I’ve always thought that travelling meant something to me. I’ve always regarded it as an essential part of life, the best way to understand cultures and, by extension, the people that keep these cultures alive. I did a lot of my travelling in my early twenties, common for recent university graduates in creative fields (read: with career paths difficult to foresee). My travel activity has tapered off in the last few years, equally common, I suppose, for those who’ve not only found a somewhat financially stabilising career as well as a city they like enough to stay in.
As my thirtieth birthday approaches, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences abroad and have sometimes wondered whether I “did it right.” My first foray into solo travelling took place in Madrid when I was 20. During that week, I wasn’t completely alone, since I was visiting a friend who was living there at the time, but I was alone for much of the experience. After the first of multiple unfortunate encounters with the hotel owner I perceived as racist (who, in all likelihood, was probably just frustrated at my woeful attempts to conjure the Spanish I learned in high school), I deemed it best to spend my days reading in the park and my evenings reading in my room. It could’ve been worse (I never would’ve finished Ulysses otherwise), but the experience was very much counter to the experience I had envisioned on my way there.
It’s that age-old differentiation between expectation and reality, but this situation differs from that notion in the sense that the traveller’s experience versus whatever reality that person will encounter affects much more than just that single person. This is one of the funny things about travelling. And not just travelling, but travelling with the intent to learn, and possibly even report or broadcast one’s findings. If someone asked me how Madrid was and I responded indifferently based on my actual experience, would that person come to the conclusion that Madrid is not worth visiting? Not only does my expectation/reality differentiation affect me greatly, but it has the very real power to affect the city itself, specifically in the eyes of others.
This is why I adhere great responsibility to travelling, just as I do with writing and reporting. But therein lies the challenge. I can only speak for my own experiences when I say that travelling is difficult. I have a hard time doing it correctly, or at least doing it the way I perceive as correct. I’ve always held this idea that travelling correctly means complete immersion through the different levels of reality present in a given place. Of course, that might be impossible to do, and it seems apparent to me as I write these words that I am “Übermensching.” That would also explain all the times I’ve felt underwhelmed at the end of a trip. Is what I am setting out to do an unrealistic goal, or is it actually something worth striving for?
A traveller can achieve something close to a complete understanding of a place with a lot of time (read: disposable income) on their hands. Time, for me at least, is not a luxury but a necessity when it comes to complete understanding. A swift understanding usually only comes about by information given to me directly, as in a lecture, not information sought out. And it is arguable that the actual kernel of understanding comes not from the actual lecture, but whatever comes from absorbing the lecture, which also takes time.
Time isn’t the only factor along the path toward understanding; the spirit of interaction is another. That complete immersion of which I spoke earlier comes with an inherent obstacle, the traveller’s place as an outsider. Had I studied sociology I’d be able to toss around the correct terms to describe the fine line of an observer’s need to get as close to authenticity as possible without disrupting its natural patterns simply by being there. Travelling with the intent to learn has this in common with sociology and cultural anthropology, in addition to the simple notion of respecting other people’s space. Here, space means both the figurative “personal space” we often use to describe one’s private life as well as the literal space they inhabit, their city.
How much of this can I take into account as I plan my next trip to a new city? Take for instance the city of New Orleans. I have yet to visit but have been thinking about it for a couple of years. I had read a handful of Truman Capote books at around the same time I first started listening to jazz. I enjoy the juxtaposition of the two cultural forces—one a boldly unique sophisticate of Southern charm, the other an abstract manifestation of racial heritage and history—being born from the same New Orleans soil. Further research led me to learn more about the city’s multiculturalism, as well as its entanglements with racism throughout history and today. I continued to devour reading material—from novels to travel essays set in the city—as well as music from and films about the region, everything from Ken Burns’ Jazz to Spike Lee’s Katrin documentaries. Like all stories worth telling over and over again, there seems to have always been a rich multifacetedness about New Orleans, and the reason people feel the urge to tell these stories over and over again is tied to the hope that, in retelling, we reinforce something of our own humanity. It is another prime example of art’s bloodtie to reality, embodied by our histories, presence, and hopes for the future.
I am not the only person who has felt particularly drawn to New Orleans before ever stepping foot in it. Both the city’s history and identity (the former, of course, directly informing the latter) have been represented and portrayed, through various levels of accuracy, in art and writing for decades, a coverage that has only increased in the last ten years. New Orleans’ stamp on our present cultural zeitgeist earns it a place alongside cities like New York and Paris, San Francisco and London. But there is something strange, not just about visiting a place you’ve wanted to visit for some time, but about visiting a place that has existed in your imagination, in some capacity, for some time. Somewhere between expectation and reality, the urge to capture an essence can bear increased responsibility. And sometimes that urge to capture it will get in the way of actually capturing it.
Several months ago I was cat-sitting for a friend, and of course the cat chose not to hang out with me, so I began to feel that same isolated unfamiliarity I get when I am travelling alone. I opened my laptop (which afforded me a virtual space that I was familiar with) and found myself falling through an Instagram rabbit-hole (those are dangerous) that led to a profile of a friend of a friend I’ve never even met. I began piecing together parts of her life as evidenced through her pictures. I suddenly knew what books she had been reading, the kinds of cocktails she liked to order, and certain articles of her wardrobe. When it became apparent that the gentleman in many of these pictures was probably more than a friend, I closed the laptop. The fantasy, a manufactured expectation in many regards, had come to an end and reality had set back in once again.
I didn’t realise under much later that this Instagram foray was telling me something about travelling, about writing, and about the things that I find important. Complete immersion, complete understanding, these twin impossibilities, are effectively my “urge to capture.” My art of travel, my way of “travelling correctly,” may instead lie in accurate recognition. Maybe that means differentiating between what’s true and what’s not, or expectation and reality, or exploring the relationship between those opposing forces. Maybe it means not having a purpose at all. Or maybe it means having the recognition not to let a purpose, the urge to capture, get in the way of experiencing. Maybe it means having an “anti-purpose.”
In a recent article in the New York Times, Sarah Manguso writes on the subject of envy:
I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it.