Yesterday, I went on a hike with neighbors in Brevard, North Carolina, and I told a story about visiting Lake Titicaca. (Again, giggle.)
As I was talking, I could hear how remote the words sounded — Bolivia? A floating island? I swear these experiences happened, and they used to feel close and present and relevant. I have pictures to prove it.
See — I was there!
But I’m in that phase of re-entry when the experiences are starting to recede and feel thinner. Who cares that I have tips for how to order street food? We’re in the Appalachian Mountains. Here, “street food” means boiled peanuts or roadkill.
Already, scenes from Lima (i.e. below) seem more distant, and travel memories are sinking back to a different part of my brain.
Last night, I re-read Pico Iyer’s euphoric Salon essay Why We Travel to get more perspective. His reasons for the gloriousness of travel are beautiful and seductive — “to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
I also think they’re a half-truth. Iyer celebrates the unfamiliar, but the unfamiliar can be anywhere. A new hiking trail in North Carolina, for example…
A new restaurant. Even a new friend.
And if travel is all the things Iyer thinks, why do travel memories have a special texture and recede to a different, less accessible part of one’s brain? Why are they often relegated to shrill cocktail party banter or conversational one-up-man-ship?
I do not want to be one of those people who begins stories with: “Oh, that’s just like the time I was in Myanmar and…”
… I ate rice glue. Strike that — no need to relive that.
So what difference did Peru make in my life — aside from refining my philosophy of market-eating and improving my diplomacy with hostile taxis? What experiences cross the porous boundary from travel memory to affecting my daily, at-home existence?
- Spanish — I learned a lot of Spanish.
- A newfound love of backpacking (I even bought two used backpacks in Asheville this weekend. Two! And I hiked. Twice.)
- Appreciation for ají and Peruvian cooking
- General character building? — though I decided a while ago that I was just fine with the general dimensions of my character and that I could stop chalking up experiences for the sake of character building…
Not bad for a list, but still… in the moment, it felt bigger.
Iyer thinks we become carrier pigeons when we travel, transporting lessons to and from the places we visit. But I think he gives travelers too easy a pass. Very often, I feel like a voyeur when I travel — skimming over the surface, forming impressions based on a few hours in a new place. Nothing sticks when you travel, and there’s no need to form sustained relationships. Pleasant passing encounters are more than sufficient to brighten my day, and I don’t have to bother with the hassles and complexities of actually staying put.
I also feel like a taker — for example, boring those unlucky Peruvians who had to listen to my garbled Spanish for 5 weeks and endure inane conversations about the weather… Yes, I paid rent and invested tourist dollars in Lima’s economy. Still, I think I got more out of the deal.
I want to be an Iyer cheerleader. I buy his arguments 60%. And I feel forever grateful that scenes like this are burned into my memory.
But I don’t think “Why We Travel” does justice to Why We Come Home — or to the lessons that don’t come with us.