Not all travel writers are at ease roaming the globe. Jeremy Leon Hance, an environmental journalist, has reported from locales including Botswana and Borneo for the Guardian, the conservation news website Mongabay, and other outlets. Hance also has OCD and, in Baggage (HCI, Oct.), he describes the sometimes frightening, sometimes comical challenges of traveling while dealing with severe anxiety. Now that many people are feeling anxious about travel, PW asked Hance how his book speaks to the Covid-19 era.
Given that visiting unfamiliar locations is difficult for you, what’s made travel worth the trouble?
I’ve always loved travel. I love experiencing new food and new cultures. It really makes me come alive. At the same time, there’s a deep-seated anxiety that comes with every trip. What’s made it continue to be worth it is the privilege—and it really is a privilege—to go to amazing places, and then come back and write about the people I meet, and the wildlife I encounter. But I’ve also learned my limits. There are certain trips I will probably never do. I have to balance my love of adventure with the reality of my mental illness. I don’t think I’m ever going to do a yearlong trip around the world. Going anywhere where there’s a current outbreak, like the coronavirus: I’m not going to do that.
What’s a particularly colorful episode from your travel history?
I did a 12-day trip in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2010. I had these wonderful few days exploring the area with local tribal members, seeing the abundance of birds and insects and mammals. Then, on the night before my last day, I started to feel sick. My OCD started. I eventually panicked to the point where I demanded they take me to the nearest doctor. They got me in a canoe and rode me about two hours down a river. Then we got into a motorboat and rode another hour or so before I finally got to this doctor. It was the moment when you realize just what a terrible traveler you are, and what a typical American you are. Here I was, acting like a total asshole, for lack of a better word. The doctor took two seconds to look at me and said, “Yeah, you’re fine.”
Do you feel your anxiety about travel has given you a particular appreciation for it?
It really has. I think that’s something anyone who lives with chronic mental illness has. If you’ve gotten through some really dark depressions, or you’ve lived with anxiety, there’s a deeper appreciation for life and the world around us. Because we can just get on a plane and in a few hours be in some exotic city, or even somewhere like Disneyland, we take for granted just how miraculous that is.
What advice do you have for otherwise comfortable travelers who now, because of the pandemic, feel apprehensive about taking a trip?
For those who can stay home right now, I think it’s really important not to travel. For those who have to travel, for whatever reason, do the commonsense things you can to keep yourself and others safe. Realize that this is a time to think about others, and care about others, and realize that everyone’s feeling extra anxiety. I do think the book can apply to travel in the coronavirus age. I’ve heard friends with mental health issues say, “This is what it’s like to live every day with anxiety and OCD.” Everybody who doesn’t live that way—and God bless them, I’m glad they don’t—they’re kind of getting a taste of what that heightened experience is like.