Photograph by Eightfish, Getty Images
If time, that rare resource, becomes plentiful, travel just might be the way to go.
I travel to live, live to travel, and support the habit by juggling real estate. Which is to say, I'm a constant subletter. I defray the cost of my wanderlust by renting my tiny apartments in New York and Hong Kong for short periods while I go on the road. By now, I'm an old hand at showing my living spaces to strangers, and on a recent Saturday morning, the software engineer from San Francisco was getting the A-1 guided tour of my Hong Kong flat. "Here is the bedroom," I said, following my well-worn script. "When you read in bed you can look out the window and see the International Financial Center, Hong Kong's tallest building. Through the dining nook there's a fabulous open view of the Central Police Station, built by the British in 1864 and one of the last standing historical buildings in downtown." Eric the engineer nodded absently. He seemed lost in thought. Worried that I was blabbing too much, I breezily changed the subject.
"So, then, what brings you to Hong Kong for a whole month? Are you on a work assignment?"
"No," he said, managing a chuckle. "I'm on a work nonassignment. My company isn't doing too well, and they've asked me and everyone else in the Shanghai office to take a month's unpaid leave. I hope it is just going to be for a month."
We fell silent as the specter of job loss loomed over our conversation like a shadow, as it does too often these days. But then my prospective tenant recovered, and continued, upbeat.
"You see, I've always wanted to get to know Hong Kong. My parents are originally from Toisan, in Guangdong Province, just across the border from here in China. I've never had an unexpected break of time like this before, so I thought I would take advantage of it to really settle into this city and get to know it. This is the kind of travel I always wanted to do."
It took his words a moment to really sink in, and when they did, they cut straight to my heart. Here was a guy uncertain about his future, about to take an enforced leave. Was he going to spend a month at home, polishing his résumé, pinching his pennies, and fretting? No. He'd decided to forget about what he was losing and grab the gift he'd been given: time. And use that gift in the best way possible: travel.
The Chinese newspapers call the economic crisis the financial "tsunami," a word that translates poetically, as so many Chinese words do, as "ocean scream." My own personal oceans have screamed often and loudly during my peripatetic life. But when the hardest waves hit, my response has always been the same: hit back, and hit the road.
Two weeks after getting laid off from my first serious job, I ended up swinging in a $3-a-night hammock in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. I learned a lot, including how to speak better Spanish and the difference between good and bad tequila. I also snorkeled for the first time in my life and found a boyfriend.
Some years later, during another economic tsunami, I spent months and months unsuccessfully looking for a job. When the fifth or six interview ended, yet again with the same bad news, I finally lost it. I emptied my bank account, flew to India, and stayed there more than two months.
Even while I was planning these trips, I knew that my behavior looked foolish, irrational even. Friends more sober and practical than I counseled me to stay home, hang on, and keep plugging. But I didn't. I flew out of my trap like a bird, spent eight hours riding from Pondicherry to Kanchipuram in a bumpy Ambassador taxi with marigold garlands bobbing on the rearview mirror. I ate street food, slept on sheets with holes. When strangers invited me home to dinner, I said yes.
What happened, after a while, was that the logic of traveling took over my life and became a habit. Taking a series of little risks over and over every day meant that, in time, risk-taking became no big deal. Making a hundred small decisions—what to eat, where to stay, how to get from here to there—made decisions in general seem less terrifying. And when I finally returned to a home and a world that looked much smaller and less daunting than when I'd left them, finding a job seemed more like a game than an ordeal. I found a good one in exactly two weeks.
I have a theory about travel that's sort of an economist's argument. In order to travel, we need time and we need money. Ideally, there's a balance between the two, but when one element is in short supply, an excess of the other will compensate.
In the past decade or so, the travel equation's been out of whack. Too many trips have been about squeezing as much as we can into the few precious vacation days we have and paying a premium for the experience. Many of us, for pragmatic reasons, gave up trains in favor of time-saving (and more expensive) flights, passed up opportunities to meander off the map in favor of pampering at "destination" hotels.
Now the seesaw is tipped in the other direction. Our budgets are smaller, but time is our friend. And so we improvise and learn how to travel in a world turned upside down. A stranger sleeps in my Hong Kong bed while I ride the slow overnight ferry from Penang to Sumatra and to—well, who knows?
It isn't an easy time to be a traveler, but it is a great one.
Real Travel columnist Daisann McLane is now writing dispatches from the road and more on her new travel blog, www.TheRealTravelBlog.com.