Real Travel

December 21, 2011

Columbus, MS, Culture, Travel

I had always wanted to travel since the 8th Grade when Bertrand Leverrier, a French exchange student, came to our country day school to visit. For two years I had studied French and wondered what it would be like to sit at Café des Deux Magots, walk on the Champs Elysees, or climb the Eiffel Tower — all pictured in my French I and II textbooks.  Then Bertrand came.  I don’t remember exactly how he looked, but he was different from the rest of us.  In the eye of my memory, I see him dressed in tailored jackets, smoking a Gauloise, hair tapered over his collar; but the reality, I am sure, was quite different.  I remember when ten Russian exchange students came to my son’s high school in 1994.  They came looking Soviet, clunky and unsure, with plaid shirts and high-water pants, but within two weeks they were indistinguishable from American kids.  Bertrand had certainly come to New Britain looking very French, but soon became a 50’s American clone.  However he looked, he was French – foreign, exotic, a symbol of ‘the rest of the world’ that I wanted to see.

My desire to travel next surfaced in graduate school which had welcomed new Peace Corps Volunteers in its new International Studies Program.   They were Peace Corps I and II, the very first volunteers. They had seen the rest of the world.  While I had no idea what mate or chapatis were, or what Luzon, Dar-es-Salaam, or Accra were like, I knew I wanted to go.

My first trip outside the United States was to France in the Summer of 1968.  The American girl I went with had grown up in France and was returning to visit friends, so it was only by coincidence that my first foray out was to the country of my 8th Grade fantasies.

My first day in Paris, however, was a disappointment.  I am not sure what I was expecting, but it must have been something like the curtain going up on Aida, travelling from the dark of the theatre to Italian Egypt in seconds, a complete transformation, a spectacle of gold and pageantry, dramatic orchestral music, an explosion of light, sound, and color.  In Paris I expected to see the Sun King, the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre – all of Royal France — and Sixties European bohemia all before me in an operatic mix.  Instead I saw people waiting for the bus, walking in the rain with umbrellas and raincoats, going in and out of stores.  I saw apartment buildings, department stores, and traffic.  “This isn’t so different from New York”, I told my girlfriend.  I had no idea that perception took time, that the cultural curtain goes up more slowly than at the Met and what is seen on the street stage is more subtle and muted.

On my second day, I began to notice that not only were things different, all things were different.  The Metro clattered like metal hinges on loose planking.  It groaned when it started up, rattled and shook between stations like a wooden cart. Bells clanged, doors slammed shut, the train was slow and stopped every few minutes – nothing like the A-Train which rocketed up the West Side of New York, swaying and roaring past station stops, and looking out the window was like seeing the flickering of an old movie.

The sound of walking was lighter, brisker, and did not resemble the thudding of hard heels-in-a hurry of New York, or the softer shuffle of hippie sandals in the Village.  The cigarette smoke was acrid, not the sweet smell of Virginia tobacco.  The light was different, the weather cooler and damper.  Four people sat at a café table where only one big American would fit.  We ambled when we walked, spread out when we sat.  There was a bigness, a broadness, a lankiness about us whereas the French were more contained, more self-aware and put-together (my girlfriend remarked that no Frenchman would pass a mirror without looking in it).  When I realized how different we were, how I stood out, not the Parisians, I knew that the curtain had finally gone up.

My first day in Bombay, not many months later that year, was entirely different.  All of India was operatic, and I knew it from the moment I stepped off the plane.  Living in India was not discovering differences, it was being dumbfounded by them.  In a crowded market, I didn’t know where to look because there was so much to look at.  My senses were jostled – a foul, shocking odor; then suddenly the sweetness of jasmine or incense.  Bright saris and festoons, falsetto filmi songs over tiny loudspeakers, cowbells, drum tattoos rapped out by mangy monkeys.  I loved it, immersed myself in it, couldn’t get enough of it.  I walked through the bazaars of Calcutta until I couldn’t take it anymore. I got to the point where every smell was overpowering, the dense heat and crowds too oppressive, the noise incessant and unnerving, and I retreated back to my colonial enclaves.

After those early years in India, I continued travelling for forty more.  I travelled in over 50 countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Central Europe.  I loved it.  It was a great ride, a fun house, an exciting adventure with few exceptions.

At the same time I never considered myself a real traveller.  I felt I had no real adventurous spirit.  I remained in the bazaars of Old Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, travelled comfortably to rural outposts and stayed in Government Circuit Houses, the well-attended halting places of officers of the Raj as they went on tour. I hung out at hotel pools in Cotonou, Dakar, or Kigali.  I ate at French restaurants in Bamako, English restaurants in Nairobi.  It was all a very romantic, sensuous, and rich life, but not really adventure.  From the protected enclaves of suburban America, yes, I ran risks – of disease, mangling traffic accidents, and in later years assault and kidnapping; but these were risks that happened, not risks I sought.  My heroes were the explorers Richard Burton, Mungo Park, Paul de Chaillu, Charles Doughty, and T.E. Lawrence; the single-handed, round-the-world sailors Slocum and Chichester; and the heroic survivors of exploration like Ernest Shackleton.

These were men who risked their lives for exploration and fame.  Burton wanted to find the source of the Nile, Mungo Park the direction of flow of the Niger.  Chaillu wanted to document the existence of gorillas and pygmies.  Doughty wanted to explore the absolute desolation of the Empty Quarter of Arabia; Slocum wanted to be the first to circumnavigate the globe.  Chichester wanted to set modern solo sailing records. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is both a chronicle of his military exploits in WWI, but also an insightful look at Middle Eastern culture in the early 20th Century.

The tale of Shackleton’s failed voyage on the Endurance in a race to the South Pole is taught at schools of management.  Shackleton and his crew endured unimaginable hardship – an Antarctic winter, a brutal crossing in a lifeboat across ferocious seas, climbs over almost impassable mountain ranges to get help from one lone outpost, and a return to save the crew members left behind.  Not one crew member died.  Shackleton was able to get the best out of each man, keep morale up, organize food and shelter, and lead an ultimately successful mission.

Chichester’s accounts of rounding Cape Horn single-handedly in his small boat, the Gypsy Moth frightening and astounding:

One day out on the return trip via Cape Horn, the boat was rolled in a 140-degree capsize. Chichester calculated the angle by measuring the mark on the cabin roof made by a wine bottle. He commented in his diary and in a later interview with Time magazine that he knew she would self-right as she was designed to, but was concerned by the incident as this was a light storm and he still had to pass Cape Horn, where the third and most significant event of the voyage would occur:

“The waves were tremendous. They varied each time, but all were like great sloping walls towering behind you. The kind I liked least was like a great bank of gray-green earth 50′ (15 m) high and very steep. Image yourself at the bottom of one. My cockpit was filled five times and once it took more than 15 minutes to drain. My wind-reading machine stopped recording at 60 knots. My self-steering could not cope with the buffeting…I had a feeling of helplessness.” (Wikipedia)

Sir Richard Francis Burton has always been my hero.  I can do no better than Wikipedia in a description of him:

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia, Africa and the Americas as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages.

Burton’s best-known achievements include travelling in disguise to Mecca, an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (also commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after Andrew Langs abridgement), bringing the Kama Sutra to publication in English, and journeying with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans led by Africa’s greatest explorer guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, utilizing route information by Indian and Omani merchants who traded in the region, to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Burton extensively criticized colonial policies (to the detriment of his career) in his works and letters. He was a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behavior, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices and ethnography. A unique feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and unexpurgated information.

He was a captain in the army of the East India Company serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life he served as British consul in Fernando Po, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.

Burton was so talented that before embarking on his famous journey to Mecca where he intended (and succeeded) in going on the haj and viewing the kaaba, the inner sanctum, the holiest of holies of Islam, he could choose among many nationalities to impersonate so that he would not be discovered as a Christian and be killed.  After reflection, he chose to be an Afghan – his complexion was right; the dress was easy; he spoke fluent Farsi; and he could speak Arabic with the perfect accent of a Farsi-speaker.

By comparison, I have been a tourist.  While not a sightseer and while visiting places most true tourists will never see, I have never been an adventurer, explorer, or intrepid traveller.  I have been an observer, an interloper, an outsider.  I have never come even close to my favorite modern travel writers who, write as much about themselves and their personal discoveries as about the events they describe.  Peter Mathiessen is one of the best examples of this as well, and his Snow Leopard is an account of near religious experience in tracking the elusive (and perhaps mythical) Himalayan snow leopard with George Schaller.

Paul Theroux is perhaps the best travel writer writing today.  He is always personal, if not confessional, and his Dark Star Safari – an account of his retracing an African trip he took as a much younger man – is perhaps the best he has done.  Turning 60 was difficult for Theroux as he recounts, and as part of his own challenge to old age, he not only retraced his steps through parts of Africa that are now far more dangerous than they were 30 years before (Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan), but he did it in the back of pickups, in nasty third class trains, and staying at mosquito-infested desert outposts.

Theroux said in one of this earliest books, recounting a happy life in Africa, that he knew at the time that those years were going to be the best years of his life.  Most of us appreciate our happiest years only after they are long past – after the hardships of life have shown us by comparison what happiness was really like.  Theroux’s happiness was made even more so because he knew it at the time.   I have never approached this kind of insight.

I have stopped international travel.  I had the good sense to quit before it became unpleasant.  In my last working years I still enjoyed Angola, Mozambique, and Madagascar, but the enjoyment of these exotic places barely offset the pain and suffering of getting there and getting back and the increasing dangers of the cities.  My happy memories are still intact.  I don’t read the chronicles of the great adventurers either, and they too are part of my former life.

It was a great ride.  I was no Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, but it was a fabulous life.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog, http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

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