Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Travel?

i recently remarked that in Chile i am working, reading, writing, eating, drinking, walking, and doing other things that i customarily do in america; my sister asked me a question about why i even travel, with the implication being why bother if you do pretty much the same things you do in america, and i answered her fairly glibly as is my custom.  but i realized that sarcasm wasn't a straight answer, and it certainly didn't explain why i love this so much.

so this is partly an apology in the customary sense to my sister for brushing her off, and partly an apologia in the classical sense for why i like to travel.

this actually takes some thought to put into words, because it seems so obvious or at least intuitive to those who love to travel why they love it.  it's like asking why one likes warm, sunny days or movies with happy endings.  you ask someone familiar with wanderlust why they like to travel and you'll get the same blank, uncomprehending stare as if you ask someone why puppies are cute.  

which brings me around to the disconnect between americans who like to travel and the vast majority of americans who don't: i think it has to do with the american psyche and our cultural expectations.  as a young, extremely diverse country built upon big ideas we have a certain youthful optimism about the world and our place in it: namely, that america is the greatest country in the world, and we understand why people would want to come here.  implicit in that is a certain level of arrogance as well: namely, that america is the greatest country in the world, and why would we want to go elsewhere.  we're raised to believe this, so it can hardly be helped; and while in some ways that foundational belief about being the greatest country may be true, in many ways it's not.  there is greatness to be found in every country, big or small, young or old, if you just know where to look.  and even if that american assumption were true, that doesn't mean there aren't things to learn or experience or take part in elsewhere.

if you read travel literature, much has been said about the wonderful strangeness of being in foreign lands, being forced outside of your comfort zone and really having to interact with people.  this is part of the appeal, it's true; i've met so many great people travelling, quite a few that i'm still friends with, despite being a rather anti-social person who has never gone out of his way to meet anyone.  so there's that aspect.  but it's also much more than that.

i'm in chile at the moment, so i'll use it as an example.  you can probably find  books published in chile back in america, or chilean spices at some markets, and you can certainly find chilean wines.  you can watch shows about the andes and the long coastline and the people.  you can watch documentaries about the history, other shows about the art and architecture, and if you're really persistent you can find chilean cinema in some places. in other words, you could try to fabricate a chilean experience without leaving america, but that's all it would be: a fabrication.  the food would have been shipped thousands of miles and would be radiated and sterilized and could never taste the same. you can't truly appreciate the art and architecture until you are surrounded by it, removed from it not by thousands of miles and a television screen but by only a few feet of sidewalk.  you will certainly not be able to pick up on the feel for the place or the mood of the people.  you'll never have the awkward yet gratifying feeling of trying to negotiate with a farmer over the price of potatoes when neither of you speaks the other's language.  you won't be able to reproduce the recipes exactly, with the same ingredients in the same atmosphere as you would walking into a shadowy doorway into a building that's been used for generations, if not centuries, to cook the same foods.

think of all the things that you love about your home country.  now think that in every country, people have very similar opinions about what they love about their own country.  in short, wrap up every single memory you can think of from your life in america: the food, the streets, the people, the movies, the scent of the air, the games kids play outdoors (or don't), walking in parks, shopping, drinking, riding the bus, sleeping... on and on and on -- and all of it is familiarly strange and strangely familiar, yet wholly new in every country you go to.  it is it's own milieu, not to be recreated, reproduced, or experienced anywhere else.  it is not possible to do so.

i don't want to romanticize travel too much, but there is a certain joy that comes from breathing new air, seeing new faces, eating new food, walking new streets.  it's easy to become complacent, even content, with a stationary life; but not everything can be learned in books or experienced through a television screen.  some things can only be known by being immersed into them, and these are the things that are most worth knowing.  there are trade offs, to be sure, and inconveniences to spare; but once you admit that you feel inconvenienced because your expectations aren't being met, and realize that other people have different expectations, it's a simple step towards changing your expectations, changing your attitude, and understanding these strange and beautiful people that you're amongst just a little bit better.

and what's the purpose of all of this?  well that's another question that'll earn you a blank faced stare, and one i haven't had as much time to think about.  for now let me end by saying that experiencing the way other people live, walking amongst them and their history, eating and drinking and living as one of them--all of this makes you that much wiser, that much more understanding, that much more human. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thought on Breakfast Cereal

what i presumed at the store to be bran flakes with raisins turned out to bran flakes with cocoa clusters.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011


just starting our 7th day here in Santiago.  in case you were wondering, we made our flight in Bogota; in fact, we got off our plane and waited while they cleaned it and then got right back on. no security check, no changing terminals. so that was convenient. we got in very early in the morning, but had no troubles there, either. our hosts/landlords marcello and jim are very cool and very nice.  they're also involved in the restoration of this historic neighborhood, and are working with a university, from whom they received a large grant, developing strategies for preservation as well as cataloging items of historical and cultural significance.  it's all really cool and means that we got to look at over a dozen walking tours they've put together on the computer, and we're the first to be given the opportunity to walk them.

the first few days we just stayed around the neighborhood. we're very close to plaza brasil and plaza yungay, the latter of which is where in the early days of the city the merchants set up their private residences; later on the chilean aristocracy moved in as well, and there were architectural races, of a sort, to see who could create the most unique and interesting palaces.  there's a lot of cool buildings here.

we've only eaten out a couple times, but every time the food has been fantastic. there's a great place around the corner where their house special pisco sours include fresh minced green chilis.  the smell is really interesting, and you get the chili on the tongue when you drink, but the pisco and lemon kill any afterburn you might expect, so it's just a really good, complexly flavored drink.

yesterday we took the bus downtown to plaza armas and walked around a bit. we climbed santa lucia, a hill nearby with a fort on top.  later we made our way to an artisan market, where they have all kinds of cool craftwork: wood and stone carvings, clothing, leather goods, lapis lazuli jewelry, musical instruments, etc.  nora got a skirt/dress that she's thrilled about, but i have to be honest i think i'm even more excited about my purchase: a leather messenger bag.  i've been looking for a suitable one for over three years now, and i think i finally found one i'm satisfied with.  all in all, a successful day.

nora's classes start tomorrow, and the classes i teach have been moved to a new format, so there's a lot of work for me to do getting ready before they start on sunday, so the next few days may not be as exciting.  still, this is a great city, and we're in a wonderful part of it if you like walking around and taking in the ambiance--which we do.

oh, one last note to all of you in the northern hemisphere reading this: it's hot here. thankfully, there's a constant breeze and wind blowing through, but even then it's quite warm. nora got a sunburn on her nose yesterday. those of you back home who just got snow dumped on them, enjoy it while it lasts, but here's to hoping it doesn't last too long.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years Day

despite what one may hope for, life is not quite a U2 song. for one, the world i inhabit is not white. for another, to say that nothing changes is not quite accurate (nora and i are now the owners of our very own car, for example).  perhaps some other parts of that song still ring true.

after a particularly nerve-wracking flight to pennsylvania in december, we decided not to wait until may to purchase a car, and instead bought one there and drove it back. we're very pleased with the results.

in 4 days we have to be at the airport shortly before 7 am and will start the long journey to santiago.  there is one connection, in bogota, colombia, in which we have 45 minutes to pass through security and board our next flight, or else we will have to stay the night in the airport.  hopefully we'll make the window, because there are a lot of places i'd prefer not to spend the night, and the bogota airport is one of them. if all things go as planned, we'll be in santiago, chile early in the morning on the 6th, where we've rented a lovely apartment for a month.

from chile we have a week to meander our way to buenos aires, where we are renting an apartment for another month.  we haven't chosen that one quite yet, but we've narrowed down the list of possibilities from thousands to hundreds to dozens to a handful.  i feel confident in our ability to make the last step.

when our time is up in buenos aires it will be halfway through march. we don't plan on being home until the first or second week of may, and are hoping to be able to poke around uruguay, paraguay, bolivia, and peru in the remaining 7 or 8 weeks.  we'll see what happens.

enjoy the new year, everyone, wherever you are.