On the Road... Forever.
On trips before this one, and certainly on this one, I've come across a creature particular to this type of budget touring: The Professional Traveler. Whereas I will have traveled in India a total of two months, there are those who have been here six months, a year, two years, or have spent a significant portion of their lives for the last five or ten years circling the globe in search of Nirvana. While they all have their standard reasons for traveling, such as meeting new people, seeing new things, and challenging their boundaries as humans, there seems to be much more going on than this. It is something that I've thought about quite a bit during the last three days, and I don't mean to let this analysis be an indictment of who they are, or the choices they have made in life. After all, at least temporarily, I count myself among them.
The language we speak out here is a poetry of inexpensive hostels and excellent cappuccinos, harrowing bus rides, and if an unlucky female, too- close encounters with a harassing ogre of a hotel owner. It's an almost Contolled Homelessness that we court out here, seeking those conditions and prices just this side of staying at the Salvation Army Shelter. Hell, I've stayed in a Salvation Army dormitory here , and thought it was great. Well, great except for the bedbugs. But at least very different than my comfy bed back in Anytown, U.S.A.
Despite the contrived hardships, there are genuine obstacles out here that can really make difficult touring much worse. I've started a list of the monsters to avoid--the travelers who lessen your experiences, generate bad karma for all, and generally employ vampiric technology to draw the last vital signs out of your cold, dead trip.
Problem: Jack Baddass. There seems to always be one person in a group of travelers who has done the most, seen the best, bested the worst, and always seems to be in control of this life so fraught with chaos. They will hijack a campfire and spin yarns around anyone who will listen about fighting off Kasmiri guerilla warriors with only a bottle opener, or touring the subcontinent on an Enfield Machismo in only a loincloth, or beating a sherpa up Kilimanjaro, while calmly sipping a beer or smoking a rolled cigarette with a veteran's aplomb. Every story that you could offer will be one-upped by these Temple Trippers, and the effect that it has is to beat everyone into tacit approval, finally giving them their rightful place in the limelight. Eventually they paint a picture of their complete and total cultural mastery, while at the same time saving a little space to speak disparagingly of the illogical or superstitious ways of the locals.
The irony of this situation is that, as you could probably guess, when the chips are down, these Superdudes are the ones to weep first when the boat dies out on the sea or run screaming when someone's dynamite fishing in the river. In theory, I could feel sorry for these losers if they weren't grandstanding on my vacation time, but I've got too few precious days left in a vast country to suffer any fools. There's a great reason they are traveling alone-- no one can stand to be around them for more than three hours. Solution: Never invite them to your room, ever. Always have an escape route in mind. Study their behavior patterns and avoid chance meetings. And NEVER agree to a five day camel safari with them, for krishna's sake.
Problem: Civilized Savage. There are those who are mellow and congenial to you, the fellow western traveler, but who turn ugly firang to the forgetful waiter or obnoxious tout. Their once healthy sense of cultural relativity has been atrophied from many years of getting juked out of cash, screwed over in hotel reservations, beaten out of train seats, and generally treated with hostility by an uncaring world. Solution: though they can be great travel companions for a while, eventually it gets hard to empathize with the unfairness they perceive in their obviously privileged world. Subtley find out where they are headed, and choose another direction, or an alternate course.
Problem: Little Orphan Helpme. There are those solo traveling women, usually under the age of twenty-five, who seem to be magnets for bad fortune and creepy dudes; after a few stories it usually becomes crystal clear they have no clue as to how to avoid these bad people or situations, and worse yet, seem to get a charge from courting them. They seem to dig the easy-going older guys who remind them of their father. Solution: Don't offer, even out of pity, to travel with them, and certainly don't get drunk with them. I've seen this happen to fellow travelers, and although the hookup is definitely cool in theory, it usually ends up curtains for your good times.
Now these are just the (hopefully) comical character sketches for those who can throw a bummer into your summer. For every one of these temporary annoyances there are fifteen kind, evolved souls at each stop who give you restaurant tips, much needed language assistance, great conversations, and who, like you, are touring to...well, touring to... sheesh, what are we touring for?
What makes a person want to leave their lives and hit the road, anyway? Out here, it seems, is the allure of a world of little responsibility and shallow consequences. Everyone you meet is without a history or social context, so escaping who you really are and becoming that person you always wanted to be is a romantic ideal, but ultimately a misguided one. At home, if you piss someone off or break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you have to get up the next day and every morning after that and face their ghost time and time again. Here, if you screw up, you either pay more money than you wanted to, or at the very worst, head for the next town on the circuit and secure a fresh start on life. Or so you think. Escape from yourself is impossible, after all, so the key to easy traveling is being who you are now. That way, you can never go wrong.
Against all odds, there are those who do find the place for which they've been searching: that little place by the ocean they've seen in their dreams, that community that welcomes them with open arms, or even the place they have found themselves when they succumbed to the fever of the search. They settle down, marry a local, usually involve themselves in the traveling community in some way, and feed off the irresistible wunderlust of the wayward traveler.
I can't help that think that the answer is much more simple than all of this traveling has warranted- but who am I to suppose I know the meaning of life. Like Iris DeMent, I guess I'm just content to let the mystery be for now.