Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wanderlust; or, is travel sexy?

by Chris Moses

When Christopher Columbus first happened upon the shores of Hispaniola and took stock of new world natives he confronted a trying question of Biblical proportions. Less the awesomeness of discovery or any premonition about the weighty changes he had set in motion—Columbus faced a crisis of clothing. Did the Indians wear anything? Were they compelled to cover themselves out of shame? That is, had these foreign and strange people fallen before God, or were they somehow prelapsarian, untainted by Adam’s original sin?

Like any good reporter—and like the savvy rhetorician he was—Columbus hedged his bet. Yes: naked, exotic, virginal. But still not all or everyone. Covering too had its place. Rather than land on one side or the other, he straddled the defining crux in Christianity’s narrative of humankind’s emergence from Eden:

"La gente d’esta isla y de todas las otras que he fallado y havido ni aya havido noticia, andan todos desnudos, hombres y mugeres, así como sus madres los paren, haunque algunas mugeres se cobijan un solo lugar con una foia de yerva o una cosa de algodón que para ello fazen."

"The people of this island, and of all the others that I have found or learned about, they all go about naked, men and women, as their mothers had them, although some of the women cover that one place with a leaf of grass or a bit of cotton which they have fashioned for this purpose."

With remarkable clarity, Columbus entwined the characteristic dilemmas of an encounter with the otherwise unknown. Equal parts familiarity and mystery, proximity and distance, he dances between expectation and originality. The ways of seeing are old and trustworthy while the sites and sounds may be new; and between the two God’s greater truth will be confirmed.

Now we’re a long way from 1492. And I’m absolutely loathe to set out universal dictums about the ways in which difference and discovery either lead to greater human understanding or reinforce existing prejudices and inequality.

Instead I pick out this Big Kahuna of exploration to make two points: exoticism and travel are not new or unfamiliar bedfellows, before Columbus or since. Second, the variety and texture of this tango spans as many times, places, and people as have seen the light of day. Only because such quests lust for originality does each one try to mark itself out as a paragon of newness or revelation.

The power of truth as never-before-seen gets proven by the one other travel trope that even comes close to matching this wow factor for frequency and durability—the lament of loss. The best insurance for having found something unique is to weep at its corruption, to prove that never again will it be witnessed in its untainted splendour. You have seen, and in seeing you have sullied. Just like sex burdened by Christianity’s ethos of shame, the explorer’s peaks of joy and valleys of despair get traversed by pathways of guilt.

I offer this half satirical and half historical account to clear the air of my own far-reaching wanderings over the past year. Unhinged from long-standing family responsibilities, and with the need for archival research abroad, I’ve been somewhat placeless for nearly a year—and before that, a long preludes of comings and goings. Between visits to friends, work and simple holiday breaks, I’ve been fortunate to see many corners of the globe—from Colombia to Cambodia, Marrakech to Mumbai. Based here in Britain, too, I’ve been able to gain a more settled sort of familiarity beyond the US.

Yet I remain a bit obstinate about capitulating to any sort of narrative of self-discovery or clear-sighted vision of truth-through-tribulation. To my own quasi-romantic sensibility, the wonder of travel mingles far more with the mundane and satisfies in stillness what’s otherwise entangled in the frantic routines and sustaining habits of the everyday. The terrible cliché of life being a journey and not a destination deserves its fate as a poster hanging in faux inspiration from the immobile walls of immobile teachers’ immobile classrooms: any fool who has put one foot before the other knows that movement and place inextricably define one another.

And so I voice my skepticism for the packaged ‘life-changing experience’ with the point that one must have a tremendous sense of foresight to recognize how the here-and-now will resolve itself through the course of innumerable days to come. Indeed I worry that for many the dramatic is performed, semi-willfully, in a cauldron of foreignness itself manufactured for the creation of ‘unique’ experiences—performed and then given an over-determining role to prove the truth of its ‘life-changing’ force. This is exactly the repulsion and dread I feel from those who declare high school or college or whenever to have been the best years of their life. Foreclosure is never a pretty picture.

Foreclosure with travels come to an end, houses lost in economic hardship, or the sexual demarcation of virginity taken or lost, innocence replaces by shame—these events get bound together as a way to recount stories and display a set of emotions as real as they are expected by those to whom we tell our tales.

Here I find my own sense of feminism, both a freedom and a trap. It’s a sense that, canvas charted, I will animate in future posts with more anecdotal and confounding experiences from these many months of travel. In the meantime I’m off to scout some after-Easter candy sales before I head to yoga, sugary contradiction of meditative reflection that it is.

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