We often associate travel with “vacation:” rest, rejuvenation (literally, “to get younger”), recovery from the ails and travails of our Real Life. Travel can certainly be those things (though, technically, we are unable to get biologically younger). That said, often the sheen of summer sun (or singe?) we wear upon re-entering the office serves as an Oscar-worthy special effect; whether we choose to travel somewhere near or far, the experience can be one of profound rest, bordering on (or plunging us into) the deepest state of Boredom. In education, the construct of summer encourages us to step away from the madness and frenzy of the school year to cool our overheated nervous system and help us return to Who We Are.
(“The Madness and Frenzy of the School Year” is another construct that we readily – though perhaps unconsciously – reinforce. More on how we can all push back against the faux-importance of Busy here.)
There are other modes of travel that are equally, powerfully un-restful. Rather than recover and refresh, they push us beyond our accustomed endurances – mental, physical, emotional, aural (things sound different!). On any given day (traveling in this way, with this particular mindset) we make choices that introduce us to entirely new landscapes (the wonder of the new, the immense terror of the new!). Upon stepping outside the cage (comfortable, loved) of the Known, imagine what we’re doing to our poor synapses, our biases, our self-conception! It’s less a process of deepening who we are and more like a swim in solvent; the Old Us is burned away and someone different (even momentarily so) emerges, faint trails of smoke revealing this New Being.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” -William Blake
Travel is the ultimate privilege. To choose to submerge ourselves into an unfamiliar context simply for the experience of feeling those feelings is unlike any other luxury.
From the Casa Museo de la Memoria in Medellín.
Electricity above and below in the Aburrá basin.
Lulo. Food is its own landscape.
The fragile dynamism of cities – their ever-morphing layers, their malleable epidermis.
Cartagena’s Plaza de los Coches is a tourist hub in 2018. We can choose to avoid the hubbub, or decide it’s charming. In 1618, the Jesuit priest Carlos de la Orta shared his observation about this same space: “The most traded merchandise is black slaves. Merchants go to the coasts of Angola and Guinea to buy them at vile prices, then bring them in overloaded vessels to this port, where they sell them for the first time at an incredible profit.”
Are we able to feel what this was like for those people 400 years ago? Perhaps if we come to a full stop and center ourselves on one spot, one paving stone. It would take immense effort and concentration – something like an out of body experience. Perhaps our travel-induced disorientation can help get us there.
But do we have the discipline for such stillness, such empathy? For that degree of introspection when all the newness arounds us suggests (compels) movement?
When we travel we are voyeurs. We see someone else’s experience (from afar, for a moment); we might even do our best to put ourselves in their shoes or perform some form of service by which we endeavor to help Them live better (at least in our view). But the first tenet of Travel As Corrosive is that we are not them – we are visiting them (fleetingly, usually), looking at them, perhaps taking pictures of them as evidence of our Great Leap. Often tourists feel stared at, sneered at, laughed at (mostly not the case, but perception wins) when in fact it is the tourist doing the bulk of the staring, judging, dismissing: “This is not me; this is not my life.” At what point does Travel become a referendum on how good we have it – a vindication of where we are from, all that we have, all that we believe?
Like anything of value, the degree to which an experience goes beyond the merely transactional (the act of seeing, the comfort of consumption) to the perspective-altering (the act of questioning, the discomfort of fear) depends on our willingness to disrupt our own homeostasis. But it is a lot to absorb; between the contours of a new cityscape are people in the practiced movements of their own homeostasis, words and sounds in continuous eruption.
Perhaps the best we can do while traveling – maybe the deepest we can get – is to teeter between those states of corrosion and saturation. Perhaps that is the ultimate privilege.
“Expect poison from the standing water.” Blake