Monday, March 9

the bucket list

The following is the final product of some musing that began before my trip did. I'll have an update on my status tomorrow.

No one has ever heard of Alain de Botton with the exception of his mother and the few newspaper book reviewers whose quotes adorn the back of his books. If you know who he is I’m wildly impressed. De Botton was raised a spoiled rich kid in Britain, but dropped out of a Ph.D program at Harvard to pursue his passion: the writing, fiction and non-fiction, on the philosophy of everyday life.

A South African fellow introduced me to de Botton’s The Art of Travel while I was stumbling along the Inca Trail in Peru with an even clumsier friend--who happens to be a surgical resident. The book is a fascinating and nontraditional look at the psychology of travel and uses the lives and works of artists and writers to examine five ideas: 1) departure and the overlooked beauty found waiting at the airport watching planes take off, or taking a cab through a shanty town en route to a five-star resort; 2) motive and why we seek to go places other than our own backyard; 3) a comparison of cityscapes and countryscapes; 4) art and how it captures beauty and opens one’s eyes to landscapes viewed through another’s perspective; and 5) return, an interesting perspective on Frenchman Xavier de Maistre’s extensive travels in his own bedroom. Needless to say, de Botton's travelogue provided me with some of the self-insight I needed to realize what I was missing through my travels. 

I am constantly looking to improve my lot upon this planet and that includes my approach to travel. In years past I've found that instead of truly enjoying and capturing the beauty and culture of places I visited, I was merely taking pictures and checking names off of a bucket list. My trips that produced the most vivid memories involved an emotional high, whether it was physical pain or laughter: an experience that pseudo-traumatizes the subconscious. For example, hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or sitting around drinking beer and playing cards with some locals in a backwater town in Peru. One can easily take a car or plane to every worthwhile destination on the map, but the most rewarding experiences come when you get of your car and leave the comfort of the known. Pack up your stuff and hike alone into the wilderness or strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

All too often people view travel as the proverbial notch-on-the-bedpost. We must go to as many places as possible just so we can brag to friends about our travels by updating a world map on Facebook or posting gaggles of pictures on Flickr. American culture propagates this absurdity by publishing books on the 50 Places You Must See Before You Die or the 1001 Beautiful Cities/Canyons/Churches You’re Freakin’ Crazy Not to Visit. Before you know it, a generation of kids is traveling the globe without ever developing any type of relationship with the places they rush to visit.

Novelists create characters that represent an amalgam of people they know. During my summer abroad in Egypt, our group was often graced with the presence of a girl whose character perfectly embodies everything that is wrong with travel culture. Everyday I got to hear: “Ok, so last year I went to Turkey and it was like so beautiful and this year I’m going to Jordan and then two days later my parents are chartering a plane to fly me to Peru because the little girls in their native dresses are like soooo cute!” That might not be so terrible in and of itself, but her posse of girls would only eat only at the Euro Café, a hipster joint for Egyptian college kids who need wi-fi and croissants to avoid eating local cuisine with their fellow poverty-stricken countrymen. As if!

She also thought it a terrible idea to try and learn a few words of Arabic since we were only going to be in Egypt for two months. She is the reason foreigners think Americans are assholes.

I understand it’s easy to throw some of that back in my face. Yes, I ate at the Euro Café once, and during the past month I’ve not had time to enjoy some places as much as I would have liked. Now this is partially due to my blog, but at every stop I take time to examine my thoughts for what each place means to me. Descriptions and metaphors, yes, but I also search for peculiar flaws in seemingly invincible rock, the perfect angle to capture an image, or I try to walk in the shoes of people whose experiences long predate my own. I eat the house special at restaurants recommended by locals and try to get the latest gossip from the waitresses. Sometimes I just sit on the ground among a grove of trees listening to and feeling the breeze as the dense pines mute the faraway beckoning of civilization.

I owe many of the ideas for destinations on this trip to stories I’ve read by John Steinbeck and Bill Bryson, but de Botton’s work fundamentally changed my philosophy towards travel. Instead of simply taking pictures I try to immerse myself in and become a part of the landscape and cultures I’ve seen, even if it’s as a white Catholic guy in the middle of southern Egypt.

No comments:

Post a Comment