On travel

I was twenty-seven before I boarded an airplane. As a boy, our family holidays in Wales and Cornwall meant that my GCSE French could only be unleashed on the occasional orchestra tour: memories of sweltering coach trips on which someone always forgot their viola.

But this year – and I suppose this is my 2011 retrospective – I’ve visited five continents and spent a quarter of the year overseas. I’ve visited places I always dreamed of and perfected my security choreography: belt, laptop, liquids in under ten seconds.

The disorientation of travel is humbling. I have to learn the customs, the new machines, and the subway maps. I queue in the wrong places, and walk down the wrong roads. I learn to say sorry in a dozen languages. It’s a valuable lesson that mental models are created the hard way.

It’s also fascinating to see how other cultures interact with each other and with technology. Johannesburg’s barbed wire and Tokyo’s vending machines left a particular impression. Travel reminds me that not everyone has a MacBook and fast WiFi. This year I saw some amazing applications of mobile technology: people making do with the tools they have, routing around infrastructure problems rather than blaming them.

Travel also gives me space to think. For all their bustle, airports and hotels are also places of disconnection. However much I try, I can’t work or sleep on planes, so I take the opportunity to read, or squint at forgettable films. And although a hotel bar and a late night can be fun, I’m often at my most productive after I’ve exhausted the local TV channels and set about something that’s been on my list for weeks.

But perhaps the happiest aspect of travel is that it helps us appreciate what we have. The delicious Heathrow relief of finally being able to express myself with a full vocabulary. The coolness of my pillow on my jetlagged, unshaved face. The more I travel, the more I love this petty, depressed country.

I’d hate to become weary of travel, or so privileged that I see it as a burden. Nor do I want to become one of those terrible bores who travels a lot and wants you to know it. So next year I want to travel less but better. I want to learn the character of the places I visit, not just collect the sights and the hurried snapshots.