet’s coral reefs, our need to “get away” could be seen as selfish, unnecessary, and harmful.
And yet, humankind is designed to wander, to venture beyond one’s own valley into another, to cross oceans and mountain ranges. Whether we seek adventure, connection, beauty, solitude, togetherness, or nothing less than the meaning of life, travel is ultimately about curiosity. Like love, curiosity is an engine that can change fate and move the tides. When we cast ourselves off from customary moorings and expose ourselves to other landscapes and people, we become empathetic, hopeful, worthy citizens. As I said, travel has made me an optimist.
I write this from an airport lounge in Amsterdam, en route to an assignment in Rwanda. The coffee is fresh, and I’m drinking a lot of it—it’s a theme that repeats itself in these pages. I am sixty years old, and overnight flights are not as simple or as comfortable as they once were, back when hauling a carry-on and falling asleep in cramped seats was less painful on my knees and neck. Hand sanitizer dispensers are all over the airport and everyone’s face is obscured by a mask. But I am on the verge of finding out what my story will be, and it is the most exciting state of mind I can imagine. I have the jitters but mostly I’m exuberant. Perhaps, I will encounter someone whom, thirty years from now, I won’t have forgotten.
For now, I will keep going, resolved to travel quietly and lightly, to listen, to observe, to be open to the grace of the universe, to awe and sublimity.
But I will always take the familiar path home.
Chapter 1: Masha
The first time I met Maria Konstantinovna, she was wearing a black leather skirt. It was Italian, brand new, and it was mine.
Masha, as I would come to know her, was a dejournaya in Moscow. Women like her sat on every floor in every hotel in the Soviet Union. They performed a range of duties—they served tea from a samovar that simmered behind their station. They ordered your phone call to America and came to wake you if it ever went through. They even washed lingerie and tee-shirts, leaving the latter folded like fine envelopes, whiter than they ever deserved to be. They also handed out your room key with varying degrees of suspicion, charm, or ennui, and if you wanted to leave it for safekeeping, collected it when you left the floor. But allegedly, the real purpose of these hall monitors was to observe your comings and goings on behalf of the security apparatus of the Kremlin.
It was my second trip to Cold War Moscow.
One year earlier, I had arrived in the city with a new degree in Russian Studies and stayed in an old hotel in the center of town. On nights when my brain was whirling from too much Georgian wine, I crossed the street and walked past the cupolas and scarlet-brick walls of Red Square. Now I was back as a tour guide of sorts, a liaison for a travel company that organized continuing education junkets for groups of doctors or lawyers from the United States. I was a translator, a babysitter, holder of boarding passes, procurer of bottled water, and whipping post if needed when tempers grew hot, which—with wealthy doctors unused to the specific hardships encountered when traveling around the Soviet Empire—they often did. It was part of my job description to be cheerful, but when my busload of jetlagged physicians and I arrived at our hulking mass of a hotel, I despaired.
Our official Intourist guide told us the building had been constructed in 1979 to house athletes and guests for the Olympics the following year. That much was obvious; it was a model Soviet vanity project, from the monstrous scale to the banners out front which erupted with optimism: “Onward!” they proclaimed. Across the street was a giant park devoted to the fruits of socialism, as well as a massive obelisk celebrating the Soviet space program. Inside, it was as sprawling and noisy as a city, and the close air was freighted with cigarette smoke and the grease from several restaurants.
Prior to my trip, a fellow tour guide in New York had informed me that there were fiber-optic cables installed in every room, and that the entire twenty-fifth floor was devoted to surveillance. He claimed to have stumbled upon a wall of reel-to-reel tape recorders there. President Reagan had given the Evil Empire speech only a month earlier, and the country was being run by an ex-KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. Paranoia was everywhere—in bars and on park benches, where locals lurked to change our dollars on the black market. They assumed, as well, that we were listening to them.
As my job paid little and I would depend on tips, I was eager to prove myself. But the first morning I woke up with a foggy head and aching limbs. So with apologies for being sick on day one of my new job, I loaded my fourteen gastroenterologists and their spouses onto the bus with their Russian guide and then repaired upstairs, hungry for my bed. I peeled my clothes off and crawled in naked. The sheets were coarse cotton and delightfully crunchy, and the duvet still held a welcoming hint of my own body warmth.
I woke up to the sight of two men going through my suitcase at the foot of the bed. One man’s arm was buried in a zipper compartment; the other man was turned toward the window, holding my raincoat up to the light.
“What are you doing?” I asked. Russian literature was full of fever dreams, and I believed I was having one. The clarity was dazzling—two guys in blue shirts, the older one with a pale smoker’s complexion and hair all neat like a little boy’s on school picture day. The younger one had gray eyes that betrayed a flicker of menace, as if I were the one intruding.
Startled, the older man dropped the raincoat into the suitcase.
I was shivering and drew the comforter tightly around my bare body, sleeping bag–style.
“Excuse me,” he declared. “We thought you were out.”
They scrambled out the door and soon I fell backwards into sleep.
The next day, while my group toured Lenin’s tomb, I sat on the bus sweating, too ill to move. I had not spoken of my visitors from the previous day. Many of my charges already supposed they were being watched; some were amused and some were downright scared. They whispered to each other, on the bus or during meals, about the presumed KGB operatives hanging about and a few of them enjoyed the Cold War folklore. But they were all doctors and their American guide was sick, so they insisted on taking me back to the hotel.
I dragged myself through the lobby, into the elevator, down the hallway that was laden with the rotten-fruit odor of disinfectant. My feet carried me, more quickly now, to my room, to that delicious, warm bed. The dejournaya was not at her station. I had wordlessly passed her that morning, not stopping to leave my key.
She had glanced up from her book and smiled, which was unusual for a key lady. I had noticed her wide-set green eyes.
And there she was, inside my room, wearing my skirt. She was curvier than I, and the waistband stretched tightly around her middle. The leather pulled across her hips sexily, as if the utterly random act of wearing a stranger’s clothes gave her an air of danger and power. Barefoot, she held the pair of black high heels that I had packed along with the skirt. I’d known I would never wear them on my tour of Moscow and Central Asia, but they were new and expensive, and I had not wanted to leave them in the closet of my grim, shared New York apartment. Her own satin blouse was unbuttoned; the remains of trim frayed around the cups of her bra, which, at least a size too small, pinched her ribcage and crushed her breasts.
“Bozhe moi,” she said under her breath. Oh my God.
“It’s okay, really.” What else could I say to this poor, mortified creature? “I just need to sleep.”
“Just a moment,” she said. One at a time, with two hands, she bent to place my shoes on the floor, toes pointed straight ahead like loaves on a baking sheet.
“Just a moment,” she repeated, unzipping with shaky fingers. For a second, I averted my eyes, so as not to see her Soviet-issue underwear, hoping at least she wore some. She nodded deferentially, her face creased with shame. In what seemed like one move, she stepped into her wool skirt and slipped on her shoes. She shuffled her breasts around, rearranging them to make room in her bra, and fastened her blouse.
I waved her out the door, saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Please!”
I scanned the room, flipped through my suitcase. Only my makeup case looked disturbed, with pencils, brushes and compacts strewn about the dresser. Strangely, despite my exhaustion and the fever that seared my brain, I knew I wasn’t angry. Rather, I pitied her embarrassment at being caught. Whoever this woman was, she was now exposed and compromised, and I wanted her to know that I, at least, didn’t care.
Still fully clothed in jeans and a sweater, I went to bed.
After my nap, I came down the hall. She was sitting at her station and rose to greet me. She seemed taller and more beautiful having regained her composure and must have been twenty-five or twenty-six, a few years older than I.
“Do you want tea?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” I answered. “What’s your name?”
“Maria Konstantinovna,” she replied, using her patronymic rather than her last name. “Masha.”
“I’m Marcia too,” I said. In Russian, they sounded the same. “Is there anything to eat?”
She walked me back to my room, where I stripped down and slid back into bed. Soon, Masha returned with rolls, cheese, and black tea. I drifted in and out of sleep. At times, I could hear the door swish open and closed or feel her swab my face with a damp cloth. Once I sat up to sip some tea and felt her hands bolster my shoulders, brace me as I lowered myself back to the mattress, and finally tuck the covers under my chin.
“I’m not working tomorrow,” she said. I looked at her, puzzled. “I think you will be well enough to leave for Tashkent.”
“Thanks to you, I think I will be,” I said.
I had not mentioned my itinerary to her, but she knew. The next day would be my last in Moscow, as the doctors and I would be flying to Uzbekistan the following morning. The shades were drawn. There was still daylight behind them, but I had no idea what time it was. Loud voices erupted in the corridor, and Masha stood to return to her station.
“I’ll be back in a few weeks. May I bring you something from America?” I asked.
She pressed the starched napkin that rested under the tea glass, and held her finger there while her eyes caught mine. A corner of a folded square of paper stuck out, barely visible, from beneath the napkin. After Masha had left, I plucked out the note and tucked it into my wallet.
Within a month, I returned to Moscow with another group of doctors, this time seventeen thoracic surgeons. At the airport, a customs official had confiscated my copies of Vogue and Newsweek, but I still had the illustrated collection of Pushkin fairy tales Masha had requested. She wanted the book, she said in her note, to read to her young son. At a Russian bookstore in New York, I had easily procured what was impossible to find in the shortage-ravaged Soviet Union. Of course, I brought a few extra things—a leather handbag stuffed with lip gloss, eye shadow, rolls of Lifesavers.
The scene had never left my mind—her open shirt, the tattered lingerie, and her eyes that shifted around mine until that moment of comprehension and convergence: had our fates been reversed, I would have discovered the Italian skirt from the depths of her luggage. And I would have shimmied it on as she had done to see myself reflected, just once, in something beautiful.
Right after checking in, I hopped the elevator to my old floor and found the on-duty dejournaya.
“Is Maria Konstantinovna working today?” I asked.
“She left,” the woman answered.
“For the day, or for good?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, and turned to rearrange the keys, inviting no further questions.
Over the next six months, I was back at the hotel several times with the book in my bag, but I never saw Masha again. In the winter of 1986, I returned to Moscow, this time with an American television network. Change was afoot, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and glasnost was the order of the day. I was a lowly minion on the nightly newscast I worked for but in those days, I still had a car and driver. Sitting in the back seat of a Volga sedan, I watched the snow fall gently, unstoppably. My old hotel seemed closer to town than I remembered.
She wasn’t there.
Rounding the circular drive to leave, I recalled a brief embrace Masha and I had shared at the end of the one day we knew each other. I had recognized her perfume—Amazone—because it had come from my own bottle.
Over the years, I returned many times to Moscow. I went with Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, and 60 Minutes. Each time, I packed that book of fairy tales. Each time I journeyed out beyond the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, past the All-Russia Exhibition Center, to the ever-forbidding hotel. Always a fool’s errand, to be sure. And each time I got off the elevator, I swallowed harder as I confronted the empty space she once occupied. After an eighteen-year absence, I recently went back to Russia. As I packed, I slipped the slim, orange book into my suitcase. I was, frankly, surprised when I found it on the bookshelf—after six moves, a couple of renovations, and decades of neglect. The stories were in Russian, so I never read them to my own kids. Yet there it was, shelved patiently, a talisman of guilt, gratitude, and unfinished business.
Even though Moscow had changed beyond recognition, I hadn’t. Nor had the feeling of dread and sensory overload I experienced when I got to the hotel where Masha had worked the day shift twenty-seven years ago. The lobby was still garish, but now it was loud with Italian cafés and gift shops selling nesting dolls and amber jewelry. A large man with a “Security” emblem on his suit lapel would not allow me to pass beyond his checkpoint to the elevators, so I went to the front desk.
“Would it be possible to go to the fifth floor?” I asked the receptionist. “I’m researching a book.”
“You are writing something on the hotel?” she asked.
“Not really….” I hesitated. “Well, yes.”
“What is the nature of your project?” she asked.
“Actually,” I said, “years ago, I met someone here.”
Her face softened. “I understand,” she said, and turned. “Just a minute.”
Within seconds, an official-looking woman approached me at the desk.
“Please leave your passport,” she said, “and we’ll go upstairs.” I handed it to the receptionist and was ushered past the guard.
“Do you still have dejournayas?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. It is not the same as it was. Mostly, they just take care of the floor.”
“Can we please stop on five?” I ventured. She pressed the elevator button.
“Twenty-five is the only floor non-guests may see,” she stated. The doors opened.
There was no sign of tape recorders, only a fancy carpet runner and an eerie stillness that bore the echo of empty rooms. There was no dejournaya, either, and certainly no Masha. As we strolled back down the corridor, I murmured niceties about the lovely, modern décor.
Back in the elevator, I took out the Pushkin volume and turned to the “Tale of the Tsar Sultan,” the great writer’s most famous children’s story about the prince who saves the life of a swan, who in turn becomes a beautiful princess. The illustrations were simple but unremarkable, and I skimmed through the pages, stopping at a drawing of a bird flying across a starry violet sky. I closed the book and put it in my bag. It seemed that Masha had at last given it to me.
For all I knew, she emigrated, and I had passed her on a New York City sidewalk. Maybe she got sick or simply quit her job and was somewhere in Moscow now, her son grown. Perhaps she did vanish one night in that hazy time right before her country’s dissolution. I would never find out. Masha was in my life so briefly it shouldn’t have mattered. But to this day, I have not known comfort like the sound of her footsteps padding in and out of my hotel room as I sweltered with fever. I was twenty-two, in a strange land, nursed by the hands of a woman who, but for her clothes, might have been me.