Sometimes we make our own paradises. (We make our own hells.)
Often I think we have an idea in mind of what we want something, somewhere, someone to be, and then wriggle the puzzle pieces around until they fit, ignoring the fact that there’s a piece missing here, or there… that the undulating curve of one does not marry up to the angular in-between.
It’s been so many years that I’ve been going to the same place, a glorious place of turquoise waters and the smell of corn tortillas and limes, long enough to remember when the streets were sand, when the beaches were chairless, bathers scattered about on colorful cloths instead, when there were mostly small restaurants run by families, serving traditional dishes, not elegant menus populated with neo fusion cuisine prepared by Europeans. Things have changed there. I have changed, too.
There was a time when I wanted to sink into the weave of life there, when I thought I might blend in and become a part of it, become one with it in the way that all good travelers wish to belong. But as with all dreams, when we awaken we rub from our eyes the sheen of imagination, and with it our ability to seamlessly edit out and edit in. Instead of quaint hammock-filled houses I now see poverty. Instead of admiring the handiwork of the Indians and their woven bracelets and bags, I have grown to know instead their struggle to feed and clothe their children. The cute kids who used to help out their parents behind the counter are still there all these years later, and probably always will be.
Understanding the language opens doors to me, wonderful doors, but it also allows me to know things that others may not, to read not just the touristy pulp but the local news of hardship, desperation, violence, sad tales not unlike those which populate the news of our own cities and towns. My eyes see and my ears hear and while I still love going there, my heart aches with love but also with a twinge of guilt that I am merely a privileged visitor, that my desire for everything to stay the same is selfish, that despite years of tourism the poor are still poor, the changes in infrastructure which might benefit those who live there, minimal, and other than a gift here or there—a backpack of school supplies, a new pair of shoes—that I bring for my “friends” there, there is little I’ve done to change that.
I wish, at times, I could go back and view it all for the first time, like an old love, or a lost neighborhood. But I can’t, of course. How silly of me to think otherwise, if only for a moment. There is indeed an ignorance inherent in the traveler, for without it we would never journey from our homes. We not only believe that everything will go well, but we believe it will be great.
Still, I think we must differentiate between the young travelers whose intention is to know but whose eyes are so open they see all so very bright and shiny, pushing to the peripheral that which is darker, hazier, and the older more seasoned travelers who unavoidably and intentionally choose (whether consicously or not) to put on blinders to the less palatable aspects of the places they visit so as to preserve their own private paradise.
Ironically enough, during this trip I read the memoir of Amanda Lindhout, the young Canadian woman who, along with her fellow journalist Nigel Brennan, was taken captive and held for 460 (462? She uses the former, he the latter, and apparently they are no longer speaking, which I find very sad) long days by Somali extremists. Hardly vacation reading, I know, but an incredible read, nonetheless.
Surely the harrowing and honest description of their brutal captivity in A House in the Sky (elegantly co-written with Sara Corbett) is both terrifying and moving, but what is also a compelling read is her description of what brought her to that point, the roots of innocence and the hunger for travel which filled her backpack with good intentions. In fact, she begins the first chapter with these words,
When I was a girl, I trusted what I knew about the world. It wasn’t ugly or dangerous. It was strange and absorbing and so pretty that you’d want to frame it. It came to me in photographs and under gold covers, in a pile of magazines, back-issue National Geographics bought for twenty-five cents apiece at a thrift shop down the road.
She describes how, in part to escape a difficult life at home, she planned her leap into the world of those color photos of “forests full of green-eyed night creatures and temples high on hills. [… of] orchids, urchins, manatees, chimps. I saw Saudi girls on a swing set and cells bubbling under a microscope, each one its own waiting miracle. I saw pandas, lemurs, loons. I saw Sistine angels and Masai warriors. My world, I was pretty certain, was elsewhere.”
And it was, or it became so. She literally worked to travel, waitressing until she gathered enough money for her next several-month voyage, counting continents, then countries (over 50 by her mid-20’s!), fearless, open-eyed. Fueled by adrenaline, the rush of confidence that traveling brings.
I do think, particularly now that my own children are beginning to venture to other countries on their own, that it is only in our youth that we have the luxury (and lest we forget, it is a luxury) and unbelievable opportunity of experiencing a new country, a new culture with not only innocence, but also with purity of intent and respect, with a balance of wanting to explore without viewing all through the filter of personal expectations and needs which later inform everything that we do.
Amanda Lindhout continues to travel, and despite all her eyes are still open. Hers is an amazing story.