© Steffen Roth

The unknown ahead


And that pleasant mixture of suspense and anticipation. What awaits me at my destination? That’s how it used to be back in the day when every journey still started at home. Bent over my atlas, I would study its colorful pages. I’d also leaf through glossy ­catalogues for weeks on end, wondering how to get to one of those faraway Canary islands. I pondered and counted my money, pondered again…

Today, things are very different. The Internet gives me direct access to hotels around the world, and I can compare comments on travel platforms and book direct flights and hotels. As long as I don’t get my passwords mixed up, the whole travel thing is really much simpler these days. If there’s an interesting concert on in Barcelona or London tomorrow night, I can fly over at the drop of a hat – which makes it more of a relocation than a classic trip. But destinations further afield no longer involve the same level of risk they did 20 years ago, when I had to rely on the information provided by the travel agency or a travel guide (usually purchased just before I set off). Now that the world has become boundless and at the same time smaller, I take a close look at my destination on Google Earth and Street View beforehand. This cuts out possible hassles, but on the other hand also dilutes the surprise factor. At least reality still has the power to undo within seconds all our preconceptions of a place, no matter how accurate they seemed to be. As ever, the old travel truism applies: Expect the unexpected!

Visiting China in the late 1990s, I found myself attending a punk concert in an industrial zone somewhere in Greater ­Beijing. Not versed in the conventions of pogo dancing, I was floored when someone took a mean leap at my back. My Chinese interpreter fearlessly mounted the stage and took the microphone: “Dear friends, our German friend has just lost a lens from his glasses. We should help him to find it.” Not being the kind of sentence you would expect to hear at a punk concert, it naturally garnered peals of laughter. As we were leaving, she offered me a grain of comfort with this wonderful sentence: “We were the china figures in the elephant shop!”

Even today, a traveler must expect the unexpected. Take Cambodia, for instance. I have no idea what it was like 20 years ago, but riding across the rural south on the back seat of a moped as I recently did, you cannot help feeling that time has stood still here. And yet it was our digital devices that led us to people who met us with open minds because they had not yet been blunted by thousands of tourist encounters. We had entered “cycle paths” in the navigation app to avoid the main traffic flows and travel across the country only on narrow paths, and those paths brought us to villages so small and remote that once upon a time, we would probably only have happened on them by chance.

People waiting behind glass: “Escape” is what photographer Steffen Roth calls his long-term study, from which some images are featured here.

Before embarking on a longer journey, I tend not to sleep too well. My joyful anticipation has recently begun to collide with the fear of having forgotten something important. That’s why I always take along too much baggage, which is ironic, given that I used to make fun of my parents for taking their huge le­ather cases with them on even the shortest trips. Their destinations were almost always the Fichtel Mountains or the Bavarian Forest, whereas my school friends would be telling adventurous tales of the Brenner Pass. My father only ever undertook a long trip once in his life. It was a cruise in Asia, he was seasick for two thirds of the time, and the experience forever quenched his thirst for travel. However pleasant, fast and comfortable the journey may be, the moment of arrival is generally its climax. I mean, that’s why we travel, after all.

The first country that won my heart was Italy. It was where I longed to be, where I started out into life, into adulthood. I was visiting a friend in Cinque Terre who was marrying an Italian and found myself at a wedding party that made such a lasting impression on me that to this day I simply have to go to Italy at least once a year. I need the music of the language, the espresso and the Italian food, the tang of pines, the aesthetic of a pizza – any pizza – and the sea, which is quite a different kettle of fish from the Baltic.

It’s always the little things that interest me. A smile, a gesture, a surreal scene. The filling station in the Ukraine inhabited by a cow and no one else. The Chinese people picnicking at an Ikea furniture store near Beijing. The hotel in Tamarindo in Costa Rica, where it is the most normal thing in the world for guests to eat breakfast among teju lizards, which anyone but a biologist would immediately take to be crocodiles. The king cobra that slid out of sight in a garden on an Indonesian island. When I alerted the house owner, he dismissed the information as though I’d said I’d seen a squirrel. And it’s not as though I needed anything particularly exotic. I’ve been to Asia often enough to be able to enjoy a trip to the Black Forest today – right up my parents’ street. It wasn’t always so, but these days, I also enjoy visiting places I already know. It’s a bit like a steady relationship; there are plenty of reasons not to enter into one, but it also has its clear advantages.

As the years pass, you lose a little of the naivety you require to just let yourself drift while traveling. One trick I’ve stuck with is to keep planning to a minimum. The result is almost always positive. But there are, of course, places for which a cer­tain degree of organization is advisable. Should you come ­upon a pride of starving lions in the African steppes, for instance, it’s worth briefly suspending the rule about the journey being the reward. On the other hand, I have an asset that has spared me unpleasant surprises on many trips: When I go on va­cation, I am always lucky enough to always have my wife with me, and she’s probably the most organized person on this earth.