Thursday, June 4, 2009

This blog is not importantly about me. I have set it up so that friends or the public in-so-far as they are interested, can follow the trip that I am about to begin. When I am on a prolonged trip and I get email from friends the first sentence is always “Where are you?” This blog is meant to address that question. The other reason for doing a blog is that it is more modest than writing an email to multiple addressees. These emails have always seemed to me to be presumptuous in that they intrude into one's in-basket largely uninvited and frequently unwelcome. We all get too much email that we don’t want. Using a blog I can make the material available only to those interested and volunteer to look at it. Another reason for starting a blog about my travels is that I frequently find I am writing the same thing to several friends – some getting one version and others a different version depending on how much time and energy I have when I write that particular email. With this blog I can write the story of my travels when I have good time for it and make it available to anyone who wants to read the blog.
“World Enough and Time”! I like the title. It addresses without to much specificity the primary issues in my life as a traveler: So much world and so little time. Besides it’s a great old line and easy to remember.
I do not feel that I should be an important part of this blog. I would prefer to keep out of sight – represent the journalist’s point of view, to be the camera, the note taker – not the subject of the piece. I already realize that I will not be successful in performing to that preference. Perhaps that style has gotten out of date in any case.
People ask me when we talk about my travels: “what have you learned?” I have always find the question difficult to answer. Recently I have used a response that seems not only to address the question but also speaks to my real feeling about traveling and what travel is really about. I am convinced that I don’t learn anything when I travel – I do unlearn what I thought I knew. I don’t feel that the traveler really understands what he has seen in his journeys. It goes by too fast, the traveler is too busy with the details; finding the hotel, the bus, something to eat, getting to the airport; there is little time to even observe, let alone learn from the world around him as he passes through it. There is little opportunity for the traveler to really communicate with local people – even if he does happen to share their language. Yet it is the more time consuming and personal contacts that make travel significant. That is why the stories most told of trips are the disaster stories. The bus missed, the luggage lost, the hotel not found, and even occurrences far more important. Getting though a disaster often oblige one to talk to local people, to engage, to break through the rolls of tourist and service provider. These are the things one remembers. Still I doubt that even these disasters teach us very much of significance - they just make a better story. They provide contact with local culture but contact that is too brief and maybe too intense to provide insight of much significance.
But even small contacts can bring the traveler to realize that he has preconceptions, set and frequently unacknowledged beliefs. Beliefs that he is no more able to explain or understand where or how he acquired them, than he is able justify them. After decades of having seizures, I was first diagnosed with non-kinetic epilepsy by a young country doctor in a village in central Mexico. He had no modern equipment or labs or tests. He asked one question: “Did you have a strong sensation of smell?” Yes I did, although I did not realize it until he asked the question. “You have epilepsy” he said simply. What I learned was that I had always had something close to contempt for the professions in less developed countries – I would never have considered consulting a doctor or lawyer, or even trusting a pharmacy in Mexico prior to meeting this young doctor. Still, I don’t think I learned much about what competencies available in various countries, I primarily learned that I was wrong in my unrealized assumption that if you got sick or needed professional help in such a country you were in danger. Last year in a Damascus street I watched a young woman almost lose her concealing long black robes in a sudden wind. What I saw was that under the dowdy black robes was a fashionably dressed young woman. More startling still she and the man with her broke down in fits of giggles as they tried to get the woman covered up again. I learned that I had long had strong judgments about the unhappy dourness of Islamic women - and that my certainty needed to be revoked. In the place of that assumption I could only put the fact that I know nothing about the lives of Islamic women. In losing one’s assumptions one experiences a kind of loosening of the mind; the open spaces left behind when these assumptions disappear feel a little like wisdom.
A significant thing that does feel like knowledge that travel gradually provides is a sense of continuity, a growing sense of the whole. When you travel and see the world for yourself the countries and geographic areas of the world are filled in; the Balkans, for example, is not much more than a word to most people but once you have traveled that rich and historic peninsula and you hear the word Romania on the evening news you listen up because you have been there, you have seen it. It is a country and a people not just a name. It’s only geography I suppose but it is important to me. More interesting travel helps the many blank spots in everyones understanding of history begin to fill in - blank spots take on familiarity you somehow understand past eras you did not previously.
It is not clear to me what it is you begin to understand when you walk along the streets of Athens and look up and see the acropolis standing over the city, or walk down the great collomed streets of the ancient rouined Roman cities in Syria, Jordan and Spain or see the Roman aqueducts, some still perfect and even still carrying water. But somehow you do begin to get a sense of the Classical world, its size and the magnitude of its accomplishments. You can even begin to grasp the flow of history itself. History that connects the Greek democracy to Roman’s long experience with popular rule, and to the Magna Carta of twelfth century England and to the remarkable development in the forms of popular self government the founders of the United States were able to build on the foundations laid by these ancient predecessors. As you travel, these story-book eras of history begin to connect in your imagination you get a feeling of how the classical world devolved into the dark ages as Christianity darkened the mind with mysticism and absolutism. Walking in Florence you feel you know something of how the dark ages gradually receded and civilizations resumed the intellectual adventure of the classical world. Climbing the pyramids of central Mexico or walking among the ruined cities of the Mayan empire you somehow can understand how very different these civilizations were to those of Europe. Traveling the length of modern Vietnam you are incredulous that the United States spent vast fortunes and so many lives trying to save these people from the vibrant culture that they are so proud of today.
Traveling, for me better than books or modern media, begins to bring together the long eras of history and the flow of the land masses and bodies of water.

But I wax lyrical.