SOME THOUGHTS ON TRAVEL
By Royce Adams
The other evening, my wife suggested we should travel to Japan based on kudos from friends who had just visited. Usually, when my wife suggests we should travel somewhere, I respond with an “okay, when?” During our marriage, I’ve always been ready to venture almost anywhere. We’ve lived and traveled in much of Europe, England, Ireland, Spain, France and Italy; dabbled in Turkey, Croatia; we’ve explored Peru, Chile, Argentina, even sailed around the Horn over the fearsome grave yard of ships; we’ve vacationed in the South Seas; done safaris in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia; we’ve seen most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Latin America. Sorry, I know I must sound like an Eagle Scout showing off the merit badges on his sash. I merely make the point that we’ve done a lot of traveling.
This time I wasn’t so ready with my usual response. I had just finished reading Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s memoir NOT NOW, VOYAGER, part memoir and part examination of the reasons people travel. She asks herself what her reasons are for traveling, what she is seeking, what she is fleeing, and what she finds in her travel experiences. Once examined, she wonders if travel isn’t a sign of restlessness and endurance, and feels that some people are obsessed by the need to have numerous traveling experiences. But to what end?
As Schwartz tries to explain, the lure of travel always sounds enticing to her, “the unimaginable newness, the splendid scenery, the streets, the shops, the people, the whole gorgeous otherness of it all, not to mention the pleasantly distant vision of one’s own waiting life…and the happy relief of return, the self-satisfaction of having traveled.” So enticing is the idea of travel that she forgets what travelling actually entails. “At some point,” she states, “on every trip…I vow to never leave home again.”
Reading Schwartz forced me to think about traveling in a way I never bothered with before: why do I travel; what am I looking for; what have I learned from traveling? Have I gained perspectives on life from traveling? What can I claim has made me a better person after all my travels? Because I, too, have wondered at times when I was traveling why in the world I had left home.
My introduction to travel began in my early years through family visits to Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. Almost every summer I can remember, our family drove for what seemed like endless miles from wherever we lived in the St. Louis area southward to visit my dad’s relatives. I can’t remember one time I enjoyed it. What I remember most was the sweltering summer humidity, boring automobile captivity, and always stopping off in Nashville, Tennessee, to visit the Grand Ole Opry where my dad and I separated forever on what could be termed good music.
Roadside motels in the late ‘30s and ‘40s were not what they are today and they were way too expensive for our family to frequent so we relied on staying with relatives. Many of the families we stayed with were poorer than we were. We often had to sleep on pallets made of blankets on the floor of houses harboring roaches and mice skittering across the floor, and use outdoor toilets that tested how long you could hold your breath as you prayed for constipation during the rest of the stay. Relatives called me “Sonny,” and my then soprano voice was forced to sing solos to people I didn’t know, and for personal reasons, people I did not want to know. The best part of these trips, always, was arriving home.
As I grew older, my idea of traveling matured, if that’s the correct word. I do know that my wife and I prefer to call our selves travelers. We don’t want to be tourists, no “tour packages” for us. Henry James said somewhere, “Tourists are vulgar, vulgar, vulgar.” And, of course, we see many who are. We avoid traveling in groups if possible, always researching and making our own travel arrangements. Not for us the comforts of home in a foreign place. We want to see and feel the real thing. But what is the real thing once you get where you are going? And, in the end, is there really any difference between a tourist and a traveler?
How often do our planned destinations live up to our expectations? I confess there were times when I was disappointed in places I was so earnest to visit. I remember being caught up in reading the history of the Aztecs and Mayan civilizations and wanting to go beyond just seeing photographs of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan where reportedly Aztec human sacrifices were once performed. With that knowledge and keen interest in the subject, I trudged up the endless rough stone steps in anticipation only to reach the top and find empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and remnants of MacDonald’s Golden Arches. Later, I learned the real colorful surface of the Pyramid had been removed by mistake during reconstruction. Gone were my fantasy connections to Montezuma and Quetzalcoatl.
In Guatemala, the serenity of the towering 8th Century Mayan temple of the double-headed serpent rising above the sea of tree top jungle green in Tikal was ruined for me by government soldiers in fatigues doing maneuvers and rappelling the ancient structures. Near the museum there, pamphlets could be had announcing the coming apocalypse because the force is strong when the stars align a special way on the temples on December 21st. And now, Tikal is most familiar to moviegoers as the moon Yavin 4, the rebel base in the movie “Star Wars.” Talk about a place losing its charm!
In Peru, when visiting Machu Picchu or any of the ruins, the natives would see you coming, run somewhere to hide, change their clothes into colorful native costumes, then request money if we wanted to take an “authentic” photo. Even our trip on the Amazon River was a disappointment when we somehow got stuck on a boat with a group of loud, never-ending video-taking Russians, always blocking one’s view, their foreign language drowning out the sounds of the monkeys and birds in the trees.
In Spain, I so wanted the country to feel like the haunting music of Joaquin Rodrigo, Segovia and de Falla, maybe a small trace of Hemingway’s Spain. We drove the entire Mediterranean coast hoping for a small beach village where we could live for five or six months, some place out of the way, barely known. Mile after mile, all we found were “Blocques,” tall, nondescript concrete condos and apartment buildings wherever a sandy beach strip existed. Finally, on the coast south of Granada, we settled for La Herradura, itself being slowly enclosed by more blocgues and English speaking expats. Settled in a horseshoe cove, our vine-covered rented house sat across the bay from Segovia’s home before he died. If his music still lived there, it was drowned out by the disco music nearby that played from evening until early into the morning.
France had its own disappointments. Almost every property we looked at came with an English owner. So many Anglos lived in Provence, learning French while there became next to impossible. And suddenly no one spoke English when we needed a telephone installed or house repairs. Fleeing to Corsica, we were blessed with the sounds of the natives firing shotguns when hiking the hills and exploding bombs at night destroying and hampering the construction of foreign tourist developments. Where were the Corsican brothers when you need them?
And then there’s Italy. Name the major places to see in Italy and I’ve experienced most of them. I’ve tasted the wines, soaked in the Roman ruins, hiked the Tuscan hills, explored the lakes and enjoyed the friendliness of the people. But what do I really know about Italy? Did I learn more by reading, say Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante or Niccolo Ammaniti?
On safari in Botswana, I thought I’d found a purity of sorts roaming the bush looking for the big five, lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, wondering why anyone would want to shoot them. To be so close in the midst of their natural habitats, and so far away from mine, gave me a sense of adventure superior to anything I’d ever felt in other travels. Then, one day we were asked if we would like to walk with the elephants. A small group of us was taken to an isolated spot amidst the trees in the Okavango Delta where we were served lunch and watched a married couple and three elephants approach. The couple, David and Sandi, has devoted their lives to raising these three elephants from an early age. David rode up on the back of the large male elephant named Jabu, and Sandy sat in the curled trunk of Thembi, a relatively young female. A third female, Morula, trailed behind. Ah, a photo opportunity.
When they reached our group, David and Sandi dismounted and we were given the history of how the couple had found and raised the outcast elephants that were orphaned and about to be put down. For the past twenty years, they have been and still live in the wild with these three elephants and work to raise public consciousness of the growing demise of the elephant population by ivy poachers. We were encouraged to touch the elephants, stroke their tusks, feed them, and watch them obey commands such as taking our hats off with their trunks and putting them back on our heads, or kissing us on our cheeks with the flexible, wet tip of their trunks. While I was fascinated to be so close to the large animals, to stroke their rough but sensitive hides, to go crazy with my camera, it began to occur to me that I was acting just like all the other people in the group– a tourist.
I watched as Sandi had Morula lie down so we could see how elephants managed to maneuver such bulk. When Morula got up, Sandi gave the elephant an orange as a reward. Apparently, Themi, the youngest, saw Morula get a treat and felt she should get one, too. She charged at Sandi, who had her back to Themi, who was trying to get her trunk into the bag of treats Sandi had over her shoulder. When Sandi refused, Thembi had a temper tantrum, jabbed one of her tusks into Sandi’s jacket by the shoulder, lifted her off the ground, wrapped her trunk around Sandi and threw her onto the ground.
Letting out an angry trumpet, Morula immediately attacked Thembi. Jabu, who had been decimating a large tree nearby in order to get the nuts from it, heard the trumpet cry and let out a loud bellow of his own. While I stood in dim shock, Jabu raced within two feet of me toward the other two elephants, knocking down Doug who was trying to reach Sandi still on the ground. Jabu separated the two females, allowing Sandi to get away.
Our native guide, cocking his rifle and not sure what his next move might be, ordered me behind a tree. Every one else already had the good sense to scatter out of the way. Doug and Sandi both got on their feet amidst the mêlée and started yelling commands at the elephants. Bad girl Thembi was made to lie down and the other two elephants stood waving their trunks as if they wanted to spank Thembi. All this pandemonium in a matter of seconds.
We were told Sandi was not hurt “too bad,” whatever that meant, and the elephant acts were called to a halt with apologies from Doug. “Just a little family spat,” he said, trying to make light of it.
We, of course, were rounded up and taken back to base camp where everyone excitedly relayed various versions of what each of us had seen.
On the one hand, the event excelled any tourist attraction. We saw what we weren’t supposed to see. I’d come to Africa to see animals in the wild. And here I’d witnessed tamed animals in the wild. Yet, there is still an untamed streak in Thembi. I can’t help but wonder about the future of these three “saved and tamed” elephants, who will most certainly out live their caregivers.
When we travelers come home and friends say, “Tell us about your trip,” events like the elephant story contain the sort of tale we tend to recount. We tell it like an adventure, maybe even embellishing it as time goes by. We show friends our slides and now digital photos of places we’ve been, proof of our accomplishments, then store them away with all the nearly forgotten others. Still, we ready our cameras for the next journey.
Sinclair Lewis, in his book Dodsworth, reminds us of what we don’t tell our friends about our trips:
It is the awful toil which is the most distressing phase of travel. If there is anything worse than the aching tedium of staring out of car windows, it is the irritation of getting tickets, packing, finding trains, lying in bouncing berths, washing without water, digging out passports, and fighting through customs.
And we can now add to that, luggage x-ray checks and body searches.
No, our photos and stories don’t usually mention that part of travel. But like women in childbirth, the pain is forgotten until the next time.
Still, don’t we feel that traveling has enhanced us somehow while at the same time we attribute to the places we visit an identity superior to the one we bring to it? We want places we visit to concur with our idea of what they should be. It would be best if we just expect the unexpected.
In his poem, “Little Giddings,” T. S. Eliot writes:
We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
There is some efficacy to that. A larger system exists outside ourselves. Perhaps we need to visit it in order to get a better look at who we are. Personally, I’m not sure any more what I am: traveler? tourist? sightseer? wanderer? tired old curmudgeon? In truth, what do I really know about any of the places I’ve visited other than I’m glad I’ve been there, done that.
Just, please, forget the T-shirt.
About the Author:
W. Royce Adams, a retired English professor, has published over a dozen college textbooks, several academic journal articles and juvenile novels. He won the Haunted Waters Literary Magazine’s 2016 Grand Prize Short Story Contest and an Honorable Mention for an essay from Winning Writers. His works have appeared in Green’s Magazine, The Rockford Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Catamaran, In the Depths and others. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.