Alternative Travel

The consolation we had planned for the future loss of our beloved dog was a long-awaited trip to—wait for it—Trieste. But we lost Louie abruptly, just as coronavirus hit Italy hard. So what did we do? Adopted another dog, thus complicating any future travel, because who wants to sit out a pandemic without a puppy? In the evenings, when he finally tires himself out playing, I reach for a vicarious vacation: The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas. It is, sez Oxford University Press, the first-ever philosophical study of travel.

That surprises me, actually, given how many philosophers have roamed the world looking for the meaning of life. Anyone who thinks they stay in their armchairs has not encountered the species. Still, perhaps they have been too busy seeking other insights to reflect upon their own journeys. In any event, I open this first-ever book eagerly, curious to know why I, the daughter of a woman who thought thirty miles an impossible distance, so crave travel.

In 1642, I read, James Howell listed among the fruits of Forreine Travell “delightful ideas, and a thousand various thoughts.” Fine, but I can have delightful ideas in my own armchair. There has to be more to it. A few pages later, I stop, grinning. Here we are. The whole point of venturing forth, Thomas has announced, is that “travel shows us otherness.” The italicized word sends a shiver down my spine. This is my magnet, my sepia map with “There Be Dragons” inscribed at the edge.

And to be honest, this is one of my niggling worries about coronavirus. It is not that I travel much; it has been seven years since our last real vacation, a fact that drenches me in self-pity even as I realize how lucky I am to have ever gone anywhere at all. But the idea of travel keeps my curiosity alive; it is a promise I dangle over my own head. If we are forced to live circumscribed in order to keep a global pandemic in check, will our world views shrink too?

Real travel is measured not in distance but in unfamiliarity, the otherness of the place and its food, music, language, art, customs, landscape, wildlife, history, rituals, and beliefs. To travel safely in the current weird landscape, then, I will have to immerse myself in lifeways that are, to me, exotic. The suburbs might be a start, with their soccer games, minivans, and influx of coyotes. But will I be able to immerse myself without being cast out as a strange and presumptuous voyeur?

For starters, I must neither romanticize nor vilify all those recipes and lawn sprinklers. “Montaigne repeatedly reminds his readers that what is new to one person is, to another, daily habit. Promiscuity. Patricide. Infanticide.” He argues against “exoticizing” unfamiliar peoples, making them appear too different. This is the “orientalization” journalists are now accusing other journalists of, in covering the origin of coronavirus in a wet market and going into vivid detail about all the creatures sold there, or in describing how bats line the caves that are visited as holy places. If a golden retriever puppy had been the reservoir for coronavirus, Americans would be leaping to the breed’s defense. If the mildew in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Field made people sick, the Brits would tactfully, swiftly clean it, not another word said. But we cannot fathom or control the practices of those in less familiar places, which makes them either seductive or scary.

Besides, it is so easy to gawk. On the wharf in San Francisco, with sailors arriving from every part of the globe, I once trotted along after a leathery-tan guy in a bandanna with a huge brilliant parrot on his shoulder, puzzled that he was eluding every photo op until my friend pointed out that he just might be running from a foe, a cop, a furious lover, or the parrot’s owner. I forgot that lesson all over again in the Basque region of Spain, eager to photograph groups of somber men in black berets who made it quite plain that they did not wish to be my subject.

They were “exotic”: by definition, “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.” The sheer difference is what thrills us, gives us bragging rights, widens the territory over which we can stake a claim. Granted, it helps if that difference is pleasant. But what has always puzzled me is the people who want to reverse the equation and make their exotic experience safe and predictable. These are the folks who hire porters to cook them steak and potatoes every night as they proceed up the slope of Mount Everest. They want to say they have experienced the exotic, but it will be only a sliver, a predictable and controllable sliver, of their trip. For the rest of the time, homogenization is just fine; they like it when people speak their language, cities are readily navigable, and hotels offer the amenities of home. Travelers as they climb, they revert to tourists for the rest of the trip.

Curiously, what I remember from past vacations are not the wonders but the calamities, the quirky discoveries, the intersections with strangers. The tiny plane making what looked for all the world like a crash landing in thick forest at the Viking tip of Newfoundland. The time the lock snapped off in the lock of my rented purple Gremlin after midnight Mass, and the Irish priest shared his finest Irish whiskey and funniest stories until the locksmith came. The elderly ladies who giggled about going to a topless (tapas) bar in Barcelona. Riding in the open back of a truck on the way to Cap-Haïtien the day election protestors started throwing bottle rockets. Getting lost in a barrio in Pamplona and playing ball with some little boys. The many other times I was stranded, lost, or uncertain and, like Blanche Dubois, relied on the kindness of strangers.

Camus said it: “What gives the value to travel is fear.” Not fear of otherness itself, but fear because we have plucked ourselves from our safe place and exposed ourselves to the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, the risky, the sublime. If we survive it, we will return home changed.

If we stay home in order to survive, we will have to find new ways to shake ourselves open.