On a vintage This American Life episode called “You Are Here”, Ira Glass interviews a traveler named John Bowe.
Ira Glass (…) Back when he was 21, John Bowe decided to visit a friend of his who was in the Peace Corps in Mali, in Africa. But he chose, I have to say, the most difficult possible route to get there. He decided to hitchhike across the Sahara Desert. And not just hitchhike, but hitchhike using a remote route 1,000 miles long that most hitchhikers avoid. He brought no special gear, carried a small bag filled mostly with books, one change of clothes. He wanted to go to places on the map with fewer and fewer roads.
John Bowe And I don’t know. When you travel a lot, when you’re traveling and just sort of drifting around, you spend a lot of time looking at the map. And you exoticize it. And you get this weird relationship to it, where you start just thinking, “Well, god, this was cool getting to this remote area. I bet you it would be cooler to get to that area because it’s that much more remote.” You want to go off the map.
Ira Glass You want to go off the map? You want to go off the map, meaning you want to go off the area where the roads are on the map?
John Bowe Right. But you want to go off the map in a more metaphorical sense, too. You want to get off of the grid of American life, the grid of the modern world. You want to get totally away from white people and American techno living that’s defined world culture.
Of course it all goes horribly wrong. You should listen to the episode.
That old radio clip came to my mind when I was preparing for our recent trip to Japan. As I was consulting guide books, travel forums, and Flickr photos, I found myself wanting to spot places where we could see the “real” Japan. Where there were no people in white socks and sandals. It was supposed to be authentic and unspoiled, a secret.
Of course, that is precisely what most everyone wants to see. I was leafing through the Lonely Planet and trying my hand at googling there elusive places, but the dilemma was obvious: Once what I was looking for had been documented, it stopped being what I wanted. It was no longer a secret. And yet this is what so many of us do. We shun the package trips in search for something unique. We book a flight, strap our suitcases on our backs and spend a quarter of our vacation planning the itinerary. And in the end, we run into backpackers just like us at the hostel that everyone goes to and talk about this shared quest that we’re all on.
Sure, Bowe and his trip through the Sahara was crazy. But wasn’t it at least somewhat understandable? A while ago, one of our columnists at work had written an article about this crazy transformation of travel: How it had turned from a matter of leisure into an activity used to prove yourself. What is next, she wondered? Windsurfing in the Antarctic? Her ironic conclusion was that the current regiment of traveling would eventually collapse on itself. Soon, she wrote, it will have become so ordinary to travel far and wide that seeing something close to your home will be considered exotic.
Late last year, I took a train to visit my sister in Southern Germany. It was the cheapest and therefore the earliest connection, and I shared the train compartment with a young doctor, about my age. We started talking about traveling (I had just returned from Iceland) and she mentioned the best trick to find the unique: Running. “Half marathons are offered in all places around the world.” She had already done one on the Isle of Skye and couldn’t wait to do one in a place that made my eyes gleam along with hers: Svalbard.
This is what she said about running in Scotland: “There were locals cheering us on, and after the run, we were served a meaty stew by the local volunteers.” It sounded wonderful and half a year later, we sometimes send each other links to obscure places that we find on the internet, like Abkhazia or my all-time favorite, Magnitogorsk. I am not sure they have half marathons, but the idea keeps on blowing my mind.
Finally, of course, there is another way to see this, courtesy of the wonderfully written (food-)blog The Yellow House. The author, Sarah, made the following point after returning from a recent vacation:
Now is the part where I should write something about how travelling for a few weeks gave me some needed distance from those decisions, a different perspective, a new lens through which to view my life. And it didn’t, really. My smart little sister says that people are wrong when they talk about how you need to be brave to get out of your comfort zone, travel, and see things. The travel and perspective–the escapism, really–are a privilege. The real courage is needed at home, where the ordinary things don’t change unless you work to make them so, where you face old demons and new challenges, and where you can’t just get on a plane to the next destination.