WALK THE PLANCK: Lifting heavy things, putting them back down …

Here is the next installment of writer Matt Lennox's Walk the Planck:

I dig travelling. I like getting to a new place where I don’t know the language or at least not the custom of the land. Where signs by the side of the road look a little strange from what I’m used to – if I can read them at all – and the way traffic works is enigmatic and perhaps a little frightening. I like the different food and I like the beer, even if after I’ve gone home I find the same beer as a unique import and when I drink it there is something irrevocably lost and uninteresting about it. I like being out of my element. I like putting music on my iPod in the same way that I like packing my backpack ahead of time: identifying what seems to be critical to survival and secondarily as comfort while on the road. I like figuring out how the different currency works. I dig everything about travelling. I even dig how it feels to come home, because at the end of a good adventure it feels as if you’ve sort of earned the right to do so.

People who travel will probably agree that it’s akin to a drug, that it’s hard to go without once you’ve started. Going to a place you inevitably find out about other places, fractionally similar to where you are, maybe part of the same country, whatever it is. Sometimes these other places are fabled in their revelation to you. Mentioned speculatively by other travellers you meet – even more so if it’s a place they’ve never been to but of course know someone who has been there. And so you might find yourself rearranging your itinerary to get to wherever this new place is. You might even fall in with other travellers trying to find it. You pool your resources and you have company for what might turn out to be a strange and uncertain journey within a journey.

Falling in with other travellers when you’re on the road is part of the drug. You’re brought together by unique circumstances, and that engenders a certain camaraderie that is hard to develop otherwise. Maybe impossible. Camaraderie needs unique stressors to strengthen its foundation. So the companions you gain along the road may be completely different from people you’d ordinarily go about with. And road companionship has a built-in expiry date to it, but at the time that doesn’t matter much. One time I was trying to make my way from The Corn Islands to Granada. I had to take a number of different boats, varying in size, and then trust my luck to get the last bus going inwards from the outermost town on the mainland. Otherwise I would be stuck for a few days at least – it was the Thursday before Easter Weekend and everything was shutting down. That was a very long day. I fell in with a number of people going in the same direction. A few groups, a few couples, a ragged band of individual travellers like me. I spent much of the time with a Brit and an Aussie. The closer we got to Granada, the more people we lost to their destinations along the way. Altogether it took seventeen hours to get there, and along the way there was a great deal of doubt. At least by then I knew if I ended up marooned for Easter Weekend in some shithole frontier town, I would have a few companions to play cards with. But we did make it to Granada. It was one oclock in the morning. We found a hostel and ditched our bags and made straightaway for a place to get some beers and some food. Sitting out on a patio in Granada, even that time of night there were streetside musicians. I was still with the Brit and the Aussie. We’d covered the whole distance together and were getting on very well. Rounds of beers helped. It was around then that I realized none of the three of us had any idea what the others’ names were. But it worked. We were effective drinking buddies for a few more days.

I can’t recommend travelling enough. All the plebeians will give you a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but I think it’s just because it’s not a normal thing to do. The plebeians get nervous when confronted when things that are out of the ordinary, so they’ll do their best to discourage you. They are ignorant and they’ve gotten fat on reality TV – ignore their foolishness. Put a little bit of money aside, pack up your hobo bindle, and hit the road. On that note, resorts don’t count. Resorts are nice but that’s exactly what they are. Nice. You take a nice slice of North America and you supplant it in the developing world, somewhere hot and beachy, and you surround your nice slice of North America with walls and maybe armed guards, and you go their to have a nice vacation. Your daytrip to the local village or market is a well-entrenched routine for the locals and they’ve gotten used to currying tips from the awestruck foreigners. I am not condemning resorts. If you’ve been slugging through your nine-to-five for a few months, and it’s the witch’s tit depth of February, and you only have a week, and all you want to do is shut your brain off and drink on a beach and count how many European speedos go by in an hour – and most certainly if you want to watch a bunch of sunburned white people try to learn how to salsa dance, while screaming Ole! until their larynxes break – then by all means go to a resort, and God speed you. But now hear this: resorts are not really travelling. Resorts are for vacation and not stimulation. You will gain no wisdom or experience points at a resort. One final exhortation on the subject of resort vacationing: six thousand close-up photographs of all the toes on both of your feet against the opal backdrop of the resort pool, or six thousand photographs of poolside chairs, or six thousand photographs of the same umbrella at the beach, or six thousand photographs of the lizard on your balcony … These things do you no credit, friendo.

You are really travelling if you’ve jumped in with both feet. If your method of road-bound problem solving consists of saying, Fuck it, we’ll figure it out when we get there. You are really travelling if you come home and you can’t really explain any of it. You can tell the individual stories, yes, but you have no lexicon to explain the whole. Something remains in your head and heart about the whole experience that defies any words you know.

My latent voyeur has prominently come forth in some of the different places I’ve been to. Which is to say travelling has afforded me a lot of outstanding people-watching opportunities. And as is my wont to do, I have noticed and attempted to classify some patterns amongst foreigners. I am not talking about the well-known stereotypes: All European dudes wear speedos in Thailand, or, American girls in Panama like to party hard, or, At some point the food in India is going to rob you of all dignity. I am not dwelling on these stereotypes. I am thinking more of three main types that the wandering foreigner can be classified according to.

The Tourist. Easily identifiable. Crocs on the feet, or Teva sandals with socks. Pleated cargo shorts, quite likely a fanny pack, a tee shirt boldly proclaiming the name of the country they’re visiting – or that country’s national beer, and some kind of full-brim hat to help them withstand the merciless sun of a savage land. Am I judging too much by appearance? The Tourist is just as easily identifiable by how they interact with the locals. They adhere to that ancient rule of language barriers, by which, if the person you are speaking to doesn’t understand the language in which you are speaking, simply slow down your speech and yell it in their face. Sheer acoustic volume should be enough to transmit your meaning, right? The Tourist is the one who gets loudly aggravated when the food in some local restaurant takes too long to arrive, or the order is incorrect. The Tourist not only expects but demands the same standard of service you would find on a resort or back home, and the overriding justification for this is always, Well my goddamn tourist dollars are supporting this economy, don’t these people understand that? That being said, the Tourist will at least tip fairly extravagantly. You’ll seldom encounter a lone Tourist. They move in Croc- and Tilley- and fanny pack-bound groups. Probably because they inherently understand what kind of a target they would be if they wandered alone.

The Totaller. This foreigner stands at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum as does The Tourist. The Totaller has not only jumped in with both feet, but with all parts of the body and mind and heart. The Totaller has taken a year off in the middle of their Master’s Degree in International Diplomacy to go traipsing barefoot about the developing world in a pair of ragged hemp pants, reading the Motorcycle Diaries, learning yoga, and generally stinking of patchouli. The Totaller never tips, ever, because: Well, that’s an economic trapping of capitalism, and I don’t want to introduce that to these people. Yet, curiously, there is always money for beer. I find it difficult to openly revile the Totaller as much as I do the Tourist, until I think of how, sure, the Totaller can come down and wander the earth like Cain, getting into adventures and shit, shaving neither leg nor beard, raising his or her fist in league with the other downtrodden and meek of the earth. But then when the money runs out, which it inevitably will, the Totaller makes that call home to get a plane ticket from mom and dad.

That leaves one more type.

The Traveller.

The Traveller is a foreigner and accepts it, which is the critical first step. The Traveller accepts that he or she will never be able to understand what it’s like to be a fisherman out of Puerto Sandino or a beggar in Chennai but is not ashamed to exchange a word and maybe a few moments. The Traveller has learned how to haggle over a price with mutual respect and not condescension. The Traveller does not bitch when the food at the restaurant comes late, but nor does the Traveller insist on loving the food (though he or she may very well love the food), just because that’s what the locals eat. In some ways, maybe, the Traveller is the truest iteration of self, because the Traveller has neither the sense of entitlement of the Tourist nor the grating and ludicrous pretension of the Totaller. The Traveller is just going from place to place, stopping to check out interesting things along the way. The Traveller simply is. I guess the question is, then, does the road demand the Traveller or does the Traveller demand the road? Because if we were all Travellers no matter where we were – if we all went about with that mindset by which you can wander all day with the other and watch out for the other and finally share a beer, only then to realize you don’t even know the other’s name, but all is well because you’re in it together – maybe we’d get along better.

Until next time, comrades: down the road is where I’ll always be, or else I’ll be walking the Planck with the other sybarites.

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