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“I could have sworn I was in Tunisia, but wait: It’s snowing and those are church bells and — oh, right. I’m in Russia now.”
These conversations were regularly occurring in my head by the ninth month of my yearlong journey around the world as the 52 Places Traveler. By then, I had stopped being surprised when I woke up not knowing where I was. I would let my mind catch up as it took in the cues around my hotel room or through the window and retraced the steps that brought me there. Then, I would eat breakfast, drink too much coffee and get to work.
Every day was different, and most of the time I would wake up without the slightest idea where I would be or what I would be doing by the afternoon. It was one of the many elements that made this — traveling to all the places on the Times Travel desk’s 52 Places to Go in 2019 list — a dream job, a break from routine and the feeling that every day was different: a solar eclipse one day, a helicopter ride to a remote penguin colony the next.
But that constant unmooring was also one of the job’s biggest challenges, figuring out how not to completely float away with nothing tying me down. I found myself craving little tastes of routine and normalcy. There were my daily phone calls to my partner back home; many times, I was only vaguely aware of the day of the week, but I always knew what time it was in New York. There was the delightfully nerdy “Dungeons and Dragons” podcast that I used to listen to while washing dishes and doing the laundry; now I did so while filing expenses and organizing photos.
And then there were the postcards.
Over the course of the year, I sent 145 postcards from the 51 places I visited (I never made it to the 52nd, Iran, because of security concerns). I sent them to old friends whose addresses filled a pocket-size notebook I kept in my backpack. I sent them to new friends I made along the way: One postcard that I sent from New Zealand to Olkhon Island in Siberia is either still in transit or, more likely, got lost somewhere along the way. I sent a handful to total strangers, born out of mini contests I ran on my Instagram. But the most important of them were the ones I sent home: one from each place on the list, addressed to my partner and, wherever possible, sent from a local post office.
It became a ritual I looked forward to, heading off into a big city or a small town, looking for a postcard. You might be surprised how difficult they can sometimes be to find. In La Serena, Chile, I spent a whole afternoon on the hunt — bouncing between bookstores and souvenir shops until I finally came across a young man in a flea market who was selling some of his own photographs. He looked surprised when I asked if any were postcards but then, after digging through a haphazard pile of manila folders, he pulled out a small stack of them. There was none of the fancy lettering of more established destinations (“Greetings from Las Vegas!”); just scattered images of dead trees, peeling doors and empty streets, all expertly capturing the ethereal quality of the region’s winter light. They were perfect.
Not once did I write a postcard while standing in a post office. Part of my ritual was putting the constant deadlines aside and finding somewhere to sit down, think and have a moment just for myself.
Looking over the collection of postcards — 48 of them; three (Golfo Paradiso, Hong Kong and Los Angeles) didn’t make it — I can recall where I was, mentally and physically, while writing each one. By the fireplace in a countryside bar in Norway with a glass of citrusy traditional kveik beer; under an immaculately manicured tree, lost in a feudal-era park in the Japanese city of Takamatsu; on the front porch of the farmhouse where I stayed on Orcas Island, listening to the competing conversations of ducks, geese and turkeys.
Seeing the postcards together, the memories come flooding back all at once. It’s disorienting and overwhelming but also exhilarating — just like those “where am I?” mornings. It is, in other words, a spot on encapsulation of the year.