I cling to the hope that I can continue to learn about the places and people I visit long after I’ve left. This hope is motivated by reading a book about a place I thought I understood (1,200 words).
The photo Evan chose to appear when I call him is ten years old. I’m in Laos, with a very modest though hard-won tan exaggerated against a white Chang Beer singlet. I’m smirking, standing beside a souvenir kiosk and probably hungover. That visit with my friend Vanessa was our first without parents and all about asserting independence in the fumbling and destructive ways that tend to appeal to eighteen year olds. Food, culture, people, history were backdrops to the drama of ME.
Evan chose this photo because he finds it funny, in its contrasts to the woman he now lives with. Because now my hair is sheared off, my alcohol tolerance has plummeted and perhaps my reasons for travel have shifted.
When I see the photo, what comes to mind is that we are always adjusting who we compare ourselves to. Now that I value travel as a way to learn about others and their homes, I compare my efforts to those who seem to single-mindedly pursue these goals. Through this lens I fall short: I see bicycle travel as primarily about my wants and needs, even though I put the spotlight on others much more than I used to.
Can this change?
I can slowly increase my baseline such that the typical day is a little less hedonistic—at least after eating. But I think the largest adjustment to make is to increase the time made available for learning through travel. Among these activists or writers or travellers I compare myself to, I see a consistency: that they continue to keep these places and people in mind long after they’ve left. It’s as if they have decided to embark on a life-long relationship with them.
If learning is the aim, it doesn’t make sense to limit it to the arbitrary dictations of a visa stamp, a budget or a boss’ permissions. I’m probably one of many, many people to realize this and will regardless write about why this excites me.
A lot of travel by any method is banal. By bicycle, so much time is gobbled up searching for free water, cold coke, hot tea, calorific food, road safety, secure resting places, all at the right price which is to say generally the cheapest price. The harder truth for me to swallow is this: the emotional and intellectual curiosity remaining for the world beyond oneself is not always optimized. For every time I choose engagement or vulnerability, there are more times that I sleep far earlier than I need to, truncate a conversation, or otherwise focus on myself even though my primary needs are met.
So time on the ground has its limitations, both the inevitable and the avoidable ones. Perhaps even more significant is that travel takes place within a mindset. An enduring theme of my visits has been men: pursuing them, fearing them, wondering about them. If I have seen the world, it has often (only?) been through man-tinted spectacles.
Lately most of my travel has been by bicycle, and this is another set of spectacles to wear. This method affords deep and varied investigations into subtle geographic variations in fashion, tomato prices, the greetings and hand-waving techniques currently in vogue, what baked good best maintains its flavour and texture when stale. But I leave a place in a state of near-total ignorance about a lot of the other stuff, particularly anything having to do with change over time.
It doesn’t always feel this way. I’ll be travelling and stumble upon a conversation, newspaper article or someone’s actions and will think triumphantly “I get it, now I understand this place/these people.” This triumph should generally be met with skepticism. Eric Olander of the China In Africa podcast articulates what I’m getting at, I’ll paraphrase him: “Once you think you understand China is when you stop understanding China.”
I try to remember that travel is more about collecting the dots rather than connecting them. Their connection is better viewed as a life-long process, the marriage of information and opinion, art and science, time and memory.
It’s been two years since I saw the XOCALINI, QARABAGI UNUTMA (“TO KHOJALI, KARABAKH OBLIVION!”) billboard in Azerbaijan, with crimson paint mimicking dripping blood. Though I was so glad to visit I will probably never return to Azerbaijan; besides, if its authorities discovered I had visited Nagorno-Karabakh I would be banned from returning. The ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has defined much of recent history for both Azerbaijan and Armenia. I’m in a better place to learn about the conflict now that I’m far away from Karabakh’s painfully gorgeous landscapes.
Perhaps I asked for Black Garden—a journalists’ account of the conflict—for my recent birthday because I was horrified. Not horrified at the conflict, though it is a marked tragedy, but because of the cloud of selective ignorance I floated on during my travels there.
De-mined rolling grasslands obscured by October’s fogs were only interesting to me because my wild-camping plans didn’t include getting maimed. We left Vank without visiting Gandzasar Monastery because we had lounged the whole morning in our tent, canoodling and suffering vodka’s effects. When a plain-clothed official foiled our attempted cycle into Aghdam, once called by Lonely Planet the “Caucasian Hiroshima,” I only cared that my bluff had been called and that Evan wouldn’t get to be a desolation tourist for an afternoon.
Nevertheless I collected some dots: The pride of the impoverished people remaining in Karabakh. The billboards yelling about smooth new highways connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, built by the Armenian diaspora. Military vehicles roaming up and down these roads, their cargo men with different hair colours, different eyes, same uniforms. The demolished buildings with full-grown trees spreading out from their centres. In reading Black Garden I’m starting to connect these dots to something larger than my bike trip, than my emotional state when I visited. This book, I hope, is only the beginning.
We can talk of responsibility, that the traveller has an obligation to learn from their journeys. That line of thinking was only palatable to me once I began to associate learning after travel with an exciting rush; in this sense I remain hedonistic.
Learning after travel is an addicting juxtaposition of familiarity and newness. The nostalgia becomes intense as memories emerge, temporarily pushing today out of the way. Minor details return, off-hand anecdotes people said that weren’t written down come back, thought lost. Once more the leaves crunch underfoot, a particular set of headlights blind the eyes.
But these same memories have also changed forever, have been made new. There’s distance between the memory and you, be that distance emotional or intellectual. It’s like wearing different spectacles than the ones that came travelling. Hopefully they are more informed ones, if only slightly.