Sunday, December 26, 2010

Entering The Lull

The week between Christmas and New Years is when a languid pace of life takes over. Everyone is fattened up and content after a month of overeating. Mine began early this year with a two-week vacation to gastronomically wealthy India in November, so I'm definitely well-padded for the winter.

About 8 years ago I came across an essay called Why We Travel by Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers. I've pulled it out for another read with each trip I've taken since, to see the different ways it rings true every time I go to a faraway land. In Kenya I read it once every six months, and I remember thinking by the end of my two years that I didn't relate to Iyer's dreamy romanticized reflections at all. In fact, I found them really irritating and naive.

I realized it was because when I was in Kenya I wasn't traveling. I was living, and it was in a place called home, but not with a capital H. Being abroad was my way of life. It was foreign, but it wasn't exotic; it was exhausting. I was trying to glean resonance and relevance from an essay that wasn't referring to what I was doing.

I reread the essay when I came back from India a few weeks ago, and was one again fully enraptured by the time I got to the final paragraph. I don't suffer from any illusion that my travels are anything but vacations -- escapes from my New York reality, a way to shake myself awake from the sleepwalking I do to the beat of a mind-numbing routine in a soul-asphyxiating city, literally forcing as much distance between me and Here because Here can be seen much more clearly from way over There. My travels are for realigning my brain, rebooting my soul, upgrading my standards, walking along the perimeter to check that there are no breaches in the boundaries, and all of these things are only possible because travel for me creates a change in scenery, instead of being the norm.

I don't insist on "roughing it" for the sake of roughing it when I travel, whatever that even means. I can't stand those who judge fellow travelers who seem at first and only glance to be surrounding themselves with a luxury or two that resemble home, like tickets on an overnight bus that is less likely to fatally plunge over a cliff because it's not built from Frankenstein spare parts discarded by wealthy countries 15 years ago. I've tried to be a hero and discovered, like all wisefolks, that there's no such thing as a heroic tourist, only an insecure one running away from failures at home, armed with a list of ways to prove something meaningless to himself. Thanks to Peace Corps policy, I paid my poser hero dues in Kenya risking my life riding matatus for two years, and the only thing I got out of it was the realization that I had impressed no one.

In India my friend Christi and I were trying to book bus tickets with an agent in the beautiful Rajasthani city of Udaipur. A hippie-ish American guy in his 40s started chatting us up after eavesdropping on our travel logistics. We were showered and wore clean clothes, and Christi was madeup and wore earrings. As the American guy left the shop knowing as much about us as he had when we arrived, he said helpfully, while flies buzzed around his armpits curious about the tasty things that had died under there, "You should try roughing it sometime. It's good for the soul."

I love Iyer's description of Traveler's Snobbery (an infectious disease I named myself, often acquired while away from home but not caused by any parasite, virus or bacteria), delivered with signature understated scorn:

Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo -- or Cuzco or Kathmandu." It's all very much the same.

The deeply unfortunate thing about travel, and meaningful life experience in general, is that the most valuable outcomes have no physical form that casual strangers can see. Wisdom, for example. Of course, true wisdom also says that it doesn't matter what casual strangers think.

My halfway-there wisdom says that when some washed up hippie-wannabe's midlife crisis decides that he's got you all figured out because you don't carry bedbugs in your Birkenstocks and tries to rescue your dead soul by suggesting you "try roughing it," wisdom would be a lot more useful as a giant fist that could punch people in the face.

Conversely, the deeply fortunate thing for me is that compassion also has no physical form whose absence casual strangers would notice.

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