Ode to Travel

Traveling is the soaring of zippers, the snapping of clasps, the whoosh of Velcro and the scrape of vinyl.  It is often chapped lips, sunburn, blisters, colds and dehydration.  It involves being alternately scintillated and horrified by prevailing scents and often being shocked at the smell of your own clothing.

Regretfully, it usually includes the building and abandoning of intense and intimate relationships.

You take uncertainty with your early morning coffee and gratitude with your afternoon tea.  By dinner, your world is larger.

Vulnerability, intentional deprivation, disorientation, insecurity, and bewilderment all nourish the tree which bears the fruits of humility, gratitude, and wonder. 

The great dividend is joy at simple things: a long-awaited hot shower, a Kleenex or real toilet paper instead of a scrap of newspaper, a chance to charge your camera battery.  Having basic needs met becomes a real thrill and life somehow feels differently, like your favorite sweatshirt fresh out of the dryer.


The Gringo Trail

If the description from the Footprint Guide of `party hostel` didn`t clue us in, the cover charge wristbands they gave us upon registering for a room should have given it away. 

My first night in La Paz was overwhelmed by the bar above my sleeping quarters.  We hung out for awhile and played bar trivia (a very traditional Bolivian game).  I ordered my drink in Spanish and the bartender looked at me quizzically.  Nobody at the hostel even spoke Spanish.  Somewhere between limbo and the stripper, I lost track of what country I was in.  Frazier, a Canadian, summed it up nicely:  `I haven`t really seen La Paz during the day.  I just stay in the hostal and go clubbing at night with everybody else.`

Ah, the much-maligned and much-followed Gringo Trail.  I have never encountered it quite as strongly as I have here.  There are some positive aspects.  For example, it has provided me with travel partners, smoothed the way for a more `comfortable` journey.  Yet, it irks me so.

The typical party gringo doesn`t appreciate the `Art of Travel:`

`Journeys are the midwives of thought.  Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains.  There is an almost quaint correlation between  what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places…….it is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves.  The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.`

The party gringo isn`t traveling to `encounter their true selves` or to have ìntrospective reflections` or to be changed by an encounter with something  wholly other or an experience with something bigger, greater than themselves.

The bar scene at Wild Rovers hostal drove me mad because these were (all Europeans?  All westerners, at least ) English-speakers hanging out with one another.  Why leave home to go to clubs and hang with people so similar to yourself?  Only getting out to cross items of the `I did this` list.

This list is not bad of itself, of course.  But travel is not a visit to an amusement park.

It is not a cruise.

It´s the first bed I´ve laid upon in a week, following many nights of cold sleeping bags and mosquito-infested tents.  Nevertheless, my body´s impassioned pleas for rest are all naught as a veritable cacophony gathers in the hallway of my hostal, gathers steam, stampedes the wall and crashes down on my bed.   If I concentrate with enough precision, I can isolate one sound from another: a hammer attacking a nail in the mode of rural construction, a screaming baby, pounding footsteps up concrete stairs, incoherent babbles from a badly dubbed movie, the shrieking of newly arrived travelers. This cacophony drowns out the rumblings of my stomach, uneasy from altitude and whatever unknown bacteria has caused no small amount of discomfort over the past week. 

When I tell people about my travel plans, I am struck by how often their responses resemble something like, ¨Wow, that sounds great.  What a nice vacation!¨  I usually smile and say, ¨Thank you.¨ But what I really want to say is: yes, it can be great.  But it can also suck.  It can be extremely frustrating, debilitating, and even humiliating.  In fact, it´s a lot like life. 

Travel is a crucible.  It enhances experience, kind of like a drug.  It is not easy and it is not always fun, but it is ultimately, scintillating.   The trick is to learning to treasure each good and bad experience. 

At least that´s what I tell myself as I cover my head with my pillow and try again to find that special, ephemeral sleep zone…