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28.6.13

Living With The F-Word

One of our on-going themes around here is traveling vs. touring.  The former is changing yourself to meet the world, and the latter is changing the world to meet your expectations.  In other words, a traveler will eat live monkey brains in Nagapattinam, India, while a tourist won't even make it to that city because there's no McDonald's or Best Western.

Most of what keeps people from being travelers is fear: fear of the unknown, fear or getting lost, fear of being outside of one's comfort zone.  Other people hate the bother of going somewhere, what with all the packing and planning.

Frankly, I hate packing and planning myself.  I prefer to throw a few items in a carry-on, buy a ticket to somewhere and go.  As for the planning, well...I'll get around to that when I get back.

I remember when I set off on my first big voyage.  I left Texas heading East and returned from the West.  I was freshly 18, and hopelessly naive.  I began in Dublin, Ireland, and when I had finished, I had lived in three countries and visited more than 30 across four continents.  Took about two years and my luggage consisted of a backpack.

While living in Dublin, I saved up and bought the pack, a tent, sleeping bag, a stove, and a few necessities.  In the evenings and on weekends, I would practice packing and unpacking, setting up camp and tearing down, and hiking all over the local area with my pack to get in shape.  That pack became a part of me.  I could set up and tear down in the dark, which came in handy many times.  By the time I got back home, the pack weighed better than 50 pounds (23 kilos) and I was in the best shape I've ever been in from lugging it.

I had no idea where I was going.  I had a Eurail card that got me 3 months of unlimited train travel around Western Europe.  I knew I wanted to see Paris and Rome, but other than that I had no plan.  I had heard about youth hostels and international camping sites, but had no experience with them.  And I had a couple hundred dollars in my pocket.

First stop after Dublin was Liverpool at 3am, with no where to go and no contacts.  I ended up napping behind a pint of beer in the corner of a seaman's pub that reminded me of something out of a Hemingway novel or John Huston film.  I was utterly on my own, never having set foot this far outside my comfort zone.

Keep in mind this was before cell phones and instant messages and portable tablets with WiFi.  A trans-Atlantic phone call involved reservations at the local telegraph office and cramped phone booths with a meter over the phone ticking off the milliseconds of homesick conversations with the folks back home who sounded like they were talking into a 5,000-mile-long pipe.

There is a Zen koan that says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  It is so true.

From that first night in Liverpool, shivering from the cold, terrified of the grizzled creatures all around me, and sucking down as much liquid courage as I could afford, a great adventure was born.

A day of travel teaches one more than a month of school.  You are not likely to slurp live monkey brains, snack on Madagaskar singing roaches or raise a toast with cobra blood sitting in the Des Moines Holiday Inn and shopping for refrigerator magnets at Mall of the Americas.  Maybe you think, "Good!  Who wants to do all that anyway?"  But that's just your fear talking.

You haven't lived until you've dug parasites out of your skin, or nearly died (or wanted to) from dysentery, or awakened in an opium den two days after your last memory.  But it's not all hard-bit.  There's dinner at Maxim's in Paris or snuff and beer with the boys in Fuessen, or tropical coral reefs in Indonesia, or Mayan temples in the jungles of Guatemala.  Or how about driving down the highway between two warring armies, or getting shot at on the Afghan border, or slogging through a blizzard at the Kremlin wall?

I imagine the afterlife as being something like Valhalla.  Souls sit around reclining on deer skin sedans, quaffing chalices of mead and ripping roasted lamb flesh off the bone.  Those souls with the best stories are given seats at the table.  The rest must stand like wallflowers and ponder the life they wasted amassing possessions that they no longer have while picking at the leftovers of more adventurous souls.

Tourists jostle and panic with mobs of humans through the peculiar form of torture called airlines.  Travelers know about the jump seats on air freighters and the best toilet stalls to sleep in and how to trade stories for free room and board.

Tourists worry about reservations and late arrivals and skycaps to shuffle their copious bags.  Travelers can carry their belongings with one hand and know where they are going when they get there.  Tourists are afraid of travelers because when they look into a traveler's eyes, they realize just how far they are from home and how they are just one cancellation away from having an adventure.  And that's what tourists fear the most: adventure.

We have developed a tourist culture.  We want it all to slide by unnoticed and unexperienced, with guides and skycaps to handle our dirty work.  We want to recline our seats and shut our eyes and wake up when we get to the next comfortable part.  We want reality to be convenient and clean.  We want experiences to be enjoyable and repeatable.  Most of all, we don't want to be afraid of anything.  Just swallow the pill and all the gritty parts go away.

And this is why aging tourists start to lament and panic.  They reach a point in their lives and realize they have no stories to tell.  Everything about their life has been mass produced and everyone they know has had the same trip and they have a 'mid-life' crisis coming to terms with the fact that they have never lived a life that is almost finished.

Tourists reach a point where they look around and realize that all they have for a lifetime of effort is a McMansion, 1.6 kids, 2.4 cars, 1.1 dogs and debt up to their eyeballs.  Their only recollections of adventure come from the NatGeo channel and the deepest emotion they've ever experienced was when the home team won the pennant back in 19 and something.  Their education consisted of an alcohol and drug-induced fog, and most of their friends (if not all) are just superficial acquaintances stamped from the same mold.

They panic.  They take cruises and go to resorts and try desperately to feel something other than fear.  They buy sports cars and motorbikes and figure that's hanging their ass over the edge, only to realize that they are in traffic jams of people doing the same thing.

Finally, they slump into a Prozac dream wishing that they had done something more with their lives than chase up careers ladders and shuffle paper and worry whether the A/C unit is sufficiently rated for the size McMansion they rent from the bank.  They vaguely remember the imaginariums they built as kids, full of monsters and adventures that they were going to meet, all of which evaporated at some point they can no longer recall.

What the tourists never realize is that it's never too late to become a traveler.

If you're reading this and thinking that you'd really like to become a traveler, then the first thing you need to know is that it's very simple and doesn't cost a thing.  You need no equipment or special clothing.  There's no training or guidebooks.

If you find yourself in a crowd of people all heading in a certain direction, go the opposite way.  If you are doing something that has a lot of rules, like getting on an airplane, pick one of the rules and deliberately ignore it.  If faced with the choice between two roads, pick the smaller of the two.  And don't worry about the consequences.  That's the adventure part.

Once you get the hang of it, then comes the Big Challenge.  Whenever you are faced with a choice, pick the one that causes you the most fear.  When you start doing that, then you know you are a seasoned traveler and tourism is far behind you.

Our culture has locked us into a tourist mindset, and I daresay that one thing is most responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves.  The dreams we follow have been manufactured for us by those who profit from our compliance.

The more we desire repeatable experiences, the more will be manufactured for us.  The more we follow rules, the more will be made for us.  The more we demand to know the outcome, the more the outcome will be predictable.  And most importantly, the more fear we feel, the more fear will used against us.

The difference between traveling and touring is nothing more than a simple choice.  There's a reason we call certain experiences "tourist traps".  That's exactly what they are.  And once trapped, we are nothing more than amusements for those who set them.

Tomorrow, get an early start and take an entirely different route to work.  It may change your life.