The Brutality of Travel

On May 2nd, we had an election in Canada. This is not a political post, but as I woke up on Election Day I remembered a David Foster Wallace quote that I love.

By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.

After re-reading it, I felt like I needed another dose of David Foster Wallace for the day and stumbled across this video about failure.

What struck me is how clearly he articulated what makes travel both rewarding and difficult. There is an aspect of foreign travel that can infantilize travelers, especially when they come from a different set of cultural norms or do not speak the language.

It is really only in embracing that challenge and the likelihood of failure/making a fool out of yourself that travel becomes both a great pleasure and a means of growth. As David Foster Wallace says in the video, "it's painful to be here, but it's also good."

Travel like this, travel that infantilizes or confronts your own ignorance or naiveté, is usually the most fun for me because it gives me back that sense of child-like wonder. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can be hard when you're fumbling over words in a store, or trying to figure out what kind of seafood "sea wolf" is, or experiencing a squat toilet after a little too much wine. It throws you off. But that's good. We need that.

So, thinking about that video reminded me of this quote:

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it. - Cesare Pavese

At first the word "brutality" seems a bit excessive, doesn't it? Brutality brings up images total, ruthless cruelty.

But my dictionary also suggested these definitions for brutal:

  • Savagely violent
  • Punishingly hard or uncomfortable
  • Without any attempt to disguise unpleasantness

Unless you've ever been visited by some form of Montezuma's Revenge or worse, then the first two definitions probably--and thankfully--aren't all that applicable to most people.

I can get on board with the last definition, though. "Without any attempt to disguise unpleasantness?" Yes.

It's not so much that this type of brutality is intentional toward the traveler. Instead, it is all the things that are normal for the residents of a place but are completely foreign to the traveler that can feel brutal. Of course no one makes an attempt to disguise that unpleasantness. You are, essentially, the source of the unpleasantness as well as the recipient. It's culture shock.

Unless you're only ever going to Disney World or solely hopping to and from sites that thrive on tourist dollars (and, therefore, usually cater to tourists), then part of travel is accepting the bits that will be unpleasant for you.

You can prepare all you want, but you might not even know what those things are going to be or how you will react until you encounter them. It may be something that's so achingly simple for you back home or for the people who live there that it ends up driving you crazy. For David Foster Wallace it was ordering water. For me? Hmm. Navigating Italian roads and signage was one example.

I think fully experiencing Pavese's quote is more of a challenge now. Cesare Pavese was a writer who lived through censorship (and a prison sentence) in fascist Italy. I wonder how his view of travel might be different if he were alive today.

We, for the most part, don't have to give up nearly as much when we travel, which is nice. It is so much easier to stay connected to friend and family via the internet or cellphones while we are abroad.

On my last trip to France, I used the internet more than I ever have while on vacation. It's great for checking maps, restaurants, hours, weather, and the like, but it's a slippery slope into checking Twitter/email/Facebook/watching YouTube etc., etc., etc. If you let it, it has the power to bring too much of the comfort of home back to your trip, which dulls the experience of traveling.

After realizing how much I was using the internet, I ended up with a new personal rule of putting a moratorium on checking anything not trip related. It reminded me of this John Mayer song, "3x5."

I'm writing you to catch you up on places I've been/ And you held this letter/ Probably got excited, but there's nothing else inside it/ Didn't have a camera by my side this time/ Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes

There's deep, inherent value in allowing yourself to be thrown off-balance when you travel. It can also be a lot of fun.

Try. Listen. Ask questions. Talk to people, even if it means using a pocket dictionary, terrible grammar, and hand signals. Learn. Soak it all in; marvel at the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the people. And, then, take it with you for the rest of your life.

But always pack lots of Imodium, because there isn't much that's redeeming about Montezuma's Revenge. That's just total brutality. Although, it can make for good stories later. Silver lining!

(Since this is starting to sound a little like my version of Baz Lurhmann's "Sunscreen" speech: Yes, wear sunscreen, but also pack plenty of Imodium and Benadryl. Trust me on this.)