In praise of... jet lag: why travelling across time zones has its own unique rewards

You may be discombobulated, tired, hungry at 3am, but there's a peculiar beauty in crossing international date lines and getting your circadian rhythms out of whack, argues Katrina Conaglen

In praise of ... jet lag In praise of ... jet lag
In praise of ... jet lag

In praise of... is a new weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

"Why," you may reasonably inquire "would anyone wax lyrical about jet lag, a condition that can leave you irritable, disorientated, head and body full of sand, unable to sleep at night but so fatigued at 3pm walking through the world feels like swimming with a fur coat on?"

Honestly, stay with me on this one. It's a journey, but I'll try and lead you there.

“Jet lag”, as a concept held some little mystery as a very small girl with no conscious experience of air travel. My father, a preeminent endocrinologist in New Zealand, was part of a research team conducting a then-revelatory study on the effects of melatonin intake on reducing symptoms of jet lag after long-haul travel. He and his colleagues flew volunteers around the world with no other purpose to their travel than to measure their comparative states of discombobulation. (TL/DR, melatonin was found to alleviate tiredness and the effects of jetlag - also noteworthy, flying westward causes worse jet lag than flying eastward, for those of you who have wondered). Jet lag, then, was established from the off as a mild ailment, a hindrance to life’s enjoyment, something, in essence, to be cured. But when I started my own international travelling, I found that as physical inconveniences go, it’s not without some rewards. 

We can, after all, fly into yesterday, or tomorrow. Let us not be blasé about that fact.

A foreign country, but you’re the only inhabitant

The Swedish have a phrase - “missförstå mig rätt” (misunderstand me correctly) that applies here. It’s not that I actively look forward to being jet lagged. But the experience - a body out of step with your mind, severed from all standard routine and reason - can be surprisingly edifying, and even, for brief glimpses, beautiful.

It’s a hinterland, a liminal space. You’re not awake, but you haven’t walked into the dreaming: jet lag itself is a foreign country, you the only inhabitant. As you walk through your suddenly new location, people - be they on the sidewalk, baristas, street sweepers - don’t intuit you’re in a different space to them, a body clock hours out of sync with theirs. Whether your surroundings new to you or familiar, the world is rendered surreal. 

That disruption to my circadian rhythms, while not without its drawbacks, forces me to find new way of living for a short spell: it awakens a part of my brain that had previously been sleep-walking through my routines. I feel out of body, spectral. When I negotiate the world I hover above, observing myself. My emotions are heightened - music more moving, food more flavoursome. I find myself seeing the world a new again, curious and open to it.

William Gibson has a gorgeous passage in his novel Pattern Recognition espousing his theory of jetlag:

She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.

That our soft warm bodies lose our souls to the frenzy of modern travel technology is an evocative one: if we are, indeed, walking around soulless, perhaps that is why we feel so porous while we await its safe return*.

Wee small hours of the morning

Sometimes the simple fact crossing times zones can leave you up and alert at 4am is enough to show you a side of the world you haven't seen before. If I'm wide awake in the hazy glimmer of pre-dawn, I'll often find myself taking the opportunity to walk city streets (more often than not to distract myself from a ravenous hunger, unable to be sated). While I am drowsy dozy, it's hazily enchanting to see a city without it's face on: stumbling through city streets slick wet from street cleaners, still from a night’s rest, without the thrum of traffic or melange of smells that come when people and cars and things start to reoccupy. Unadorned, cities transmute into something other.

An abandoned Venice aches with echoes of its ancient history, uninterrupted by gaudy tourists or crooning gondoliers. Tenerife hasn't a hint of its night-time debaucheries: instead, you can find your way past the salt-fresh smell of fish-mongers sorting through their haul. In Hoboken, New York, at 5am I spied the winking sign of a bagel store, just coming alive: stepping in, I was handed a piping-hot fresh bagel from the baker who shared none of my bleariness (these were his hours, after all, a denizen of the gloaming). That bagel, friends, sent me into ecclesiastic raptures, heightened more by the fact I would never be able to find the store again - for all I know that Bageleria is summoned into existence by weary travellers in desperate need of sustenance, a carb-purveying Brigadoon.

The Acropolis in Athens - and the city don't know what the city is getting The Acropolis in Athens - and the city don't know what the city is getting
The Acropolis in Athens - and the city don't know what the city is getting

It was a jet-lagged body that had me awake at on the steps of the Acropolis in Athens at 8am, before anyone else was there (I appreciate 8am is hardly early, but I was in my early twenties: to be showered and out of the hostel at that hour was miraculous). This gave me a scintillating 8 minutes to myself up there before coaches drew up and hordes of crowds arrived. I went to the spot where St Paul was believed to speak, a heady spot for a Greek history nerd, and felt the full majesty and mystery of the place, undistracted by other. Wanting to give my own speech for the ages, jet lag meant all I could think to do was sing “One Night in Bangkok.” It's a site that has borne witness to thousands of years of fascinating history - but I’d hazard a soft wager that’s the first time the Murray Head classic has been sung there. 

A vivid, bright, curious world

The Nave At St Paul'sThe Nave At St Paul's
The Nave At St Paul's

Experiences - and, in turn, memories - can become more vivid in a jet lagged state. As a nine year old, I flew from Auckland New Zealand, via two flights, some 27 hours to London England, days and nights collapsing into each other at direct odds with how the world was supposed to operate. We arrived at 6am in the morning. My father - literally an authority on the topic of jet lag - was insistent that after we drop our bags at our holiday home he, my brother and I take in the sights of the Big Smoke, to shore up our circadian rhythms and adjust to Blighty Time. 

We spent the day, vacillating between astonishing weariness and jolted, peculiar, prickly alertness, hitting tick-box tourism spots before arriving in St Paul's Cathedral to take in Sir Christopher Wren's Meisterwork. Standing in the centre of that hallowed place, the floor seemed to undulate gently underneath me, and I was struck so potently with how impressive it was. I was not given to awe at architecture at that age, and on reflection I'm certain having travelled so far and put my small frame through such an odd ordeal was what heightened St Paul's grandeur. The supper we had that night of supermarket scampi and prefab chocolate mousse still lingers in my head, preternaturally delicious. And then I fell into heavy, righteous sleep.

Which is, finally, the greatest pleasure of jetlag - when you capitulate and find yourself sleeping. A leaden, dreamless sleep. Sleep as an act of redemption, as the ultimate mercy for a beleaguered body. A sleep that will gently, slowly, surely, place me back in my body again, reel my soul back to myself. What a relief. What a gorgeous relief.