What's it like there?


A few days ago, I was reading M Train a memoir by Patti Smith. She's been in the news lately because she filled in for Bob Dylan at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She was a major figure in 1970s punk rock - a punk-poet-rocker. Early in the book she recounts a trip to French Guiana in 1980. Her travels take her well off the beaten path. Descriptions are brief, but evocative. Inevitably, the reader starts thinking of travel and perhaps of similar experiences.

My mind wandered to ELI and our interaction with participants. A common question we get is "What's it like there?". This is the same question I asked as I read her account. I wanted more. In fact, I not only wanted to be there, I wanted to be there at that time. But more on that in my next post. Back to our participants. It's a natural question. What's it like? We all try to prepare ourselves for the unknown. To travel is to face the unknown. At least, that's true for travel to new places. Plenty of people travel year after year to the same place, inserting a level of comfort into this normally discomforting activity.

Before my first trip to India I was grasping for anything that would eliminate the unknown. I studied Tamil, I watched Indian movies. On a trip to Paris, I went to the Musee Guimet to see their amazing collection of Indian art and sculpture. I spent an afternoon in their photo archives. Did any of this prepare me for India? Sure, a little. It's always nice to know a few words in a foreign language and a little about a culture, but you never really know anything until you're there experiencing the place.

When you think about it, there is an inherent contradiction in the whole endeavor. We travel to experience the unknown, but we frantically search for ways eliminate the unknown before we go! Adventure sounds great in theory, and when we are in the midst of the adventure, it is often exhilarating. Still, the lead-up is filled with uncertainties, fears, nervousness.

So the advice I would give people setting off on their adventure is this: we can only know what it's like "there" by going there and living the experience. Sure, learn some essentials about your destination, but embrace the fact that you cannot know everything and that your insecurity is natural and can only be cured by what lies ahead, not by what you read or what someone tells you. Other people can tell you what it's like, but each of us will have a unique perspective, one that is more interesting for what it tells us about the person than what it tells us about the place!

I'll talk about another dimension of travel in my next post (literally) ... the 4th dimension. That will take me back to Patti Smith as well as to Paris, Berlin, Beijing, San Francisco, and more. Travel on!


By Kevin O'Neill


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