I am obsessed with travel writing.

I tried explaining it today to my mother, who didn't quite understand what I meant. "Travel writing isn't guidebooks," I said. "It's stories written by travellers about their experiences. It's not people suggesting a good restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but rather what happened to them when they visited Sao Paulo."

"Ah," she said with that tone that means she doesn't really get what I'm talking about, but is pretending to so I will change the subject to a topic she has more experience in. Such as discussing the latest drama afflicting my cousins, or the fact that her boss convinced her to buy 1,000 shares of WorldCom stock because he told her it was "a great bargain" at 8 cents a share (as an aside, she only spent $80 -- it was the first time she ever bought stock in anything).

I've been trying to grasp just why I've started almost exclusively reading books and anthologies about travel. And today it finally hit me. For the past year and a half, I've been working at a fellowship program designed to prepare American journalists for a career in foreign reporting. As the program's Communications Coordinator, I am required to sit in on many of the seminars the program fellows attend. These mainly involve Washington policy wonks, college professors and veteran journalists discussing international topics such as human rights issues in Africa, global economics and conflict zones. Although I considered myself fairly informed about the world before I joined the program, I realize how little I actually knew. I think it's safe to say that I'm now much better informed than the average American, however.

The ironic thing is that although I can discuss such topics as the historical reasons for the Rwandan genocide and how the prescence of UN aid workers has caused an epidemic of forced prostitution in the Balkans, I have never been outside the United States. All my knowledge is second hand (or in some cases, third hand). Sometimes I like to fool myself about my level of involvement in world events, but the truth is although one of the few Westerners to interview Osama bin Laden once had an office adjacent to mine, I've never even been to Mexico let alone Central Asia.

When I was a kid, I was terrified of traveling to other countries -- the very idea of being somewhere where no one spoke English was incomprehensible. But now as an adult, I want to travel -- I want to see the world -- but economics keep me from doing it. I'm surrounded by people whose living it is to go to other countries and write about what they see, yet I can't afford to hop a plane from Washington to San Francisco.

So I satiate my desire to travel by reading about other people's experiences. Right now I'm reading the America's Best Travel Writing (2001) edited by Paul Theroux, and it's fantastic. But it would be so much better if I could experience travel myself. Perhaps in the future, I will. But for the moment I'm stuck living vicariously through the adventures of others.