Here Thar Be Monsters!

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31.5.13

Another Seaside Enlightenment



Travelers have journeys and tourists have trips.  There's a reason why tourism sounds like an accident.

I have recently taken up a book that was probably one of the most influential in my life, though (until recently) I had only read it once in my sophomore year in high school.

The book is Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins.  I recently picked it up again after lo! these many long years and I have been amazed at how much of it I have assimilated into my life at far below the conscious level.

The reason it was so influential is that up until that point, books had been little more than school texts and linear stories, like Hardy Boys and Treasure Island.  I had never encountered a book that tore me lose from linear time and sprinkled the experience with a cast of completely off-hand characters.

It was a liberating experience.  It was a massive and profound experience.  It was a real learning experience. And it introduced me to a fictional character whose antics I wanted to emulate: Plucky Purcell.  I instantly recognized that the character was a traveler.

I followed up that book with yet another tour de force that also blew the standard model of life and art out the window.  That book was The Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  In turn, that was followed by A Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.  In the space of two months during my early high school matriculation, my world was ripped asunder and the die was cast for the wheres and hows of my life.

Reading those three books back-to-back tore down my then long-held beliefs (if a 16-year-old could be said to have long-held beliefs).  Monolithic institutions like religion and government and the standard model of the American Dream vanished in once fell swoop.

It was an exhilarating feeling being freed of these restrictions.  Once again, one of my English teachers had redesigned my Universe by doing nothing more than opening my mind to the world of possibilities, a place in which travelers find their life's purpose.

A traveler can not be said to live a life without fear.  That is not strictly true.  A traveler in fact seeks out experiences in which he or she must confront fear head on in mortal combat.  A traveler sees boundaries as beginnings rather than ends.  It is the equivalent of seeing "Here Thar Be Monsters" on a map and purposely heading for that exact spot to see for one's self what monsters look like, and more importantly, what they smell like, since with all our technology, we still can't bring that one key sense to a remote location.

I have since read many influential books: Don Quixote, Poetics, The Divine Comedy.  The titles pile up like so many dead soldiers on the field of combat - the blood of those authors poured out on pulp so that we subsequent travelers will know exactly what kind of monsters lurk there, and what they smell like.

It was that same year in high school that I discovered drama, not just as a way to meet chicks while attending an all-boy Catholic school (which was very important), but because it was a way to make books come alive.  the powerful combination of living books and books that live at a key moment in my intellectual development set in stone the path I would walk in my journey.

Books, and the language that unlocks them, are amazing experiences, and ones which most tourists will never fully appreciate.  They reach parts of our minds that TeeVee and movies never do, for those media only lull us to sleep while implanting code into our limbic systems.  Books, on the other hand, engage the reader in active combat.

After all, how many books have you read while asleep, versus how many movies and TeeVee shows have you slept through?  The answer should tell you all you need to know.

Had not my mother, my first English teacher, not spent considerable effort to entice me to read, I would not be at the keyboard this very minute while sitting in Jakarta chasing a wild hare.  Had not Mr. Z, my high school English teacher, not introduce me to a book like Another Roadside Attraction, I might well have ended up a tourist.

Alas, she did and he did and here I am.

When I travel, I rarely take photographs, and much to the perplexity of those who view them, I never take photos of people standing in front of things.  I hate that.  Instead, I take my rare photos of things I had never seen in tour books and I strive not to have any recognizable people in the foreground.

I have two photos of the Colosseum in Rome.  One is of the ceiling in one of the main vomitoria of a map of the city at that time.  The other is from the catacombs beneath the floor of the structure looking up at the stands.  The former is something few people take time to notice and which you will rarely find in a photo essay on the subject, and the latter is a view that only the wild animals, slaves and gladiators would have had and one that I paid a significant bribe to security to obtain.

Tourist photos have a certain element of "see? I was there!" to them.  I figure that if I took the photo, that is proof enough that I was there.  I have no interest in seeing some beaming faces in front of a landmark.

The other day, I was in the heart of Jakarta waiting for my ojek to pick me up.  Two families, obviously (painfully) Western were hoofing it down the sidewalk (such as they exist here): Father in the lead with his map and daypack, Mother trailing with the 2.1 obligatory kids in tow.  The Fathers were red-faced and tense, while the crew were obviously exasperated.

"Where y'all from?" I asked.

The Fathers looked like there were going to avoid any local interaction, as tourists usually do, but then thought better of it.

Father 1 said, "Kannst du Deutsche?"

"Yawol, ich kann sehr viel Deutsch!" I responded.

He visibly slumped as if a great weight had been lifted.

Turns out they had been trying to get to MONAS, which is kind of like the George Washington monument of Indonesia.  However, they were stymied by the fact that the park was surrounded by five lanes of unrelenting traffic and they were afraid to cross the street with kids in tow.

I said they should go to the crosswalk just ahead and be sure to use the "force field" gesture while crossing.  Once they crossed, they should go through the train station, over the tracks (ignore all the warning signs like everyone else) and go out through the small gate at the back and you'll be directly in front of the MONAS.

The Fathers looked unsure and the Mothers looked nonplussed.  Helpfully, I said, "Or you can take a taxi and have it let you down at the steps of the monument.  It will cost you about Rp.25,000 after they take you by the long route to get extra money."

They opted for the taxi route and I hailed one of the more trustworthy cabs in Jakarta.

Tourists.

Comfort and expediency rather than full-on combat.  Their kids were doomed to be TeeVee watchers.

Or maybe that American (Texian really) standing on the street in a Southeast Asian country who spoke fluent German and knew the fast and easy way to their destination might register.  Maybe having encountered a traveler they will want to know more.

Who knows?

Or maybe travelers and tourists are destined, not made.  But how, then, do you explain my awakening at the hands of great books and great writers?  Was it simply because I saw the warnings about monsters and decided to engage them head-on rather than shy away in fear?  Or was it because I have traveler in my genes?

Read Another Roadside Attraction and decide for yourself.  Perhaps add a couple of other great titles to it as backup.  Let me know whether you think travelers are born or made.  In my present state, it's hard to be dispassionate.

Send an email to luap.jkt at gmail dot com and put "Traveller" in the subject line if you think they are born, and "Tourist" in the subject line if you think they are made.  I'll reveal the results next week.

In the meantime, enjoy some good reading...