Sunday, September 03, 2006

Travel Companions

Aug. 30, 2006

The travel writer Pico Iyer once wrote that “Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school…”. It is in some ways easier to get to some of the far corners of the planet than ever before, but the fact remains, the movement of our physical self from one place to the other, a long way from the starting point, is a big effort. “Beam me up, Scottie…” seems so much easier, but it misses a lot of the journey as well.

But like the comment of Swami Subramuniya so many years ago, travel reveals who we really are.

We can’t rely on our station in life, our reputation, our network of friends – in any but a broad superficial way – to help us on that journey. We really have to dig down deep to discover our inner strengths and our own considerable resources.

The little rituals of how you lay out your toiletries in the bathroom, how you arrange your clothes and laundry, where you put your shoes become very important. For some, the chaos of just throw it anywhere works swell. For others (for me!), there’s a kind of reassurance in putting those little rituals in place when we have so little control of so much of the rest of our external environment.

I also learned many years ago, on my first international trip with Father Paul Meinecke, the pastor at St. Mary’s in the Mountains in Virginia City, that you can really take the measure of a friend’s character by traveling with them. Somehow, the crankiness or peevishness we might tolerate in a home setting becomes intolerable on the road; and on the road, we have ways of escaping, easily.

Since the journey is so tiring to begin with – the strange sense of exertion, even though you are mostly sitting still being transported physically and psychically – we have very little tolerance for petty concerns or spoiled behavior. The demand that your toast be ‘just so’ in a restaurant at home, or that your seat isn’t as close to the window as you’d like just seem pathetic and insensitive.

On the positive side, traveling with a companion who is comfortable with the rigors of living at hours when everyone else is asleep, where your dirty hair, sweaty neck and sleep-deprived eyes are on display for the whole world to see, has a strange bonding effect. You are living in the interstices of life; not quite in country “A”, but not exactly in country “B” either. You’ve been through the trials of deprivation and lack of sleep; you must have connections that are more than casual, you are pilgrims and refugees, after all, temporarily at least, without a familiar bed in which to escape.

Because both George and Cecilia have traveled so widely, their road experiences were much, much broader than mine. Also, since we were traveling to Ecuador, the land of Cecilia’s birth, childhood, and family, they were moving through channels they had passed many times before. This was a sort of trip home for Cecilia.

They are lovely traveling companions. Not only are they solicitous of my comfort and circumstances, they are nearly heroic in their good spirits and cheer. Our rhythms quickly fall into a comfortable pattern: they seemed to tire when I tired. They were hungry when I am hungry, and thirsty when I need to drink something. George, who has covered so many historic happenings in his professional capacity with NBC, has quips, anecdotes and tales of adventure to keep anyone engaged.

Also, at our age – not naïve kids any more – we seem to have a good sense of boundaries too. There are times when we need to be apart and independent, and other times when the meal enjoyed in a local restaurant serves as a review of the days activities and a preview of the day ahead. These meals, which serve as the sort of guide posts for the day, become a really lovely part of the trip; not just for the adventure of eating in a foreign country and culture, but also for sharing our life stories.

I’ve traveled with lots of people over the years; with friends and lovers, family members and professional colleagues, each with its own flavor and rhythm. Some were triumphal returns to home or work, some to fulfill obligations, and some for sheer pleasure. Most, however, were simple jaunts to another city. The handful of those long, international journeys spent with good companions have been few, and I can’t imagine any more pleasant and charming than George and Cecilia.

There is typically a moment at the end of the journey when something crosses your mind to share, and you turn automatically to that friend, and of course, they aren’t there. You are back in your own environment, and that time passed with the travel companion is fading quickly into memories.

Pico Iyer:
Paul Theroux:
Ibn Battuta:

No comments: