I’ve always loved writing about adventures abroad. I spent my 20’s and early 30’s with a suitcase constantly packed, and brought home more words about the places I went to than photos or souvenirs. But what’s a travel writer to do when she’s grounded? When she has a family and can’t fly so far?
I’ve been wrestling with this issue because my current work in progress is partially set in another country. Wondering if my journals and photos were enough to jog my memories and provide the details to bring scenes to life, I thought about returning. It might be good to check some facts. Update my information. Smell the diesel fumes again, eat the local food. Record the sights and sounds anew. Then I remembered I had a three-year-old. And not the most adaptable sort of three-year-old either. The kind who loves to curl up on the couch with his beloved Pixar movies, and who won’t eat unless his particular brands of mac n cheese and sliced cheese squares and cheesey chicken nuggets are available. (Hmm . . . is Wisconsin in our future?) Well, in other words, I have a very typical three-year-old. I hear mythic, romantic tales of people who travel the world with their toddlers, strapping cheerful babes to their backs and setting off for a lengthy hike, or zipping around Europe with them babbling contentedly in a bicycle trailer. Right. Not happening here.
And leaving my family to jet off on a research trip? At this stage, it’s unimaginable. I’ve never left my son for more than one night, and the one time I had to board a plane without him — for a one-day business trip to Washington, D.C. — I was consumed with visions of a plane crash leaving him motherless.
Yes, I’m grounded for the time being. It’s a temporary state; I know I’ll travel again, both solo and with my family. Just not in the next six months. This has left me with decisions to make about how to update my information about the setting of my work-in-progress.
Fortunately, so much is available online now. Travelers post photos and videos daily. Travelers write blogs. Local news stations broadcast online around the world. Webcams show the weather as it’s actually happening. And guidebooks, both hard copies and online, can provide a lot of the basic information I need to stay current.
What I was craving, I realized, was a sense of the mood of this region these days, since the political and economic climate has altered. I also wanted to get a sense of the pulse of life for young people there now. Where they hang out, where they avoid. Where they meet locals, where they meet expats. How their perceptions of the country have been challenged or changed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I dragged my family there for a week, I wouldn’t necessarily get that information. Not sealed up in an air-conditioned Marriott drinking our bottled water. I had a sense of youth culture and the pulse and pace of life by actually living and working in that country, years ago. If I went there now, it would be a different trip altogether.
It occurred to me that an avatar would be useful. Some ability to send a version of myself to walk those streets and absorb the culture there today, without leaving home. But wait — couldn’t technology make that possible? I got to work.
I designed a three-page questionnaire for people under 30, living and working in that country. I got in touch with schools I had worked with in the past and organizations that cater to young expats. I offered Amazon gift certificates in exchange for thoughtful answers to my questions about life there today. I got a fair number of respondents, and the surveys are flying back to me now, with useful and insightful information — exactly the kind of word-on-the-street stuff I wanted to absorb. Collectively, the responses are giving me a picture of the place right now; they also jog more memories of my own experiences there. Everyone so far has offered to be available to answer further questions. At some point in the story I’m writing I’ll need to figure out a certain type of travel route, and I hope one of my avatars, or ground troops there, will be willing to test it out for me.
I’d love to hear from others who set their works in distant places: how do you jog your memories or take virtual trips? How important do you feel it is to actually visit the places you write about?