Reflections: Being There
There was a time not long ago when I began to question why I travel. It was a strange line of inquiry to pursue, since for years travel had been something I did not so much because I loved it as because it was central to my livelihood as a journalist. I did love it, or thought I did, or felt that it was something I would continue to do even without professional incentive. There was nothing in my motives that a fourth-grader wouldn't recognize; a fourth-grader, at any rate, with a taste for developing an internationalist viewpoint.
I was no internationalist at nine. But even as a kid I was infected with the notion that to comprehend the world, you ought to see it. I held to this idea for a long time, using some fairly loopy pretexts for launching myself on occupational journeys to malodorous foreign capitals, mountainous war zones, spooky backwaters, collapsing ancient ruins, and not a few surpassingly beautiful islands that were no less boring, as it turned out, for being incredibly difficult to reach.
My sense of my good fortune in being able to do all this was not misplaced: I was a lucky man. I was seeing things not everyone gets to see, although it doesn't necessarily follow that I was also seeing things in ways that others cannot. The eye is a promiscuous organ. As obvious as this realization is to me now, it was some time before the wisdom of it really took hold.
It is true that I have had some memorable adventures: once giving the slip to soldiers in Transylvania while searching for a revolutionary priest's hideout; once meeting sunrise in a sloop on the north Atlantic while fin whales lolled alongside; once dining in a graveyard in old Delhi with the eunuch who kept house in its gloom. I have ridden on horseback through the high New Mexico desert to a Navajo hogan with a door ritually sealed against ghosts, accidentally hiked onto a pot plantation in a remote Kauai canyon, and grilled lobster on a South Pacific island that had a permanent population of five. So what?
The accumulation of lively experiences as a means of justifying one's existence is a time-honored practice—certainly no innovation of mine. Literature is rife with people who fancied up ordinary résumés by knocking around the globe. Behind the epic endurance of Mungo Park is a bore who liked to walk. Bruce Chatwin's famous yarns, so often misclassified as nonfiction, are less compelling as reportage than as anguished revelations of an eccentric gay Englishman's quest for a narrative that will both ennoble him and liberate him from class. I do not exempt myself from the list of people who have fantasized themselves as more interesting for having been places. Yet the more I traveled, the more evident it became that the answers to my questions were not necessarily to be found in the streets of Saigon. It's true that there were unanticipated benefits to my journeys, most notably a recognition that the earth is not small.
I had to roam around awhile before I could figure much out. I had to undergo a period when I became a kind of Casanova of maps, my amatory relationship to travel devolving into a series of hollow conquests. I found myself on a jet to Tokyo, tearing pages from an on-board magazine depicting global flight vectors, and tracing my own paths over the airline routes, drawing lines atop lines until they all intersected, overlapped, began crisscrossing in a meaningless skein.
Who was this person, I wondered, who had spent so much time pretend-reading novels in foreign restaurants, who chuckled knowingly over nutty airport signage ('FACE THE DIRECTION OF TRAVEL,' read one existentialist placard at an Indian air terminal), who reflexively stocked up on Xanax and Cipro at Bangkok pharmacies, who logged lonesome dawn miles in the Frankfurt duty-free?Was he sending himself on a series of aimless errands?Had he been everywhere and nowhere?Would he have been better off at home?
And what role did home play, for that matter, other than that of an imaginary pole against which to take compass readings from the uncertain vantage of elsewhere?Looking closely at my chosen assignments, my ragtag epiphanies, the eternities I'd spent in airborne nonspace, and the hard-won recognition that humans differ only by minute degrees, I began to think that perhaps I'd chosen wandering as a way to test my belief in return.
And I don't mean home, necessarily. (Although the more I travel, the better my own lodgings look . . . clean sheets! hot water on demand!) I mean to those places where, while amassing mental souvenirs, I seem to have left parts of myself behind. It's a self whose existence surprises me somehow—the disoriented man circling the food hall of a Japanese department store, scoring sample chocolates that were the only food he could identify; the tall guy crammed with his knees to his chin into the back of a Jeep bucketing across the great Thar Desert; the man floating butter candles in the Ganges from a boat drifting past blazing funeral pyres; the loon from a Three Stooges skit inadvertently choosing steak tartare from an indecipherable Warsaw menu.
When terrorists attacked the city where I live, they engendered in their destruction something I could not have anticipated (any more than I could have pictured someone concocting grotesque innovations in nightmares): I was overwhelmed with an attachment to place. By place, I mean New York, of course, the city where I have made my life, but equally the far-flung corners where I have been.
One aim of modern terrorism, I would imagine, is not merely to blow up buildings and people but also to atomize a consciousness, formed in large part by travel, of all peoples as connected. This sentiment is no less valid for being suited to a Hallmark card. Globalism has its insidious dimensions, but living it is preferable to reviving the feudal era. Before the smoke cleared in New York, I had heard from friends in Japan and Italy and India and Australia. I was enormously glad to be able to answer their questions about my safety. Beyond that, I felt the beginnings of optimism when they asked when I'd next be traveling to their particular parts of the world.
Guy Trebay is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and a staff reporter at the New York Times.