Travel 2009

Here, on my fourth extended excursion, the first joys of travel are removed in such a far off distance that their pleasure seems now remote; they are glanced-at provincial gestures that can never be recovered. The ‘innocent abroad’ typical of American travelers has lost its relevance to me, the irony of it turned now into melancholy and irreversible cynicism.

“Traveling makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Flaubert

I no longer trust guidebooks beyond the maps that they contain, I find them loathsome youthless instruction manuals unfit for the effusing of the soul that travel exhibits among strangers. Should I bring my collared shirts for summer? How much will this cost? Where are the bars friendly to foreigners? These questions are not that which spur the endless fascination, the love of being acted upon by others, the indulgence of an omnivorous curiosity, of travel.

The eloping couple makes my companions in this realm. The runaways, the derelicts, the outcasts, the beggars, the pimps, the hos, the Johns and the Tricks, the drugged out hippies, the drunkard staggering, the innocents abroad, the lost, those whose homes have been reappropriated by the rich, those who, as I, find everything resembling “home” torn apart by bulldozers to make new hotels for tourists, new shopping districts for the wealthy, new restaurants with over-salted ethnic delicacies. Those without a home join me, those who are welcome no more, those whose home is theirs, not ours. We aim at them anew, the open windows of their limousines are our spittoons from the overpass.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century traveling was a grand pre-requisite of cultural capital before young bourgeois students (usually men) took to their studious careers. In some ways not much has changed, but travel is now largely democratic, which is why someone like me can spend three months traveling with a salary of about $13,500 a year. The luxury of travel, however, is never lost to an absence of funds. It is given up instead for the ubiquitous photograph, where the only memory recalled is that supplemented by photographic evidence. Travel is stripped away by walking the common path, by finding excuses to learning the local language, by staying in one’s hostel/hotel and tourist neighborhood, never braving the so-called “diseased slums,” the seedy alleyways and bars, the sites that put one face-to-face with the moral and historical questions that once defined what it means to travel.

Already our experiences are commodified, we are already planning how to exaggerate our stories, how to gain a higher chest among our peers, how to return home and eat ethnic foods while declaring “oh, but I’ve had the real thing before, this is only some cheap American rip-off,” how to pronounce names with adequate emphasis on the “correct” syllables. We are already deciding, to put it simply, how to blog this to the world, hot to omit facts, how to make ourselves seem tolerable, kind, and respectful to traditions that we are glad to merely try on, as if window-shopping. Traveling has become all about us.

“Why do you travel?” We are commonly asked. “Why not go home?” when the road becomes scabrous and our feet turn to welts and bites. What makes us unable to sit and be satisfied? I say it is because our hearts leap about in anxiety at home, because we are frustrated, as the many travelers before us, with the gnawing ennui of the homeland, because we seek, as Joyce, to escape the certainty of those with religion, academia or ideology, because we desire, as D.H. Lawrence and Henry James, to discover a place and peoples with some dignity and realistic grasp of the world, and because we need, as Kerouac, to understand desperation, loss—to go without itinerary, plans or certainty. To travel is to be rid of certainty. As Whitman said, “certainty…falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.” We travel to do what we can against those who believe they live in the best of all possible worlds, as a servant might in a household that they have never stepped out of.

As with my travel blogs of the last four years, I excuse politeness and toleration for sincerity and suspicion. I make no claims to be a terribly wise traveler, only a terribly honest one. Traveling is an investment of time, money, and means the risk of disease or having to sleep on a park bench. Many travelers, mindful always of this investment, seek to derive the greatest output from their “adventure,” always “discovering” the “fascinating cultures,” the “memorable people” and the many photo opportunities that await them. After their trip, they then proceed to tell these stories with loathsome insincerity, mentioning always their “fascination,” unaware that they are merely reproducing the catalogs and advertisements of commodified travel that we are already too familiar with. I will have nothing to do with this narrative of fascination.

This summer I will be in Korea for one month and India for two months. I can think of no better way to begin than with Whitman:

“Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road.”

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