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7.6.11

The Journeyer

Corfu

At the tender age of 18, I was sitting in a taverna on the island of Corfu, off the coast of the Greek mainland.  I was camping up the hill in an olive grove, and spending my days down at the beach playing in the massive waves and waterfall.

One night, I was sitting around with the group of young folks from various parts of the world, watching TeeVee and eating some magnificent mousaka, when the show “Vegas” came on.  It was very popular toward the end of the 70s and early 80s, with the character Dan Tanna running around being a PI, or something like that.  At any rate, the show had been dubbed into Greek.

I suddenly felt this wave of terror, realizing just how far from home I was.  I looked around at the kids there with me, from Germany, England, South Africa, Italy.  I had this sinking thought, “What if something happened to me?  What would I do?”

Of course, the feeling soon passed with a fresh bottle of Ouzo, but I never forgot that moment of near-panic.  At that point, I had been living overseas for over a year, and had already been through more than a dozen countries.  Why should it hit me right then?

Several years later, I was reading the brilliant book, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams (an experience that started a multi-decade love-affair with his work).  Near the beginning of the book, the main character, Arthur Dent, looks into the eyes of Ford Prefect and is nearly scared out of his wits.  As the author explains, the farther a man is away from his home, the more distant and wild the look in his eyes.  Naturally, that look in an extra-terrestrial’s eyes would be unnerving.

That passage reminded me of that feeling of being so far from home.  It’s a very unsettling feeling to know that you can’t walk home, no matter how hard you try.  Conquering that fear is what separates travelers from tourists.

A tourist will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their trip is ‘safe’ and ‘secure.’  They’ll buy traveler’s checks and bring the credit cards and pack every conceivable item they might need.  A tourist leaves an itinerary and contact information with a friend or family member.  A tourist has reservations.
When I moved to Indonesia, I had a week’s worth of clothes, a portable water filter, a bottle opener, a multi-purpose tool, a hat, and (because I read Douglas Adams) a towel.  I carried my entire life in one checked bag and one carry-on, for what I considered to be a permanent move.

I had no itinerary or reservations, just some friends with an open spot on the floor in the living room.  I had a plane ticket with open return for nine months, and a two-month visa that I had picked up at the local consulate in Houston.
Three years later, I have a wife and family, and the last time we moved, it required a two-ton truck and five men.  It wasn’t easy.  About three months into this fool’s errand, I had very powerful thoughts about giving up and walking into the jungle, hoping cannibals would make a feast out of my carcass.  I’ve had a few things stolen, including all of my ID, but I managed and got to a point that is relavtively settled in my new land.
The point is, if you want to make the jump, you have to be willing to let go of everything.  I cashed in pretty much my entire worldly belongings.  I let go of nearly every relationship I had (those that are real stick with you, no matter the time or distance).  I cut off nearly every zone of comfort I had to follow my dream of living and traveling in Asia. 

In fact, as the title of this column says, I live pretty much on the exact opposite side of the world from my home.  If I move in any of the cardinal directions, I am going closer to home, since it is physically impossible to get further away without leaving the planet.
I think most people are tourists.  They don’t mind seeing new places, as long as it’s not too exotic and they can maintain all the comforts of home, with plenty of back-up.  Nothing wrong with that.  Certainly, there are times when I crave routine and the security of repeatable experiences.

There are a few people who are travelers, though.  They lust for the challenge of pitting themselves against the unknown.  Some relieve this feeling by bungee jumping or sky-diving.  But, for a few of us, the only relief comes in the form of increasing as many variables in life as they can, and then trying to survive them.
Some might call it insanity, and perhaps it is.  Insanity comes in many forms.  I tend to look at those who spend their whole lives chasing ‘security’ as being insane.  They use up their precious lives grasping for vapors and ghosts.  At least my insanity involves real, physical goals.  And I get some great stories to tell.
The big difference between a tourist and a traveler, is that the traveler realizes that he is just as ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ 12,000 miles from home as the person who never ventures out of their living room.  One only trades this set of variables for that set.

In some ways, I’m much ‘safer’ from certain variables than the couch potato, because I am much more on my guard being far outside my home territory.   When you are on familiar ground, you tend to relax your guard a lot more, and so are vulnerable in many ways that I am not.  And I don’t have to surrender my dignity and privacy on a regular basis here, as I would at home.

When I get on a plane here, I walk through a metal detector, and in some cases not even that.  I am just as ‘safe’ on that airplane as I am after TSA has had their way with me.  In fact, I’m safer, since I didn’t have a bunch of yellow-shirted goons with their hands down my pants.  If the government tried that here, there’d be a revolution in short order.

Recently, I read where a movie star died over a year ago, and the neighbors and friends she had known for years didn’t notice.  I read where a man drowned in San Jose, while the cops and ‘first responders’ watched and joked about it.  I read several articles about peaceful home-owners being raided and gunned down by police/SWAT for no reason, because that’s how cops are these days.  I read every day about people being groped and fondled by ‘security’ agents, in ways that would have a regular person lynched.

Germany is one of the cleanest places on Earth, and yet hundreds are sick and dead from e. Coli.  For the past three years, I have eaten at little street restaurants and food carts that are completely unregulated and have yet to get sick once.  In fact, I’m safer since halal meat is free of antibiotics and hormones, and the vegetables are GMO- and radiation-free.

Sure, I’m on unfamiliar ground, and I have to jump through a few hoops every year to get my work visa.  Sure, my daily commute to work is a world-class crap-shoot.  Sure, I’ve got hornets the size of hummingbirds, millipedes as long as my foot and a half-dozen strange lizards running around the house, but I still have my dignity and self-respect.

The thing is, there is no such thing as ‘safety’ and ‘security.’  There are only different sets of variables, and we much choose which ones we are wlling to give up worrying about, and which are important.
Even if someone has your itinerary and contact information, if you’re dead, it really doesn’t matter, does it?  You can have all the cards and traveler’s checks you can carry, but if no one will cash them or the  ATMs are down or you are over your limit, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

‘Safety’ and ‘security’ are illusions.  They can not be had at any price.  The only people who are ‘safe’ are those already dead, and those yet to be conceived.  Everyone else is fair game.  You can let TSA crawl into your pants and the plane will still crash.  You can stay in your living room and still die plugging in the TeeVee.
The way I see it, the only thing we take out of this world is our memories and the only thing we leave to others is memories.  I want to remember that I stuffed as much experience into my life as I could fit.  I want others to remember that I was willing to step outside the comfort zone and live a full life.

Many years ago, I read a book called, “The Journeyer,” by Gary Jennings, which is a fictionalized account of Marco Polo’s travels.  It left me with two thoughts: 1) People remember Marco Polo because he stepped far outside the bounds of ‘safety’ and ‘security;’ and 2) At the moment of my death, I don’t want to have regrets that I wasted my life out of fear of the unknown.

I also think about Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”  The only time he and Nigger Jim were really safe and secure was when they were traveling on the river.  As soon as they got down on the land, that’s when the trouble started.  I often feel that way.

Maybe a child feels the need for the safety of his mother’s arms, but I long ago outgrew the need for that.

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