When the Right Trip Goes Wrong
In our high-speed, hyper-connected, digital world, T+L discovers it's still possible to lose your way. Case in point: a trip to China.
Bazouges-la-Pérouse is a sleepy, one-bakery town in the green farmy hills of Brittany, not far from the beaches of Normandy but not very close to anything at all.
Not too long ago I treated myself to a restful week of doing nothing there. Unwinding between work trips, I rented a tiny old house in its tiny old centre ville. Outside, the church bells rang unceasingly and blue-black sparrows darted between the stone houses. Little else disturbed the peace in Bazouges-la-Pérouse, a town I’d never even heard of until the week before, when I’d started poking around online looking for an affordable, pleasant, and essentially selected-at-random little piece of the world where I could hide out from the rest of it for a while.
Here’s how I ended up there: I had to fly from Sicily to Paris and then I had a week to kill before I was due in Shanghai. A sane person would have just gone home, done his laundry, hit the snooze button on the circadian clock. But the truth is I love these time-shifting, nonlinear trajectories. I get a kick out of the slightly frantic, not-quite-necessary experience of leaping here and there. It’s the jump cuts between unlike places that keep the action interesting—it’s adventure travel for people who like airports and the buzzy, dizzy feeling of voluntary displacement.
So, sitting in a hotel room in Palermo, Sicily—digesting sandwiches of pane con milza (spleen stewed magnificently in lard), listening to The Sound of Music dubbed on Italian TV, and dreaming of the French countryside—I went online to play a very modern game of Destination Roulette. Plug in random coordinates, sift through the photos of rental houses and reader reviews, and suddenly anywhere in the world is a few clicks and a credit card number away. The e-mail confirmation arrives before you’ve figured out exactly where you’re going.
Imagine our ancient forebears in the dark, primal days of old. To plot their groping way through the world, they would write away for a brochure (by mail!) or call a travel agent (on a rotary phone!). It sounds as antiquated as heading West by covered wagon.
Getting around these days is so disarmingly simple that it’s easy to find yourself in trouble without even noticing. You plot your destination on the GPS, start fiddling with the iPhone-connected stereo and admiring the cup holders, and you forget you have to still actually steer the car and watch where you’re going.
From my little house in Bazouges, I sniffed out the weakest scent of Wi-Fi wafting in from the gîte across the street. With minimal connectivity and a little patience, the levers of the world could still be operated from a street-facing end of a couch in a town you couldn’t readily place on the map. I plotted my next moves: Air France flight to Shanghai; hotels; restaurant reservations.
It was all so easy that perhaps I can be forgiven for the smug satisfaction I felt at hitting all my marks. Buying an advance ticket for the train; checking the weather on my phone; introductions in Shanghai arranged by e-mail; booking the bulkhead coach seat with such ample legroom that I slept nearly all the way to China. And not once was my slumber interrupted by thoughts of the Chinese consulate, on the far-western end of midtown Manhattan. The consulate where, in preparation for a previous trip to China, I’d waited patiently in line in the morning and returned for my visa in the afternoon. Only while yawningly filling out the landing form—dreaming of dinner and a bath at the Park Hyatt—did I trip over the blank space marked visa number and realize the trouble I’d stumbled into. A kind but very worried-looking Air France steward asked the cockpit to radio ahead to confirm what we all knew: they don’t issue visas at the airport. Proceed to immediate deportation, do not pass Guyi Hunan restaurant.
Can I blame the modern world? The system? The Air France automated check-in kiosk that asked me if I was a female or a male traveler but not if I had the proper paperwork to get where I wanted to go? Maybe, but not much. The truth is I’d gone out of my way to take advantage of all these would-be time-saving tricks. We yearn for connection to real people when we travel—but not till we land, please. The fewer actual humans I can engage in the process of making my plans, the happier a prospective traveler I am. Humans put me on hold. Whatever her other faults, the automated check-in kiosk cannot roll her eyes at my mangled French.
If you can point and click your way to an idyllic Bazouges-la-Pérouse, you can just as easily transport yourself to the deep nowhereness of an airport holding room guarded by Chinese border police. Lulled by the fluid glamour of easy travel, I’d failed to stay fully alert for the ride. I’d made the modern mistake of not speaking to a soul. Of forgetting that just because transnational transactions are frictionless, that doesn’t mean the world itself doesn’t retain its real borders and its bumps in the road.
Chinese border police do not laugh in a manner suggestive of immoderate mirth. That was my experience, anyway. If you want to hear it for yourself, explain to them how you lost your way because you travel so much and how you are, in fact, a writer here to observe and tell stories and give advice to other travelers. Trust me: it kills.
In the end, I talked my way out of being sent to New York and onto the next flight to Hong Kong instead. There I paid a visit to an extortionist visa-procuring agency. Pleas and paperwork. An extended and expensive lesson in the low-tech, face-to-face, cash-in-hand art of digging your way out of a hole.
I spent my unplanned day in Hong Kong wandering, sweating, eating, buying a new camera. And as usual in Hong Kong, I found myself turned around, utterly lost. This time, I stopped to ask for directions. It was a start.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.