The couple above is standing at a street corner in Chiang Mai, Thailand and doing a very sensible thing: looking at a Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out where exactly they are so that they will know which way to go. But the pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick may sometimes provide guidance as well, though of a different sort. “It is not down in any map," Melville writes, "true places never are."
We are tempted to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning—indifferent to all happiness—makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.
As a traveler who writes, you’re intimately acquainted with the way drudgery can become adventure, or at least a story, when looked at in the rearview mirror. Even in your most anxious, stir-crazy moments, you know that one day, back on the far side of Earth, the event you’re experiencing now will somehow seem more spectacular, or at least valuable and defining.
But as a writer who travels, there are other things you see in the rearview mirror, things now well beyond reach because time, and perhaps distance, has carried you too far. You see lost youth, a fading innocence. You see decisions that at the time seemed noble (and probably were) but which now merely leave you silent, staring into the mirror. You see the future for what it became—the past—and suddenly you wish, at least in some moments, to speak and act differently. You wish that the thing in the mirror was ahead of you, but it is not.
In the rearview mirror even idealism looks dangerous, a Titanic launched and sent full steam ahead. You understand well the ship’s design and the confidence with which it departed, but now you also know the iceberg through which history, or at least you, will interpret its voyage. In the rearview mirror you see that life is hard, harder than you ever expected.
But the journey, you remember, is not yet over. You’re not crushed and broken 12,600 feet under the Atlantic, nor are you forever stranded in some emergency lane while the world speeds by at 70mph. And this is why, having pulled off the road and given that rearview mirror a good long look, you will eventually turn your eyes back to the road, and then, slowly but surely, you will pull your vehicle back into the forward-moving stream.
Finally, having removed your hat to better feel the breeze of movement and hope, you will look for a place to hang it. You will choose, at least for a little while, the rearview mirror.
If at dawn you walk the streets of Nha Trang, Vietnam, you may see blocks of ice being hauled by modified bicycles, bound for paying customers. In looking at this you may remember your grandfather, who mangled his legs as a kid in the 1920s when he got drug behind an ice truck (if I remember the story correctly, he was trying to nab some free ice). His injuries were severe enough that when later he tried to join the military during World War II, he was refused.
Also, you may recall a footnote in David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, in which he details how ice made its way to Panama in the mid-1800s. It’s fascinating:
The ice was supplied by the Boston and Panama Ice Company and it sold for as much as fifty cents a pound when first introduced on the Isthmus. One ship from Boston carried seven hundred tons of ice packed in sawdust all the way around the Horn to Panama City, with a loss from melting of only one hundred tons. But in the process of getting the ice from ship to land to the Panama icehouse, a distance of two miles, another four hundred tons melted. Yet such was the demand that the sale of the remaining two hundred tons paid for the voyage. Within a few years, ice on the Pacific side was being supplied by ships from Sitka, from what was then knows as Russian America.
Finally, in looking at this scene—particularly if you notice the dripping—you may consider ice as symbolic of the human condition. The ice does in a matter of hours what your body will do in a matter of decades. What begins as defined blocks commences a change of state from the moment it is released into the world. The race is on.
The scene conveys a sense of urgency, speaks to the value of time, mirrors things about yourself. You stand and watch the ice drip till the driver returns. Then you walk on toward the beach, stretching your own block of flesh and spirit further into space and time, feeling it drip. And as you settle into the sand to watch a blazing sunrise, this is what you hope: that you will have more value than even the best cargo from Boston or Sitka, and that one day when you finally die all the way, you’ll be nothing like the wasted puddle on asphalt.
In the photograph above, a young Vietnamese woman prays in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Saigon, built by the French in the late 1800s. In her face we glimpse something about prayer. And in the lines below, excerpted from a poem entitled "Six Recognitions of the Lord" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, we also glimpse something of prayer:
I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.
In his book A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, Tiziano Terzani recounts a scene in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in which he is at a fortune-teller’s house, sitting in a dark room lit by one oil lamp. Over the door and written in chalk (in Khmer, I presume) is, “Carnal passion, jealously, violence, drunkenness, intransigence, ambition: if you cannot rid yourself of even one of these ills, you will never be at peace.”
A woman, accompanied by her young daughter, has come to the house seeking the fortune-teller’s advice on how to go about selling a plot of land. The fortune-teller offers his thoughts. Next, the woman asks him to say something about her daughter’s future. Terzani writes:
The [fortune-teller] said that for this they would have to return the following week: it is not easy to predict the fate of so young a girl. That struck me as fair: the less past one has, the harder it is to predict one’s future. There are no signs; the face is without any history, and the fortune-teller, who is often nothing more than an instinctive psychologist, has little to go by.
Terzani’s book is a delight for how it weaves together local culture and history with his own wisdom and reflections. In this section the unwillingness of the fortune-teller to speak of the child’s future struck me as poignant. I could picture the smooth face and bright eyes of the little girl, reflecting a future yet to be written, too vague to be guessed. We who are older may wish to help shape the future of those who are young, but we cannot predict what lies ahead. There is a great mystery here.
The picture above is of a young boy, not a girl, but he too is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His face is smooth, his future uncertain. He is being formed by a place and culture that he didn’t choose—as none of us do, at least in our early years—and his face, his manner of speaking, and maybe even his gait will increasingly reflect what is around him and how he responds to it. Perhaps, like the child in the wheelchair being pushed behind him, he will lose a leg. Or perhaps, like his relative whose bicycle rickshaw he is sitting in, he will spend his days using his legs feverishly to make a living. All that is certain is that his face will change, and that it will increasingly tell a story. And, of course, that those around him will help shape it.
It is a fact of human nature that we derive pleasure from watching others engage in pleasurable acts. This explains the popularity of two enterprises: pornography and cafés. Americans excel at the former, but Europeans do a better job at the latter. The food and the coffee are almost beside the point.
Like many of you—and like the Korean grad student in this photograph, taken in Bangkok—I spend time in cafés. For me it’s because I need the stimulus of caffeine as well as the stimulus of people and sound (there’s nothing so unstimulating as being isolated in a library and seeing, in a blank Word document on a computer screen, your silent reflection bouncing back at you). In the café, you can eavesdrop on conversations, ask attractive women to watch your computer while you venture to the bathroom, and, if you wish to be obnoxious, try to snort the aroma of coffee (or other things, I suppose, depending on where you’re at and what you want in your body).
The café, then, is about more than coffee. It is about people, connection, and inspiration. It is about not feeling alone even when you’re working alone. And on the road it is sometimes even about refuge. In Kathmandu, for instance, the soft chairs and rich smells were a refuge from weeks of grueling travel through northern Yunnan and Tibet (July 2004). In Istanbul the café was a refuge from hours of walking in numbing winter wind (Dec 2004). In Bangkok cafés have frequently been a refuge from midday heat (2000, 2004, 2005, and 2007). Once in Bogotá, while photographing with an expensive camera, a café served as refuge from the threat of being robbed on the street. And in Jerusalem a café even offered the opportunity to sit beside a large plate glass window (two days after a suicide bombing two blocks away) and suspiciously watch passersby on the sidewalk, imagining glass and screws ripping through your flesh and scattering it against the back counter (Jan 2002). If this last example doesn’t seem to fit the refuge category so well, ask me in person one day and I’ll explain.
Some modern travelers bemoan the current lack of blank spaces on the map, since everything is now pretty much mapped and charted and has left us with nothing “unknown” to explore (or so they say). But at least we have cafés.
If you’ve ever backpacked in Southeast Asia or have undertaken casual research into the global party scene, you’re familiar with Thailand’s Full Moon Party. Whenever that lunar ball is all lit up in the heavens, alcohol and travelers wash ashore on Ko Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Even well into the evening, vehicle headlights bear witness to the masses streaming down the steep mountain road from other parts of the island. Out to sea boat lights stretch like planes lining up at O'Hare, ferrying the anxious pilgrims from Ko Samui and the mainland. From the east and west they come: prostitutes, undercover cops, sexual predators, Russians, Thais, Europeans, and on and on and on. By midnight a stretch of sand a few hundred meters wide will fill with thousands of revelers.
And so it was that while reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, my mind fell back for a moment to the sights and sounds of Ko Phangan. I'm aware that Conrad is speaking here about the upper reaches of the Congo. Yet I couldn’t help but think, even if a little in jest, of the Full Moon Party:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly, yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.”
Paul Tournier (1898-1986), a Swiss physician who wrote books with titles such as The Whole Person in a Broken World, once said that "no one can develop freely in this world and find a full life without feeling understood by at least one person."
I don’t know what was going on in the minds of these two young girls in a village outside Bac Ha, Vietnam, but in the few minutes I watched them I did have a pretty good idea of this: their lives were fuller for their friendship.
Here’s a definition of travel that I like (and just made up): “to move in such a way that your life intersects with other lives and is shaped by the encounter.” For me, a vital component of relationships formed on the road is the goodbye, nicely demonstrated in this photograph from Vietnam. Chau and her friend have just spent part of the day with me in Hoi An. As the river ferry that will take them home pulls away from the dock, they wave goodbye. It’s a small and ordinary thing, yes, but imagine a world in which nobody ever said goodbye.
Recently, while chatting online with a friend in Shanghai named Michelle, I was reminded of something I’d nearly forgotten. I had first met Michelle in Kathmandu, and two months later we met again in India. Michelle recalled the morning in Rishikesh when she and her traveling partner checked out of the hotel to catch a bus to Delhi. The night before, knowing they would be leaving in the morning, I had asked that they wake me before setting off so that we could say goodbye. But because for two days I had had a blazing fever and sore throat, Michelle decided they’d slip away quietly from their adjacent room so that I could rest. When I awoke and discovered their vacant room, however, I rushed to the receptionist -- he said they had left 10 minutes earlier -- and then, mostly clothed and in flip-flops, tore off down the small street paralleling the Ganges. Michelle remembered the surprise and happiness she felt when she saw me wheezing and disheveled, having finally caught up with them to say goodbye.
(Incidentally, I remembered something else I'd almost forgotten: two days later, while on a night bus to Pushkar and enveloped by cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes, I was so weak that when I tried to ask someone to tell the driver I needed to go immediately to the hospital, I couldn’t lift my head to speak, nor move my mouth to say the words. In all my travels, this was the only night in which I thought I might be dead by morning, and it's partly attributable, I think, to that sprint along the Ganges.)
Perhaps “goodbye” isn’t worth dying for, but a life void of the custom would be missing something. And I’m not the only one who thinks this; so does the young character Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s backpacker favorite Life of Pi. Along with a tiger named Richard Parker, Pi is lost at sea for several months, and when finally he and the tiger come ashore the tiger ups and walks away, never to return. And Pi says:
I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.