015 / The Distance to the Horizon
July 25, 2021

I initially planned to write a post about Haarlem, the city that I currently live in. But I find myself in Madeira, a small rocky and mountainous island about 850km west of Morocco. It’s the first time that I’ve taken a trip in nearly two years, and I thought it better to write about what that means.

The decision to come here was made when the end of the Dutch lockdown was announced, sometime around the end of May. We considered the risks before we clicked the process payment button on the Transavia website, and the general sentiment at the moment was that things were swiftly headed back to normal.

It seems air travel when masked is relatively safe. I am fully vaccinated, and Nina has her first shot. We are staying in an airbnb by ourselves, and our closest contact to people so far is when we ride the bus. Air flows freely through the open bus windows. If we don’t ride during rush hour, the bus isn’t too crowded. I do worry about the contagiousness of the Delta variant, but all in all I feel as safe, if not safer, on this island than I do in the grocery store or metro in the Netherlands. At least in Portugal masks are still mandatory on the street as well as indoors. We are asked to disinfect our hands often upon entering any store, and we were both required to have negative tests before exiting the airport. Many of these measures were never observed in the Netherlands even during the height of the pandemic.

Our airbnb is nested amongst the rows of homes that sit stacked upon each other, perched on the side of the mountains and hills of this green and sunny island in the Atlantic. Some days we head into the city in the morning on foot, walking down the 45 degree plus windy hills, narrowly avoiding cars and vans that careen around blind corners. Our first destination is the farmers market, where we have a bica and a pastel de nata. I am shocked by the price. It’s clear we are no longer in Amsterdam. Two coffees and two pastries and the bill is only 3 euro.

The airport in Madeira is named after Cristiano Renaldo. The runway is built out over the choppy waves of the ocean and next to the mountainside, and it is considered one of the most peculiar and dangerous in the world. We experienced no such aviation related excitement however. I looked out over the ocean as we smoothly descended on the tarmac. I have not been on a plane in over two years, and it is indeed invigorating to again set foot in a city I do not know.

Prior to the pandemic, I had already made a choice to travel less often. I wanted to focus on what I needed to learn about what was going on inside my own mind and heart. This required some amount of staying put and following a routine, which for me was work, training, meditation and going to see my psychoanalyst.

We all experienced the same surprise when Corona arrived and changed the way that we do just about everything. This only cemented my plans to stay put. I felt a certain level of preparedness from the time I spent on my own in the months before the pandemic began. I was used to not going out, not going too far from Amsterdam, and to spending a lot of time by myself. I’m lucky to have met someone just at the start of the lockdown that I spent those months with and who saved me from complete isolation and who also has the same curiosity and interest in different cultures, food and cities. It is only right that the first journey that I am taking is with her, and it is a clear sign of growth for me. This trip is a way to share an experience directly with another person, and not just another city name on a map checked off.

I spent much of my late 20s and early to mid 30s in transit, crossing borders and travelling constantly. I identified with this person that went to different cities and was able to work from anywhere, and believed that he had a mental map of Berlin that was nearly as solid as the one I had of Philadelphia. I often ran too quickly through places and cities and streets. I did not go slowly enough, with a relaxed and attentive attitude. But I am much more settled now. I do not need to be moving towards something to feel that I am myself. To create the illusion that I am exploring new things. This approach is what I want to take with me on this and any future trips.

The Corona situation has again drastically changed in the weeks since we booked our ticket weeks, and it may have been too soon to take a trip like this. The Netherlands is again a red zone, as well as mainland Portugal. We’re hoping that the relative remoteness of Madeira as well as our vaccination status will give us an extra level of safety. But this new normal begs the question – what role will travel play for me from now on? Corona will of course dictate a lot of how this plays out. But assuming that we truly get the situation under control and that the spread of variants is neutralized, there are a few things that I can say for sure. For one, I don’t see myself taking many big trips to places that I cannot get to via train. I don’t miss the stress of airports, and I like feeling the transition from city to city, and seeing the landscape change as I move over the rails from place to place. There are a lot of places in Europe that I haven’t been to yet, and I’d like to visit them with Nina. I’ll have a slower and more intentional attitude.

I want to minimize air travel (this current trip neglects this aim–don’t choose to visit an island unless you have the time to invest in ship based transit!) and when I do fly I want to make the most of it. Long trips will be planned around staying at the destination for at least two weeks, but preferably for four. I do not want the pressure of having to cram it all in in just a couple days. I want to get to a point where any given day feels just like a normal day, where I can actually start to peel away the layers of wherever I am slowly, in order to discover what it might be like to actually live there. Of course I know this is impossible, to know the place like a native, but I think this more focused method to travel can put one in touch with the soul of any locale because you are able to experience it as it comes, instead of rushing towards it, asking the city impolitely to reveal all of its secrets to you at once.

The privilege to be able to travel at all must also be recognized and cherished. I think about my Father. A big vacation for him was going to Cape May for the weekend, or if we really went big it was to the Poconos for a week. He has not been on an airplane since he was in the Navy. My Mom never left the East Coast and was never even in an airplane. The fact that I live in the Netherlands, which has a world class airport that has direct flights fto almost any destination Europe or the world, and the fact that I earn money in a field which allows me to work from anywhere that I can manage to get on the internet puts me in a more select peer group than I care to imagine. This is a way of living that is hard for my Father to understand, and would have been unfathomable for my grandparents and great grandparents.

Yesterday we took the teleférico to the top of the mountain. We sat in the glass gondola, designed and built by an Austrian firm. Our gondola was pulled up the mountain side by a silent and sinewy steel cable. I looked ahead and I saw old buildings whose roofs had caved in, vines and bushes slowly growing over the remaining decapitated cinder block walls, dissolving them back down into the earth. I could see dogs sleeping next to empty swimming pools, and cats climbing up the sides of earthen walls. They slipped under the shade of porches covered with corrugated steel. If I turned around to look behind me, I saw the Atlantic Ocean. How far away was the horizon? Of course, the higher you are from sea level, the further away the visible horizon effectively is. If you’re of average height and standing at sea level, the horizon is about 3 miles away. Some very quick math and a rough estimation tell me that when we arrived at the Madeira Botanical gardens at the end of our cable car ride, the horizon was some 50 miles away or so.

Travel for me has always been a way to “expand my horizons.” The term is cliched, but it is accurate. If I did not follow the unexplained urge to leave my neighborhood as a teenager to go into the center city of Philadelphia to skateboard, if I did not attend Fabrica in Italy when I was just out of art school, if I did not travel across Russia by train or move my life to the Netherlands for graduate school well into my 30s, I would not be the same person as I am today. My education would be incomplete and there would be a persistent longing inside of my chest for new cities, languages and cultures.

Yesterday the husband of our host, a big man in his late 50s with cropped white hair and prosthetic leg, brought us more than a dozen fresh eggs that they had just collected from their chickens. It’s authentic small gestures like this that make all the difference between staying in the home of a stranger, or just getting a room in a hotel. How I travel in the future may change – it won’t be as often, it won’t be alone and it won’t be as aimless. But what will remain is the desire to educate myself and to make connections like this. If I take my time, if I really see people, and not only see them but try to understand the rhythm they bring to the city itself, I will find a deeper and more purposeful experience. 

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