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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Price of Travel, part 2

The previous installment recounted my pecuniary exploits between the months of December 2008 and July 2009. Now for the more interesting, less useful, more reflective, less objective installment.

Astute observers will recall that I have tried to do something like this before in a post entitled "Anniversary," which I wrote long after I had returned from Italy and shortly before I came to Korea. If you have 4.25 paragraphs' worth of extra time, read it and see for yourself whether or not I succeeded. [The post is also interesting for more introspective reasons - it to some degree prefigures my current writing style and it is, as a blog ought to be, I suppose, thoroughly revealing of my mindset at the time: the writing is so annoying and self-absorbed/referential that one can immediately see why I was unable, at that point, to even consider getting a "real job."] (I had read "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” just a few months before and was as enamored with Dave Eggers then as I am with David Foster Wallace now. Would any amateur psychologists out there who know the name of my earliest childhood friend care to make some conjectures?) I am not the only one who views the aforementioned post in such a despairing light. I hereby quote Adam's scathing response. Woe, such cynical wisdom for a lad of 23 sun-orbitations!

"I can't really blame you though [for failing in my attempt to create a meaningful account of my time in Italy], trying to say meaningful things is mainly a waste of time and if you actually succeed in doing so you are probably committing some sort of plaigarism[sic]." (Winner, "Paella, Flamenco, y Tapas." 02 August 2006. Sufficiently cited. This is not plagiarism and therefore does not, in and of itself, prove your point, Past-Adam.)

Though the task I have set myself may be impossible, I hope you’ll indulge me while I quote David Foster Wallace again, this time from his essay "Consider the Lobster" (from the book of the same name). The context: DFW is asked by Gourmet magazine to report on the Maine Lobster Festival and, eclectic genius that he is, winds up writing an essay on the ethics of eating lobsters, with some digressions on the meaning of intranational travel. Clearly, both are issues related to ones I think about and deal with frequently. [End Preface, Begin Post]

"As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it's only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let's look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way - hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all...To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is an inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."

Doubtless, one may take issue with the rhetorical excesses of the passage and question the aptness of some of the metaphors – I wonder, in particular, what the “dead thing” he mentions is supposed to be. Cities, even ones full of zombietourists, are alive, are they not? It should also be pointed out that Wallace is talking about intranational (read: specifically contiguous-48 American) tourism, whereas my limited experience lies elsewhere. [staggered alliteration, booya]. Actually, I suppose that every time I mention tourism, tourists, and travelers, I am thinking of my experiences in Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, and not about Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, or Western Europe.

Nonetheless, I (masochistically?) love the way DFW’s paragraph skewers the (paradoxically?) indie-yet-standard image of the tourist who heads off to exotic lands (cf. above list) in order to experience a radically different type of life, enlightening and being enlightened by the natives he encounters along the way. This preconception of what a traveler is and does may seem like a straw man, but I promise you, many people do think this way. I frequently heard 20-something American, Canadian, and Western Europeans boast about how they had managed to “get off the tourist track” and how they pitied all those lame tourist-types with their noses stuck in their guidebooks who would have nothing to show at the end of their trip except for a mostly crossed-off checklist. I myself, not immune to peer pressure, and not wanting to argue with people I hardly knew, must certainly have participated in and even encouraged such scornful commentary, though I hate to admit it. Such conversations took place in restaurants in Phnom Penh with menus printed in English, over milkshakes, before hitting the hip-hop club and then heading back to the hostels. And they took place in a longhouse in a Hmong village in Northern Laos, over bottles of beer that some villager had lugged over our “trekking” terrain, and which he would carry back to town (or maybe just toss them into the woods), empty, sometime after we had had our fill. And so on.

Of course, one can’t blame travelers for searching out some sort of authenticity while on the road. Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on tickets and luggage and special water-wicking pants just to wind up at a McDonald’s ten thousand miles away. And yet, when a good number of people with a decent amount of money go looking for “authenticity,” surprise, a market springs up. People are willing to provide it for you. Food just like villagers eat. Tree-huts with zip lines that give you an exhilarating, if previously unavailable, view of the highest canopies of the forest. Traditional pants with elephant designs. Treks to see the Long-necks. Shuttles from the train station to your hotel, with AC and a bath tub and a mini-fridge and TV channels in 11 languages and a travel agent at the front desk for your convenience. Nevermind that “authenticity” is exactly what can’t be pre-packaged and provided at pre-determined places and prices (Incidental Ps, I swear.), exaggerated and molded to be exactly the sort of thing the traveler was hoping to see. “Authenticity” can only exist when nobody is looking for it, when it’s on nobody’s mind, when nobody cares whether it exists or not. This is what I take DFW to mean when he talks about how traveling ontologically spoils itself.

One can also view said elusive “authenticity” in another light – that is, everything that one comes across is equally authentic, simply because it is. If the ontologically self-spoiling conception of authenticity were to be depicted, I think it would look like Escher’s ants on a Mobius strip, walking endlessly, never able to corner what they’re after. On the other hand, the notion that everything in the (traveling) world is indeed authentic, in the sense that it is actual, reminds me of an Ouroboros, consuming itself until some event horizon where all logic breaks down. If this is the case – if everything is authentic, because it’s there and people made it and people are using it – then the concept implodes on itself, there are no distinctions to be made, nothing to open one’s eyes onto, other than the bare factual present of a place far away.

For rhetorical reasons, it’s tempting to say that the traveler is bound to confront these and other contradictions, or paradoxes, or apparent paradoxes, or at least twists and turns and snags, but the truth of it is, one can easily sidestep them. If one thinks of travel as another form of leisure, not too different from heading to a new restaurant that opened up on the other side of town, then such concerns vanish. This isn’t exactly “disillusioned” travel, but it does seem to me to be devoid of the hope and urgency that, for some reason, seem such an integral part of traveling in the less-developed world.

This is all on my mind, clearly, because I’m about to head to India for a while and I want, kind of, to be in the optimal mindset. Shall I, DFW-style, take the grim and steely-eyed approach of not expecting anything earth-shattering, life-changing, or perspective-shifting? Think of it just as an extended period of consumption of services in an unfamiliar place? Isn’t that a bit drab?

An alternate title for this post: Why would one go to India just to plant trees?


The least prolific writer named David you know said...

Will David Sedaris be your next muse/idol/inspirationist? Too easy?

And since what's all this talk of "not wanting to argue with people you hardly knew"? That's not the Mike I've come to know and love. Next time please put those smarmy Canadians in their place.

Anyway, great post. I'm going to forward it to my travel-loving girlfriend and discuss it over tacos this evening. What a date!

Laura said...

I know that you feared this being a boring post Mike, but I found it very interesting , insightful and well-thought-out (as you often are). I know that I’ve discussed with you how, over time, I’ve felt that our perspectives on being expats and eternal travellers have diverged (me, feeling more and more like an American and longing for home more than ever the longer/farther I am away from it and you, feeling almost exactly the opposite), but in this post I agree with you completely. In my 25 years of life (the last 3 of which have consisted of almost non-stop travelling), I have managed to see a great deal of the world, but I would never say that travelling itself is relaxing or soul-opening. Infact, I find the amount of travelling we do extremely stressful. I don’t think I’ve exactly figured out why I push myself to see so many different places while I’m living in Europe, I’m sure a large part of it is just for the bragging rights and another part is just out of curiosity. I’d like to think that travelling teaches me something about others and about myself, but, truly, I think I probably could have learned the same lessons by staying in Yorktown, VA. I’ve never been that focused on getting off-the-beaten-path, although I do like travelling to random and unexpected places. Mostly, I just go to a place, see what I can see, try to get a general feeling for it, and leave happy as long as I had a good time. If I can help others along the way, so much the better (and what else is travelling other than helpful to a country’s economy!) I think some of this perspective may have been formed by the fact that I spent my first year of travelling in East Africa (sometimes living in villages where the children had never seen a white person), so my desire to get off-the-beaten-track has been fulfilled. But anyways, the point of this ramble, I think that life-changing events can happen anywhere and anytime- but they are probably more likely to happen to you in India because you will be more open to receiving them there than you would be in, say, Yorktown. I’m still not sure what Africa has taught me about myself, life, others, etc but I really believe that it has helped me in a great way deal with the very difficult things I have had to face in the last year (things that you already know about and that I will not discuss here), so I hope you are able to get the same strengths from your travels that I have been able to get from mine.

Adam said...

i hereby retract my prior angry and bitter comment about how trying to think of original things to say is impossible and a waste of time. man, was i lame.