“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it”
If you have the good fortune to do a little traveling, it can be a catalyst toward feeding your creative life. I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit and the experiences, both good and bad, have shaped who I am.
Many years ago I threw my journal across the room in the Mena House Oberoi Hotel in Cairo. From the moment I put my foot down in northern Africa I knew that I would taste the exotic. Men in white cotton robes, women covered from head to toe in synthetic black ones and bare-footed children with broad smiles floated from palm tree to palm tree. The scent of spices and desert overwhelmed even the diesel fuel. The ever-present call from the minarets provided the soundtrack.
I wanted to record every detail of my first trip abroad in my journal, but the experiences were many and so immediate that I soon became stressed and initmidated and soon found that I couldn’t fully be in the moment. And there were a boatload of moments I didn’t want to miss, so I threw the journal away. At times I’ve regretted it, but what I remember has stayed with me in a very vivid fashion.
My first suggestion when traveling abroad is BE HUMBLE, GRACIOUS and GRATEFUL.
I’m a guest. I have no right to intrude upon another culture with my own.
I was part of a small group invited to an Egyptian’s home for dinner. When we arrived, Nabi, our host, greeted us while his wife stirred pots in the kitchen. Before dinner, we were led into a sitting room where Gunsmoke played on a small back and white television and Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty spoke in dubbed Arabic.
When we gathered at the table for what would be an incredible meal, Nabi’s wife didn’t join us. For the rest of the evening she sat in a chair in the kitchen, feet firmly planted, hands neatly folded in her lap. Although her figure was strongly present, as if she were embossed in the pink light of her kitchen, we were never introduced. When Nabi called for her she appeared to replenish the platters of food or pour more juice. We were allowed to thank her before we left, our only contact with her.
I will always carry an image of her. Although I may have an opinion about her lifestyle, I have no right to judge it. I learned to let it be, which left me open to see a larger picture, to increase the frame around one life, one woman. This is useful to a writer.
My second suggestion, if at all possible - FULLY IMMERSE.
In his blog post “Xenophanes, Wittgenstein and Meaning” Alex Crockett states:
“As individuals there is a degree to which we expect to be understood. It isn’t that we expect people to understand our words. The sense in which we expect to be understood doesn’t change if we use a translator. What we expect is that people understand what we mean.”
The city of Beppu is on Kyushi, a small island off the coast of Japan. Beppu is home to the largest volume of hot water other than Yellowstone.
I visited a hotel in Beppu that had public baths the size of airplane hangers, one for women, and the other for men. The baths had such a variety of soaks and immersions that women and men switched bathhouses on alternate days so that we could experience all of them. I hadn’t a clue how to participate. How does one go about being buried naked in hot sand or freshly ground coffee without losing one’s dignity? None of the ladies spoke English, there were no signs that I could read, and I didn’t take the luxury of a good stare at the women in case it was misinterpreted.
So I gestured. “What do I do with this wooden bucket?” I asked by holding it out with a concentrated look of ignorance. A woman gestured back; she filled hers with water and poured it over her body. I learned you can’t go into a bathhouse until you’ve taken off all of your clothes and washed thoroughly with everyone else in the preliminary room. I became aware of this when one of the women handed me a bar of soap. By the time my wild gesturing really got going all the ladies giggled shyly, covering their mouths. (Oh my lord. There we were all naked together, yet they still covered their mouths. Again, none of my business.)
And so we washed our privates in public. Then someone gave my back a good scrub.
By the time we stepped into the main bathhouse, my shyness had evaporated. There was no scrutiny in the bathhouse. No one cared about the size of breasts, thighs, buttocks, or the appearance of cellulite. They spoke quietly, or didn’t speak at all. At first I sat in the corner of a sulphur water bath and observed. How do I make the most of this? And then I allowed myself to become part of the flow and moved with others from one type of bath to another. Things happened, we laughed, we closed our eyes to rest, we shivered from the cold baths and burned as red as lobsters from the hot ones. The coffee and sand was easier than you might think. All of this without words, without a common language, just gestures and an understanding of meaning.
I try to remember that experience when writing dialogue. Most of the time we don’t need a lot of words.
Thirdly - VISIT THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
Ugly industrial areas remind us that there are cogs in the wheels that turn our world and make things work. I visited a car factory outside of Tokyo; I felt like I was in a Ridley Scott film. It can be challenging to think of spending hard earned time off exploring a seedy or poverty stricken area. It can even be dangerous. It’s no picnic to be held at gunpoint in a foreign country and I don’t suggest it. But I can tell you that if you happen to be in such a situation it will change your idea of what freedom means. Ever been questioned at the Tijuana border patrol? Not pleasant, but oh what fodder.
One of the best meals I’ve ever had was in a trailer park in Mexico. When the cab driver turned off the main highway onto a dark dirt road in the middle of nowhere I was sure that this was it - this was our early death. Ten minutes later we were in a trailer park strewn with fairy lights eating succulent freshly grilled fish off of paper plates with several others who’d braved the drive.
Finally, as you know, you don’t have to go abroad to travel. If you live in Manhattan and have never been to Harlem, good grief what are you waiting for? If you live in a small town and haven’t driven over to the next town for their Blueberry Festival then get there early and observe how they organize the floats for the parade. Could be hilarious; people get touchy about their floats. There’s a town in England, Ottery St. Mary, that celebrates Pixie Day – I cannot believe I’ve yet to see the re-enactment of The Pixie Revenge.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Go away.