Headaches and headiness of travel

April 11, 1993|By Zofia Smardz


234 pages. $21. Let's be frank: Not everyone loves to travel. Some people are actively unsettled by the notion of leaving the familiar comforts of home to put up with the hazards of voyaging and the peculiarities of parts unknown.

Oddly, these are often the very people who seem to travel the most, out of necessity, perversity or a combination of the two. Or perhaps it's simply that those who travel most romanticize it least, knowing as they do about the anxiety, exhaustion and sense of dislocation that are a traveler's constant companions.

Diane Johnson would have us believe she is one of these reluctant voyagers, ever winging off to exotic destinations even though she hates to fly and is "not fond of travel in the best of circumstances -- inconvenient displacements punctuated by painful longings to be home."

Ah, but she knows of travel nonetheless. She knows its discomforts and delights; she knows about traveler's panic and ennui; and she knows the unexpected transport of being in a foreign, fascinating place, the headiness that overtakes the traveler all at once in an Eastern market or on the African plain, like a sudden injection of opium.

"Natural Opium" is the fitting title of her book of essays describing the ebb and flow of these conflicting traveler's sensations as she journeys around the world, from China to Africa to London to Bangkok. On most of these trips, Ms. Johnson is accompanying her husband, a doctor studying infectious diseases worldwide. She is free to observe and record without the pressure of external obligations, and her writings have a lovely ruminative, reminiscing quality that lend depth and elegance.

Ms. Johnson is extraordinarily adept at re-creating the atmosphere of a journey, describing how the buildup of impressions, even initially negative ones, can lead to that ultimate narcotic release. In "The Great Barrier Reef," she spends the better part of 20-odd pages complaining about the discomforts of the Australian cruise ship and the bourgeois elderly passengers it carries, only to find herself, at sight of the natural phenomenon of the title, realizing that the trip has been a pleasure and her uncomplaining fellow travelers exceptionally nice people.

Conversely, she deftly shows how a perfectly ordinary trip slips into unanticipated horror. In "Cuckoo Clock," an uneventful visit to familiar Switzerland suddenly takes a bizarre and malignant turn when the guests at a late-night dinner are invited to toboggan home down the mountainside through the pitch-black night.

Some of these pieces aren't really travel pieces except in the strict sense that they involve travel. "The Heart of Pakistan," about her husband's summons to London to consult on the case of a mysterious and wealthy heart transplant patient, is a quiet moral essay that packs a wallop.

"Fellow Travelers," while it does describe a trip -- an airplane flight from Paris to Hong Kong that detours through Leningrad -- is as much about the state of modern families and the reality of contemporary American society as it is about traveling.

Ms. Johnson has many insights into foreign societies and how they reflect on our own, and her delicate, streamlined prose is agreeable to read.

She may say she hates to do it, but let's hope she doesn't stop traveling any time soon.

Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Washington.

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