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On Travel

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels.”

“Journeys are the midwives of thought.”

– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

He wonders why he is here. Why did he flee from such comforts? Why forgo the hot, pressurized water, the ever-present super high-speed Internet, the machines that do the laundry and dishes for him, the voicemail, the ubiquitous coffee to go, the gargantuan stores that supply his every need, the clean, comfortable, safe lifestyle, and the obese GDP? Why go from the rich to the poor?

The Traveller’s story is a tragic one. He will never catch what he is chasing, never escape from what pursues him. Telling himself that home is everywhere, he fears it is nowhere. As though there are hot coals beneath his feet, he cannot stay in one place. Like the Flying Dutchman, he is doomed to sail the seas forever. His tortured soul is disillusioned, disappointed, distant. He chases a mirage. He is condemned to travel.

* * *

Oh, what a difference there is between ages. Twenty-two was full of such boundless optimism and ambition, brimming with hopes and dreams and arrogance and expectations, having answers to every question, naively believing that “somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me,” as Kerouac put it.

He also wrote of “the beat and evil days that come to all young guys in their middle twenties.” Indeed. That part of life where you finally realize that most of your dreams are an illusion, that there are no guarantees in life, no guardian angels watching over you, no promise of a happy ending. “[G]rown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” in Fitzgerald’s words.

The Lost Generation had their faith stolen by the maddeningly pointless bloodshed of World War I. The Beat Generation lost theirs after the unspeakable atrocities of World War II and the ensuing conformity and alienation of 1950s suburbia. And some of us, the generation that no one can agree on what to call, lost ours from the numbing soullessness of modernity, the meaninglessness spawned by too many distracting comforts, the alienation of hyper-individualism, and from one too many broken promises.

There comes a point when you realize that life is not a movie, a song, or a poem, and you are not the hero. You look around and realize that most people haven’t found the person, job, or life of their dreams. They have reached a compromise, lowered their standards, settled; something they once believed they would never do. They call it growing up. Reality inserted its fangs into the jugular of their souls and sucked out the romance, the hope, and the dreams.

This isn’t to say that life is horrible for most people. It is simply mediocre, practical, “good enough.” For some of us that is even worse.

Kerouac understood this. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and the other members of the tragic order known as the Lost Generation, those who willingly went into exile, they understood it too.

So did Richard Yates, who expressed his horror and disdain for the modern suburban lifestyle in his sad novel Revolutionary Road:

“It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares anymore; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity […] That’s what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion – this idea that people have to resign from real life and ‘settle down’ when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs.”

Even before them, Gustave Flaubert knew of this disease, and vainly tried to cure it with travel. He bitterly described his homeland, France, as “sterile, banal and laborious.” He expressed his terror that “My life, which I dream will be so beautiful, so poetic, so vast, so filled with love, will turn out to be like everyone else’s – monotonous, sensible, stupid.”

The Traveller looks at this situation and makes up his mind to flee, to escape from what Bertrand Russell called “the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilised countries suffer.” He tries desperately to escape from this fate, convincing himself that it is confined to his home continent, that he can quietly slip out while his kismet isn’t looking, and emancipate himself. “Anything, anything to stop drowning in this dull, trivial and cowardly existence,” in the words of Charles Bukowski. The Traveller lives like a Lost Boy, refusing to grow up, to give up, to settle down. He looks with horror at the bland, vapid platitudes of his Huxleyan world, and trembles.

The Traveller, even before he ever travels, has always longed for a different era, a different scene, wondering how it’s possible to feel nostalgia for something he’s never even experienced. Some place with colour, passion, soul. He takes refuge in listening to old music and watching foreign films, feeling a peculiar sense of comfort. He is haunted by beautiful visions dancing through his mind like memories from a previous life or an almost forgotten dream: sitting on a beach patio, smoking a cigar, typing on an old Remington, sipping a Bourbon under the open night sky, where all he sees is stars, all he feels is the cool breeze drying the sweat off his brow, and all he hears is the soulful symphony of sounds which keep him company – the waves flirting with the sandy beach, someone singing softly in the distance, crickets chirping in the nearby forest. Then he opens his eyes and sees nothing resembling any of that, and decides to abscond. He doesn’t yet know that this will define him, destroy him, and save him forever, for travel is the poison and the cure.

The long-time war correspondent Chris Hedges writes that war becomes addictive because it can “give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living,” exposing “the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives.” Yet, like a narcotic, it renders its user a slave, taking “a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill.” It is in this exact sense that travel is, for some of us, like war.

* * *

“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are […] we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world […] we may value foreign elements not only because they are new, but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide […] What we find exotic may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road 

A-wandering, a-wandering,
Until the day I die.

Robert W. Service, A Rolling Stone

The first time the Traveller lives abroad, and finally realizes that he is in fact a Traveller, he immediately forms a relationship with his new home. At first this relationship is euphoric and quite superficial, based on how beautiful the landscape is, how pleasant the food and weather are, and the exotic novelty of it all. Soon though, the relationship grows deeper when he realizes there is a part of him that the inhabitants of this strange land understand and appreciate in a way he’s never experienced before. There is a certain spirituality, a deep sincerity that thrives there; something that was long ago murdered by modernity in his own home. He dedicates a great deal of time getting to know the place better, seeing its many different faces, and learning about its past. It slowly lets him in. As they learn each other’s idiosyncrasies, they quarrel occasionally, like all great lovers, but it always ends up strengthening their relationship in the end. He respects his new home, and it takes care of him. When he smells the distinctive scents of the place, hears its sounds, and tastes its cuisine, he feels a kind of giddy exhilaration.

The Traveller soon realizes that what he feels for this new land is love. But there’s something different about this love. It’s not like the love for a pet, or even a friend. When the Traveller thinks about this new place, he feels the same butterflies that visit him when he thinks about a girl who has stolen his heart, the same deep understanding that he feels he alone possesses, and occasionally even the same jealousy when he meets another Traveller who feels the same way about it. The Traveller realizes that he doesn’t merely love this new land; he is in fact in love with it. And like all great first loves, it has the potential for tragedy.

* * *

The Traveller holds tourists in disdain. He scoffs at them as they make all of their silly mistakes, which they don’t even know they’re making. To him, merely visiting a place is a one-night stand – fun, but meaningless when compared to living there, which is more like a real relationship. He is insulted when he is mistaken for a tourist. “No,” he proudly proclaims, “I live here. I work here. This is my home.”

The Traveller enjoys working his way up the unspoken, yet quietly competitive ranks of the expatriate. The callow Traveller is mentored by the more experienced members of his order, with whom he immediately feels a deep connection. He learns to do everything as well as the locals; sometimes better. He learns to cross the street close enough to the cars to shake the drivers’ hands, to barter with the savviest merchants, to cook their food, and to court their women. He loves the look in their eyes when he speaks their vernacular, laced with colloquialisms.

The Traveller feels the inevitable contradiction between loving the special status he has as a foreigner and his deep desire to become one of the locals. As he plunges ever deeper into the culture, he is vaguely aware of the inevitable difficulty of finding his way back out, though still unaware of the “counter-culture shock” that will later rip him to shreds. He begins to resent many his fellow expatriates when they don’t take the same plunge, and a rift develops. They in turn resent him for questioning his Western identity, and for what they call “going native.” He becomes deeply protective of his new home, sometimes to an absurd extent, but that’s what love does.

* * *

An eraser lives an absurd existence. Every time it performs its job, a part of it is left behind. A part of it dies. Its job is to literally destroy itself, a little bit at a time. Like an eraser, part of the Traveller is left behind every time he leaves a place. Part of him dies every time.

The Traveller’s life is permeated by goodbyes, accompanied by sheepish empty promises of return. Goodbye. What a strange word. Is there really anything good about goodbye, anything fair in a farewell?

* * *

A Ukrainian ferry tore me away from Istanbul, away from the perfect city, the perfect girl, the perfect friends, the perfect little life. Sailing up the Bosphorus and across the Black Sea, that soft voice was still in my ear, those sad, dark eyes, full of secrets, penetrating my mind’s eye. Her voice, her eyes.

As I stood there in bewilderment, the impossibly powerful wind graciously provided an excuse for the tears streaming down my cheeks, and I knew that if I returned it would never be the same. The experience was a beautiful song that could only be played once. I’ve never felt wind like that before.

I opened my eyes and found myself back where I had come from, skinny, invisible, and ordinary again. It was like having woken up from a dream, or having returned from Wonderland, not entirely sure what was real and what was not.

That couldn’t possibly have happened, could it have? Are they still there, sipping Efes and playing poker? Is she still there, thinking about me, planning her wedding with him?

* * *

Waking up from a pleasant dream is always a quiet calamity. It slowly sets in that the wonderful events already fading from memory didn’t really happen. It was, quite literally, too good to be true. Knowing full well the futility, you immediately go to work trying to fall back asleep into the same dream. But you cannot. And would you really want to, only to have to say goodbye yet again?

Like a pleasant dream, I knew that I couldn’t return to Turkey, at least not to the same Turkey, to the same perfect experience. It was gone forever.

The second I left, my hair punished me for abandoning such a beautiful life by leaping from my head like lemmings from a cliff, condemning me to prolonged solitude, taking a fragile, newly-formed self-esteem and murdering it.

I walked around in a daze for the next five months at least. I sat in my room in Kitchener, Ontario, without question the most unromantic city in the history of human settlement, wondering how I had gone from sipping tea and smoking nargile, watching the giant British cruise ships and Russian oil tankers lumber down the Bosphorus, and sleeping next to an actual living angel, to living with a Scientologist and a retired stripper in a land that no longer felt like my own. But had it ever?

There is a famous expression in America that “You can’t go home again.” When I returned “home,” I realized that I no longer belonged there. I felt out of place. I saw the country of my birth in a different way, and was frustrated when others didn’t. Crippled by what they call “counter-culture shock,” and in full withdrawal from the narcotic of travel, I fled again as soon as I could, not knowing what else to do.

* * *

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn […] that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.

Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Any fool could fall in love with Turkey, what with its limitless and easy to reach travel destinations, perfect weather, beautiful, foreigner-loving, friendly locals, delicious food, reasonable prices, and exotic Middle Eastern appeal.

Russia was different. Russia was a beautiful, brilliant girl who had been raped as a child and abused all her life. She made it as difficult as she could to fall in love with her. I tried so hard, for two cold, lonely years, to embrace this porcupine. Moscow sensed my vulnerability and pounced, as Moscow does. It made me both stronger and weaker and for that I will always love it and hate it.

If six months in Turkey had lined up my Western values and identity, two years in Russia knocked them down. This was both liberating and destructive, because it didn’t replace them with anything. Now I am left with no home and no culture. The West claws back at me, hurt at losing one of its own, screeching that I am one of its children, that I can’t simply “choose” not to be. As if it were a choice. Who would choose such a thing. It is simply so. I am an outsider wherever I go, and always will be. I am an orphan looking for a parent who will never share my blood.

Beautiful Turkey deceived me into thinking I could leave all my demons at home. I cannot. They may take a later flight, but they will follow and they will find. Turkey gave me a happiness that cruelly exposed how unfulfilled I had been in Canada, like discovering a blooming orchard after a life full of plastic fruit. It seduced me into thinking that travel alone could make me happy. Russia bluntly showed me the cold truth. The lack of meaning in my life couldn’t be filled with travel.

* * *

As I became a more experienced traveller, I became better at it, learning all of the secrets, all of the tricks. I take pride in this, but I don’t take the credit. I was mentored by the best.

Stefan B. taught me how to respect a culture and communicate without a shared mother tongue, and showed me how far a confident smile can take you. Stefan M. and Paul, expats for life, taught me how to go even further and fully embrace a culture, even master it, and showed me the key to everything, which is of course the language. All of the bad expats, the Tourists, showed me how I ought not to be, and this is a constant struggle.

This experience killed the anxiety of travel, but also much of the excitement. I became desensitized, even bored. I learned the meaning of blasé. Suddenly riding on a boda-boda through the dusty streets of Africa is hardly even an ephemeral thrill. Like a drug, the high becomes less exciting but the addiction does not decrease.

But perhaps it no longer needs to be thrilling? Perhaps this is simply where I belong. Abroad. Overseas. The Road. Perhaps a more mature relationship is not based on thrills. It is based on understanding, commitment, and belonging.

And what of this current adventure, this tryst on the red, sun-baked soil? Simply another futile search, another hit of travel to numb my pain, a vain attempt to escape the inevitable?

No, this time is different. This time I won’t make the same mistakes. This time I know what I’m doing, and why, and how. This time I have my notepad. This time I will return.

Travel may have destroyed my national identity and exposed the lack of meaning in my life, but journalism has given me a new identity and a purpose. I haven’t become a Turk, a Russian, or a Rwandan, but I also no longer feel like a Canadian. I am a journalist. I am a Traveller.

Please check out my other creative nonfiction pieces here.

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3 thoughts on “On Travel

  1. Pingback: On Goodbyes | Advokat Dyavola

  2. Pingback: Return to an Istanbul Smouldering | Advokat Dyavola

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