On Travel

Le naufrage.  Un pétard.  L’envoûtement.  Le soleil de plomb.  L’aubergine.

Shipwreck.  Firecracker.  Enchantment.  Burning sun.  Eggplant.

Those are my French words of the day.  I wrote them on my arm, having gleaned them from a book review I found online, about Le Poisson-scorpion (The Scorpion Fish), by Nicolas Bouvier.  It’s a little book I will probably never read, about some time he spent recuperating and reflecting in Ceylon under the heavy soleil de plomb, following a travel-induced psychological naufrage. 

His breakdown came after months of wandering in a little Fiat with his buddy Thierry.  They went, I guess, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, catching Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran (among others) in between.  This was in the 1960s when a trip like that was feasable.  Such a journey usually  deserves its own little book–The Way of The World, which I, to get to the point here, have just picked up.

I’m obsessed with travel books these days.  First it was Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, about his walk through war-torn Afghanistan.  In what seems like an almost suicidal attempt, the lanky Scotsman, accompanied by his mastiff Babur, made it by foot from Herat to Kabul just weeks after the fall of the Taliban.   He writes, “I had been walking one afternoon in Scotland and thought: Why don’t I just keep going? There was, I said, a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching across Asia.” 

There was something very approachable about his style, so that you didn’t even realize you were reading something unbelievable until two pages after you had read it.  I made a little bedouin-tent out of my bed with blankets and rubber bands and devoured his story in the middle of the night, listening to Iranian classical radio. I enjoy atmosphere, however I can get it. 

I saw a couple of Netflix documentaries and random films about far off places for a while then, also from the luxury of my bedroom fort.  Then I was back at work, reading Peace in Exile, the autobiography of the Dali Lama.  Granted, that’s not really a travel book, but I figured it counts as it was written by a man in a strange land, exiled from an even stranger one.   And I mean strange, since we’re on the topic, in a French sense.  Étranger.  Foreign. 

Yesterday I finished Paul Theroux’s jaded account of mid 1980s China, which he spent a year roaming by rail in Riding The Iron Rooster.  He closes the 400-odd page book with a sentimental reflection: “This Chinese trip was so long and it had claimed so much of me that it stopped being a trip.  It was another part of my life; and ending the travel was not a return but a kind of departure, which I regretted.”

Nicolas Bouvier didn’t wait for nearly 500 pages to talk about what serious adventuring can do to a person.  Just a few pages into The Way of The World, Monsieur Bouvier is already pondering the phenomenon of travel: “We really don’t know what to call this inner compulsion.  Something grows, and loses its moorings, so that the day comes when, none too sure of ourselves, we nevertheless leave for good.

“Travelling outgrows its motives.  It soon proves sufficient in itself.  You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you — or unmaking you.”

I have the itch.  The itch to wander.  Two more months, and I leave for Oklahoma.



~ by Rachael on March 24, 2011.

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