80 Days: Once a Ghost, Always a Ghost

electric farabi 80 days

“For two weeks in July I will be on vacation, so there will be no class,” I tell my students. They smile and nod with understanding, most of them either recently returned from their own summer vacations or about to embark on their own. “Where are you going?” They always ask.

“Oh, to visit some family,” is my usual answer, but more often than not I am spending that time at home relaxing or catching up with friends. I don’t really want to go somewhere. I just don’t want to work. I should be going somewhere, it is what is expected of me. If I am just staying at home why aren’t I working? If you are on vacation, why aren’t you going somewhere? Do you think you can truly relax at home? I feel guilty for not travelling but the truth is I haven’t had the travel bug for quite some time.

Paul Theroux opens The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star with the line “You think of travellers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time.” He goes on about the vanity of travellers and the superficiality of travel writing but the first sentence always stuck with me.  More so now than ever, travel is about waiting. Wait in this line, go through this detector, wait at this gate, sit in this chair until we arrive. We plug in and listen to music, watch movies, or play games.

A few times a year I will travel to Berlin to visit family and I always take the train. I often get asked why I don’t fly, drive, or use a ridesharing service such a Blablacar. I can’t ever give an answer that is satisfactory for whoever is asking, the simple truth is I love train travel. It is the only method of getting from point A to point B which feels like a journey. Everything else feels rushed, like a hassle, and deeply unsatisfying. Much like travel.

Being a traveller is strange. Theroux describes it thus:

“Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen.”

It is fleeting, transitional, you pass by places where you will never belong, meeting people you will never meet again. It is like taking the experience of life and condensing it into a week, a weekend, or even one night. You arrive and it is like you were born – entering the world where you get off the train – and when you leave it’s as if you died for those staying behind. Travel can also be insensitive. The hyper focus on what is really native, the constant search for a genuine experience that never quite existed. The cultural tourism which tries to showcase something that I am no longer convinced has ever existed.

Worse yet is the distant relative or friend of friend who went to Mexico and comes back “fluent” in Spanish because they can say “buenas dias” and “una cerveza por favor”.  This is usually followed by how fresh and amazing Mexico, or wherever they went, was.

As someone who has travelled a lot, I have learned that it doesn’t matter where you. The more you travel the more similar the world seems, the more connected it feels. Once in a while I will see people returning from vacation talking about how different and strange and “interesting” so-and-such place was and I feel that this is a disservice, both to the experience and to the place.

But I supposed this is why I like 80 Days so much.

As Passpartout, cities fly by lazily as I journey, truly journey, around the globe. The game knows that travelling is about the journey and not the destination. And the way the game presents its choices – by clicking on descriptions or points of interest in the text – means sometimes I don’t know what will happen next. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s exciting, and sometimes it is so surprising I can’t help but smile.

My favorite part is the end of 80 Days. Not because I reached my destination, but because of what happens between Phileas and Passpartout. Whether you make it there on time or not doesn’t really matter. Both of you have come back changed, the ceremony (if you make it under 80 days) is fine but not interesting. If you lose the bet, Fogg is disappointed, but the ending remains the same. “Let’s do it again, but go a different way this time!”

That’s how I felt after returning from a five week train journey around Europe. It wasn’t long after that I left and never came back.  Theroux, once again,

“Travel also holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home. In  a distant place no one knows you – nearly always a plus. And you can pretend, in  travel, to be different from the person you are, unattached, enigmatic, younger, richer or poorer, anyone you choose to be, the rebirth that many travellers experience if they go far enough.”

I know that travel alone can’t change you. It can’t grant you a rebirth, unless you choose to be someone else. The shit that you are running from, if it is inside you, will follow you. It doesn’t care what continent you are on, or what language you speak. I like that at the end of 80 Days, I feel that both Fogg and Passpartout have chosen to let the journey affect them and they have grown, even if slightly, as people. And while I play and fantasise about going on similar adventures, it gets a little harder every year as roots slowly take hold. But damn does this game make me consider selling everything that doesn’t fit into a backpack and walking to the train station, not caring if I return.

Once a ghost, always a ghost.




You can find Paul Theroux’s book on Amazon. Quotes taken from pages 1,2,3, Published by Penguin Books, 2009

This post was written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table. Please check it out for more stories around the theme of Travel.

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