Interview by Anna Varela
Randy Malamud, a Regents’ Professor of English, looks for excuses to travel, whether it’s to attend a conference, conduct research at a museum, attend a film festival, or simply go on vacation with his family.
A debilitating fear of flying kept him grounded for 20 years but he has been making up for lost time, racking up visits to more than 40 countries and quickly approaching Million Miler status with Delta Air Lines.
Malamud, in his 30th year at Georgia State, views his travels as fodder for his scholarship and teaching. He recently published the book “The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist” and discussed his perspective on being a thoughtful traveler.
Let’s start with your subtitle. What do you mean by “Globalist Humanist Tourist?”
Well, “globalist” means the whole world and “tourist” means going to see it, going places. And “Humanist” is what I do as an English professor. It is considering art and culture and literature in the broadest sense. It’s engaging with people and the things that people do and make and getting to know these people around the globe intimately. What I mean by that is the intimacy that I have always cultivated by reading and research to find out who these people are and what their lives are like and what their culture is like and what their values are like.
When I’m on the way there, while I’m there and when I get back, I read about them, and I put them into my worldview, and I become more global. I think global is good.
In an era of growing isolationism and nationalism, how do you make the case that this approach to life is important?
The more we do, the more we see, the more we go, the smarter we become. The smarter we become, the richer intellectually, experientially, ethically we become.
There are many ways to go to a place. There’s actually going to a place and that’s great, but it costs a lot of money and you can’t do it all the time. But you can go there by reading too. You can have people from there come here. All of these ways should be encouraged.
It’s a cliché but it’s a true cliché — it’s a mind-expanding experience.
Do you have any personal rules about travel, things you won’t do or places you won’t go?
I like to tell myself I don’t have any rules. In my normal life, I am a meek and mild English professor. But part of what I resolve to do when I travel, and part of the fun of traveling, is that you can become a different person. I will eat just about anything and I will try just about anything and I will do physical things that I probably in retrospect shouldn’t have done (like dog-sledding near the Arctic Circle). And if you make any mistakes, no one is going to see, as long as you don’t put it on Instagram.
Obviously, there’s a line of basic safety. And there have been one or two times when I’ve probably been a little bit over that line.
So what’s the most dangerous situation you’ve put yourself in?
I spent a couple weeks in Iraq in 2012 as part of a faculty exchange. I don’t think I’d go to a war zone again. People tried to talk me out of it. Nothing bad happened to me, but I wasn’t completely aware how freaked out my family and my colleagues were at the time.
I had a profound amount of security around me that cost a lot of money. I also think it may be more trouble than it’s worth for the people hosting you to have to work so hard to ensure your safety when they have problems of their own.
You mentioned Instagram. Is social media pushing people to look at things more superficially when they travel?
There are aspects of travel photography that are reductive and clichés and intrusive of the people who live there. I think there are all kinds of bad things you can do with your camera, like trying to make your friends jealous. But there are also many good things you can do with a camera.
This is one more aspect of travel where I can be mindful about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and what my goals are. I am always wary of being invasive, but that said, I take a whole lot of pictures. After a one-week trip, I try to come back with fewer than 2,000 photos. I look at my pictures a lot when I come back from a trip. It makes me happy if I’m feeling down or overwhelmed or stuck. Remembering is a very important part of traveling. These photos are also useful as a research resource.
What do you think of the lists that come out like Places You Should Go in 2019 or Places You Should Go Before They’re Ruined?
I look at all those lists. Of course I always tally up ‘How many of these have I been to?’ When they’re done well, they’re good inspiration for traveling.
There are now so many people in the world with the money to travel. From cities like Venice and Barcelona where residents are complaining about too many tourists, to ecologically fragile places like the Galapagos Islands, are we destroying the planet with our love of travel?
I think over-touristing is a real problem. I think there are ways of handling it, ways of planning so you can direct people to other places they would also like or you can exert some sort of control or regulation. People in the hospitality industry are doing some sensible work and some good work to address the problem.
You write in your book that the best part of any trip is coming home. Then why do so many of us feel sad when we realize that the vacation is almost over?
I have a lot of mixed feelings when I come home. I’m happy to step back into my wonderful life and my routines.
But there’s a whole jumble of coming home emotions, and a whole jumble of going emotions too. There’s always a moment shortly before going on a trip when I wish I wasn’t going on a trip, when I think, it would just be easier not to go. That hits me a week before, or a day before, or on the way to the airport or when I’ve got too many suitcases. And it vanishes, pretty much always, when the airplane turns, wheels up. It is a literal, physical ascension and it is spiritually transcendent.
Some of what you’ve said about travel sounds like you’re describing a high.
It’s an altered state of consciousness. I am cognitively and psychologically and emotionally and physiologically different when I’m at these places. I’ll walk 10 or 12 miles a day. I can walk 10 miles in Amsterdam and I don’t do that here. I don’t think I could here. I’m a nicer person. I’m a more open person, a more adventurous person.
If you’re in another place where they speak another language and you don’t know that language, it’s scary, and it’s also stimulating. It’s such a profoundly important experience for reminding you of things you take for granted and of how people in different places speak differently than you and think differently than you.
You’ve been open about your past fear of flying. Do you think overcoming that has made travel more special for you?
Yes. But there is still a tinge of anxiety. I still have the Xanax in my bag if I need it. Usually I don’t. But yes, it was something I couldn’t do for a very long time, close to 20 years. I would make myself go to family events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, but I would have panic attacks and they would be debilitating.
I’ve gone through cognitive behavioral therapy and I’ve developed routines to supplant bad habits with annoying but good ones. I always get to the airport 3 or 4 hours before my flight. I always do some mindfulness breathing exercises in the lounge and I watch planes take off and I always spend a lot of time before I go to the airport looking at the turbulence forecast. It’s OK if there’s turbulence, I just need to know where it is. My therapist gave me a mantra, “Turbulence makes me uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous.” I just channel a lot of energy into these activities.
What about other modes of travel?
I like trains a lot. I don’t like driving at all. Traffic, too much to worry about. It’s of course a trade-off. There are places you can’t get to. But I like to take pictures out the train window.
They have been talking about building a bridge to connect the far eastern part of Russia, it’s about a 50-mile span, to build a bridge to Alaska. If they could do that, you could take a train from London to Washington, DC. I’d love to do that. It would take about 4 ½ weeks.
And I’d love to do the $250,000 ride above the atmosphere. But that’s not going to happen unless there’s some sort of divine intervention to provide the funding.