Where Does Wanderlust Come From?

Father’s Day is fast approaching, and by coincidence, our contributing editor Carl Hoffman is preparing for an upcoming story assignment in Thailand, where he’ll visit with his father, who has relocated there. Here, he gives us a glimpse of what he’s hoping to find.

Why do we travel? Or maybe the better question is, where does wanderlust come from?

I was thinking about the origins of my own travel curiosity and remembered my father’s stories about a trip he took around the world as foreign editor for the Washington Star in the early 1970s. I remember him being gone for what seemed like a long time and then returning with slides and tales (of dancers with six-inch-long fingernails and the eating of dogs), especially from Thailand, Vietnam and a clandestine journey to the Plain of Jars in Laos.

Was that it? Were his stories the fuel for my own wandering many years later?

But no, because he himself had that curiosity, and there was nothing in his background to suggest a fascination with the world – the son of under-educated Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who didn’t like even going out to a restaurant for dinner, they never wanted to leave America once they’d arrived. But fascinated with the world he was, especially with Southeast Asia: he later lived in Jakarta for nearly four years before retiring, and then, three years ago at the ripe old age of 77, he slung on a backpack and took off for Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

Where, as it happened, he met Miss Bangkok 1984 on a public bus. Two years ago he and Nani, as she is called, opened a restaurant – the Chitlada – on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Nani is from; Nani is an expert at a kind of soup called khao soi, particular to northern Thailand and Laos. The Isan is open from ten to ten, and serves beer and Nani’s soup, the recipe for which she guards from everyone, even her own staff. My father and Nani live in an apartment above. It is not a restaurant for tourists; my father, who’ll turn 81 this month, is half-blind from a stroke and suffering from lung cancer (though remarkably energetic), and is the only Westerner around.

So, I’m heading to Thailand for a story with two purposes: a piece on Chiang Mai, the epicenter of Thailand’s culturally rich hill tribes near the border of Burma and Laos, told through and wrapped around my father’s restaurant and his deep involvement in Nani and her family. And part of me wonders: Why is he there? How did he get there? How did an 80-year old atheist raised an Orthodox Jew by Abraham Hoffman and Adele Buxbaum end up living above a soup restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand with a woman who spends a month every year at a Buddhist convent?

I’m not sure how my father ended up in Thailand (though I know that books and curiosity play a part) and that makes me realize that I don’t really know my own father, and maybe even myself. But I want to know, and like the idea of sitting down with a bowl of hot, spicy khao soi with Nani and my father, and piling in Nani’s pickup truck for the hills, and asking him questions I’ve never asked before – questions that get at the heart of why we travel and where that curiosity comes from, in him, in me, in all of us. A trip with two guides – Nani to rich Chiang Mai and northern Thai culture; my father to the question of why we travel in the first place, and from where my own considerable wanderlust springs.

As my father says: “Arroy mot mot. Delicious.”

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Carl Hoffman’s most recent book, The Lunatic Express, was published this spring, and was excerpted in the March 2010 issue of Travelerexcerpted in the March 2010 issue of Traveler. You can follow him on Twitter at @lunaticcarl.

Photo: Burt Hoffman, Carl’s father, enjoys a bowl of pho. By Carl Hoffman.

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