Wondering about wanderlust

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The other day, watching the outpouring of tourists from the tiny airport here on Corn Island, I began to wonder about what it is that makes people want to travel. To here. To any place.

Impetus to errantry

Every day there are two flights from Managua to the island, and every day those flights are over half full (optimistically speaking) with tourists and travelers (if you believe in that distinction). Many of them, at least in this season, are from the United States and Canada (an astonishing number of them, in fact, are Canadians — it’s as if it’s cold and miserable there in winter). In other seasons, Europeans comprise the bulk of the bunch. But no matter where you come from, getting to Corn Island is no hassle free expedition. It’s a logistical tangle of medications, vaccinations, flights, layovers, and the bureaucracy of international travel.

Before we moved here, when we were talking with some friends about what we wanted to do here, one of them asked us what exactly people come here for, if they’re not coming for diving or the like. What do they do here, he wanted to know? I thought for a moment, then I told him I didn’t know.

His question is interesting, not just for this tiny Caribbean island, but for any destination that people spend their hard earned money and time to get to.

What makes us want to fill our free hours with trips across the state, across the country, around the world?* If, in every free moment, we desire to be somewhere else, why make not make our home in some place we might want to spend time?

Home is where the bills are

Someone once told me that no matter where you make your home — whether on the beach, in the backwoods, in the city, in the suburbs — no matter what the place is, it still becomes the place where you take out the trash, do your laundry, and pay the bills. Home becomes mundane. I think we all hear the irony in the cliché, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” We know that no matter where we go, it will always be basically the same.

So why do we try? Why travel at all? People come here, to Corn Island, they drink, they eat, they sit, they talk, they walk, they look. They could do all of those things at home. And sure, there are beaches here, the weather is nice, the scenery is a bit more pleasant to look at than, say, Southern Illinois. But still, we spend the bulk of our time in other places doing things that we could easily do at home. (Yet we don’t do many of these things at home. When was the last time you took a walking tour of your home town and learned about its history? When was the last time you sat down anywhere near your house and just relaxed for an afternoon? For a day? For a weekend?)

But these questions don’t get to the root of the issue, I don’t think. Because when we travel and do these things that are, at home, mundane, we don’t feel as though they’re mundane. Walking the Champs-Élysées, I would assume, feels somehow more meaningful than walking down University Drive in Auburn, Alabama.

In New York, Paris, São Paulo, Marrakech, Taipei, (assuming you don’t live in any of those places) we find something more than we find at home. And even people who live in places the rest of us envy feel the urge to get away and see other places. There is something driving us on to these journeys.

Pico Iyer (him again), in The Lady and the Monk, calls it “whatever curious affinit[y] propel[s] us towards people or places we have never met.”

Curious affinities

As I see it, there are two main motivations for travel: initially there is the urge to see what’s different; later there’s the urge to see what’s the same. We want to see the exotic or we want to see the familiar in the exotic. The second is a more acute way to appreciate the world, and more rewarding.

I think that seeing differences is the initial mode of observation. These are the third-person plural observations. We go somewhere and we say look how they cook this, look what they wear, look how they live. We see everything about the place that is new and therefore intriguing to us. We fill Facebook with pictures of these things. We are visitors to the zoo of other people’s real lives. We ogle. We are “tourists.”

But beyond that initial phase, if we spend the time or make the effort, we begin to see the similarities between the “normal” and the “exotic.” We see shared humanity. My uncle goes to South Africa and comes back to tell us how people there eat grits, just like people in Alabama, they just call it something different. We use the first-person plural. We say, look how we all live the same way, share the same needs and desires, the same struggles. We begin to share in cultures and traditions. We are welcomed to some degree. We travel, and we learn.

The first mode of observation, the distancing mode, is often the drive behind going somewhere new. But to experience the world in this way is superficial. We don’t need to be estranged from our fellow humans anymore than we already are. The value of travel comes after we have left home, when we are able to begin to see ourselves as part of the whole. Good travel photography (e.g.), unlike our haphazard “look where I went” albums on Facebook, functions the same way: it captures the familiar in the exotic, and presents us with a shared vision of humanity. (Even when it shows conflict — “Look! They get mad the same way we do, and about the same things!”)

Terence famously wrote, “Nothing human is alien to me.” To travel well is to be daily reminded of this. And whether this is the actual motivation for much of the traveling we do (and I think it isn’t), it’s at least the ideal — it’s what travel can be and can do. And it puts my mind at ease for now.

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* I know that I’m speaking from a position of privilege here. Not everyone can afford to travel out of their hometown. But even those who can’t travel recognize their sessile lifestyle as a peculiarity, whether they do so with pride or with regret.

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Today in quotations I love: Pico Iyer on the things that matter most

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I had often thought that the mind was, quite literally, a devil’s advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction; an imp that delighted in self-contradiction, and yet, though full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. None of the truest things in life — like love or faith — was arrived at by thinking; indeed, one could almost define the things that mattered as the ones that came as suddenly as thunder. Too often, I thought, the rational faculty tended only to rationalize, and the intellect served only to put one in two minds, torn apart by second thoughts. In that sense, God could be said to be nothing but the act of faith itself. Religion lay in the leap and not the destination.

from The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

I used to be scared of lizards

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One of the many new roomies

The first night on Corn Island, I was cold after my shower, so I turned my fan off before going to bed. I hadn’t been lying down long before I heard a telltale whine in my ear. Realizing that moving air can serve as more than just climate control, I decided my comfort was secondary to my not having malaria, and turned on the fan.

The fan stays on. (Except of course when the power goes out, which happens often. Then I’m comforted by the fact that the last death in Nicaragua from malaria was in 2006.)

Living here is a lesson in relative luxury and an exercise in shifting perspectives. Were the house we are renting here — with its water-stained ceilings, its non-potable tap water, its drafty doors, its low water pressure, its broken air conditioner — were it magically disapparated to Anytown, U.S.A., it would, to put it delicately, not be considered a “nice house.”

But we’re not in Illinois anymore (and we were never in Kansas). Having seen what I take to be standard middle-class living in Managua, and having seen the houses in which many people native to this island live, this house becomes uncomfortably luxurious, unnecessary in its sheer size and embarrassing in its bounty of amenities. We have hot water, a refrigerator, stonework showers, a washing machine, three air conditioning units, and more square footage than we can possibly utilize.

Remember that day in high school physics when you learned about how frame of reference can affect calculations? It’s like that, minus the mustachioed teacher.

Take, for instance, our itinerant roommates, the flies and mosquitos, the lizards, the spiders. We share this house with them much of the time. The flies get free reign because the upstairs air conditioner is broken and we have to open the screen-less windows to keep from broiling to death, and at night they are attracted to the lights. A spider has webbed itself into an upper corner of my shower, and another one I’m pretty sure lives in my drain; whenever I shower it comes out and waits on the wall for me to finish. There is at least one gecko who likes our kitchen walls (and occasionally the large window over the stairwell where he poses for nice silhouettes).

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This one lives at the top of the stairs

Back home, I would have freaked out about almost any one of these things (OK, not the flies, but they would’ve been very annoying). Critters and creepy-crawlies belong outside, not in our sanitized homes.

Here, though, I don’t care so much. If there are flies, fine, the spiders and lizards probably eat them; just keep them off my food. The lizards don’t bother anything, they just watch me cook from time to time.

Boundaries here seem blurred, relaxed: the house is ours but also theirs, and that’s fine. Things are more indeterminate, less fixed. And I no longer jump every time I see a lizard (sorry, Jill).

This is America?

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Let’s get a few things straight here 

North America is a continent. South America is a continent. (Central America is like some sort of weird connective tissue of a landmass, I guess.) The Americas are not, nor ever have they been, a continent en masse. The English and Spanish languages follow roughly the same division as the continents, with some exceptions: Spanish creeping it’s way north of the Isthmus of Panama, and Portuguese making it’s dichotomy-ruining foray to the south.

In Latin American Spanish (I don’t know about Spanish Spanish), someone from, say, the United States is a norteamericano. Rightly so. Spanish is spoken widely in South America, and North America’s asymmetric political presence in the hemisphere necessitates the distinction. Saying you’re American isn’t specific enough.

But in American English (I can’t speak for, or speak, British English), American is synonymous with United States-an (I made that up; did you notice?). It’s a legitimate abbreviation of the country’s official name.

So

I get that when I’m in, for instance, Nicaragua, I have to adjust my customary manner of speaking to say not that I am American, but that I am from the United States. And if I am speaking Spanish, I’ll say that I’m North American. That’s all fine and dandy.

But I’ve had pseudo-sophisticated norteamericanos call me out before when, speaking English with other United States-ans (see? there’s no way to make the distinction without awkwardness in English), I said that I would be leaving America, even though I wouldn’t be leaving the Western Hemisphere.

And that’s just annoying (he knew what I meant).

The correction is equivocating on a cognate. The distinction is linguistic and cultural, not universal. I’m from America. I left America to come to Nicaragua. If I were writing this in Spanish (let’s get real; my Spanish isn’t that good yet) I would say it differently. If you are from South or Central America and I make the mistake in conversation with you, then please correct me. If neither one of those is the case, kindly keep your appropriated indignance to yourself.

Today in better writing than mine: Mark Slouka thinks you work too much

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Mark Slouka wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called “Quitting the Paint Factory,” and to my mind its everything an essay should be: beautiful, impassioned prose with a solid argument to boot. It’s about the culture of work that dominates American culture today, and it’s a lament for the forgotten value of idleness.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. I read it here, so that’s where I’ll send you to read it. But here’s a taste to pique your interest:

A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demonizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, rendered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but. Thus have we succeeded in transforming even ourselves into bipedal products, paying richly for seminars that teach us how to market the self so it may be sold to the highest bidder. Or perhaps “down the river” is the phrase.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.”

[ . . . ]

Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don’t. Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren’t. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that “end in itself” nonsense) because it will presumably lead to work. Thus playing the piano or swimming the 100-yard backstroke are good things for a fifteen-year-old to do not because they might give her some pleasure but because rumor has it that Princeton is interested in students who can play Chopin or swim quickly on their backs (and a degree from Princeton, as any fool knows, can be readily converted to work).

[ . . . ]

Time may be money (though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce), but one thing seems certain: Money eats time. Forget the visions of sanctioned leisure: the view from the deck in St. Moritz, the wafer-thin TV. Consider the price.

Sometimes, I want to say, money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities – and yet we can’t stop ourselves. Worse, we don’t want to.

Seen from the right vantage point, there’s something wonderfully animistic about it. The god must be fed; he’s hungry for our hours, craves our days and years. And we oblige. Every morning (unlike the good citizens of Tenochtitlan, who at least had the good sense to sacrifice others on the slab) we rush up the steps of the ziggurat to lay ourselves down. It’s not a pretty sight.

Calvin gets it, as always

Concerning gringos and other Nica hearsay

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I was informed yesterday that I should get used to being referred to as a gringo. This declaration was promptly followed by the story of where the word gringo comes from.

Allegedly, during the war (which war wasn’t specified — being as I am in Nicaragua, I took any mention of “the war” to refer to the Banana Wars, or possibly to the Nicaraguan Revolution), some unspecified group of Latin Americans encountered some unspecified branch of the U.S. military and didn’t much care for them. The U.S. troops wore mostly green, and the Spanish speaking invadees picked up the word ‘green’ and the word ‘go’ from English, and they combined them to express how they felt about the soldiers. Who knows if that’s true.

My day in Managua has been chock-full of other such stories that are usually entertaining and sometimes compelling despite their questionable provenance.

The trees are also on Ortega's ubiquitous billboards

The trees are also on Ortega’s ubiquitous billboards

Like, for instance, the one about (perpetual) President Daniel Ortega’s wife being into some sort of African witchcraft, and him erecting these giant yellow metal trees around the city for her, which trees are apparently occult symbols.

Don’t worry, I was confused, too.