Why Travelers Should Seek Out Discomfort

Travel might be considered an elemental human activity; after all, we’ve been doing it as long as we’ve existed as a species. We’ve traveled for food and riches; out of curiosity and necessity; to conquer and to convert.

In modern times, nonbusiness-related travel is largely associated with pleasure (not always, of course, but that’s the hope). But I’d like to propose that one of the main goals of travel should also be discomfort. Not the discomfort that comes from a narrow airplane seat or a delayed flight but the sort that comes from finding yourself someplace unfamiliar, where you know no one and life feels unpredictable. You don’t have to go to an extreme environment to feel unsettled — you can feel that same frisson in a big city where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language — but there’s nothing quite as thrilling as putting yourself in a hostile landscape, where you’re made inescapably aware of your physical and physiological limits. I remember clearly how, when I visited the north of Nepal, I realized I had to breathe differently. The air was sharp and noticeably thinner, and I found myself taking short, shallow breaths. It affected everything: how much I spoke, how far I could walk, how much sleep I had to have. That trip was a reminder that, as much as we impose ourselves upon an environment, the reverse is also true — and how humbling it is to get to realize that; how awe-struck we feel when we do. Disequilibrium is a gift for those of us lucky enough to seek it out, one we don’t know we need until it’s given to us.

On the Covers

A cluster of cats on Aoshima, where cats greatly outnumber humans.Credit…Kyoko Hamada
Ceramic cats at Gotokuji, a Tokyo temple dedicated to the maneki neko, or “welcoming cat.”Credit…Kyoko Hamada

Two of the writers in this issue experienced such privileged discomfort firsthand on their journeys: Taymour Soomro, on his travels around Svalbard, the darkest place on earth, an archipelago between the North Pole and mainland Norway, and Maggie Shipstead, on her drive through Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet, save for Antarctica. To be in such locations means becoming conscious of one’s physical self — the hot air in the Atacama’s interior “so dusty I could taste it,” as Shipstead writes — but also how overactive the imagination becomes, inventing comforts and monsters by turn. Soomro, caught in a snowstorm beneath a dense, lightless sky, recalls a phrase, “the Arctic calls,” that Svalbard hunters once used when one of their number would mysteriously throw himself into the ocean.

Credit…Artwork by Andrew Kuo

In an age when so much is available so easily, when many of us can turn a faucet and be rewarded with water whenever we want it; when we can order food, entertainment, transportation with a swipe; when our most vivid fears can sometimes feel more existential than real, how moving — moving and disarming — is it to have our fundamental assumptions challenged? That, too, is what travel does: It reminds us how fragile, how wondrous, it is to be human.


T’s Travel Issue

Three writers go to extremes with journeys to the driest, darkest and cattiest places on earth.

Hello, Kitties: In Japan, cats are revered, adored and sometimes seen as actual demons. What’s at the root of their mythic power?

Darkness Visible: After the sun vanishes in Svalbard, Norway, one starts to see strange things in the polar night.

Dust to Dust: What a road trip through Chile’s Atacama Desert — one of the world’s driest places — reveals about life and death.

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