Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The next several posts will recount my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand

There’s the cheerful travel blog form, so fun and easy to read, a catalog of meals, colors, street names, the dutifully snapped photos, the funny foreign language jokes. You’re convincing yourself and everyone else of what a good time you are having or had, that your trip was worth it, the expense and exhaustion and time, the sweat, dirt, and nausea. It was worth it. Isn’t it always? However much goes wrong, haven’t you always learned? Hasn’t your mind changed, grown, attained new heights and depths? Of course it has. There is perhaps no unworthy trip.

Very little went wrong on my recent trip to Asia, and what did go wrong was laughed off within hours. Because of (or despite) this, the trip was worth a whole lot to me: a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, a lot of fun. I can’t claim perfection, can’t adopt a voice of infinite cheer — that would seem somehow unfair to Vietnam and Thailand. I can tell you what I saw, heard, and smelled; I can tell you what I didn’t see, hear, or smell. I can claim to have understood a few things and much more easily confess to having misunderstood or simply not understood many more. Endless chatter in foreign tongues, expressions of face and word that might or might not have been attempting to communicate what they did in fact communicate. A general feeling of being apart, not just in race, language, and culture, but in expectations, in daily rhythms, ways of holding and being oneself. Try as one might, the world would remain impenetrable. You can only go so deep in 17 days.

Last time I was abroad, in France, the goal was not just to travel but to study, live, blend. Yet despite speaking French (well enough), befriending locals, and exploring the region, five months in Provence barely nicked the dense wall of my ignorance in all the matters that mattered. I was still on the outside, still a neophyte. How much outrageously more, then, must I be ignorant of Asia?

Maybe I would have absorbed more if I’d written about the trip as it was happening, provided a running score of the towns we encountered and meals we ate as we encountered and ate them. But I was too lazy or exhausted or caught up in the joys of traveling with another to do any real writing on the ground. Did I mention that I had a companion, the wonderful Dave? Neither of us had ever had ever traveled as half of a pair, and I found that learning to be and go together — a surprisingly easy, happy lesson — proved almost as much of an adventure as Asia itself.

In the past, I was accustomed to seeing places “as a writer,” which is to say alone. Even when traveling with others, I formed my most important memories apart: in England it was abandoning my group to explore the medieval castles on my own; in Provence it was daily solitary walks in the countryside; in Maine it was letting my mind wander in the potato fields. But traveling with someone, I mean really with someone, is the opposite of observing the world as a writer. Every observation is immediately shared, immediately identified as an experience and shaped as one memory in two minds. This is not to say that Dave and I didn’t have individual thoughts about and reactions to the places that we visited — of course we did — but rather that the dialog we wrote together, our collective impressions, became the text that defined the nature of our trip-as-it-was-happening. This shared text is invaluable, a funny and beautiful narrative that we’ll be able to return to again and again as the trip becomes fixed in our memories. It bears a certain resemblance to the blog form: a tone of general cheer, an impulse to make the best of every situation, a tendency to prove to ourselves that we were having the best possible time or even a very good time — which we usually were. Our shared story acts as a sort of proof that we were there, together, in Asia.

But now that I’m back in the States, now that I have some time to myself, I can pick back through my individual memories of Vietnam and Thailand to create a new text: not a lovers’ dialog but a writer’s stream, a selfish, pungent collection of moments that might distinguish my small sip of Asia from the sips and gulps of the millions of others who came before. Isn’t that to some extent what we all want, we outsiders drawn to those parts of the world most distant from our own? To feel that we have seen something slightly different, or seen it in a slightly different way, or seen it slightly more intensely than anyone else?

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