Fernweh: (n.) an ache for distant places; the craving for travel
On Christmas Eve in 2008, I watched the sunset at Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Nepal, while hundreds of red-cloaked Buddhist monks chanted evening prayers and others circumambulated the stupa in silent meditation. In a café overlooking the scene, my partner and I sipped hot coffee and chatted with a group of monks-in-training, five British guys and one woman, who had come down to the city from a monastery in the Himalayas to indulge in earthly pleasures: beer, rum, coffee, and cigarettes.
As darkness fell, the stupa was lit up with strings of colored lights. It was a pluralistic moment that moved my partner and me, in spite of our devout agnosticism, and we resolved to spend every Christmas thereafter in a place we’d never been. (After all, we’d spent the previous Christmas Eve at the Poush Mela in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India.)
Despite our enjoying the following Christmas Eve watching an American guitar player cover Swedish pop songs in an Irish pub in Bangkok — I joined in at one point and (badly) played tambourine to round out “Dancing Queen” — my partner and I were unable to see our travelphilic holiday commitment through. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer the following year, and the thrill of spending Christmas Eve of 2010 in the boondocks where I grew up in Georgia was that my mom had lived to experience it — though not 2011.
We fell on hard financial times for the last two Christmases, but satisfied ourselves by exploring places we’d never been in our adoptive home of New York City. Now, however, we’ve set our sites on a 2013 Christmas Eve in a city like Istanbul, Reykjavík, or Buenos Aires. Inshallah, we will see this through.
Until then, I am sating a debilitating case of fernweh by reading about other people’s journeys. In today’s piece, The Crossing, Frank Bures writes about traveling to a corner of the world few tourists have ever seen. In the tiny African nation of Djibouti, Bures overcomes his own fernweh in search of a fascinating place called Bab al-Mandeb. His story reminded me that sometimes the cure for what ails us can be found somewhere we carry with us: our own imaginations.
Mandy Van Deven is In The Fray’s managing editor and the coauthor of Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. Twitter: @mandyvandeven