... before I even went. Latest travel column about anticipating and imagining a voyage to virgin territory. For Paper Sky magazine.
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(photos courtesy of Sevgin Adaliev)
V.S. Naipaul wrote about the futility of a man trying to understand a city he’d never seen by studying its map. I feel that way when traveling to a new destination, which I do less often than I’d like to. More often I travel between cities I’ve visited or known before or inhabited or worked in or live in today—New York, Tokyo, Osaka Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seoul. Traveling to a city I’ve never seen brings me the twin sizzle of joy and apprehension.
Soon I will travel from Japan to Cape Town, South Africa for a wedding. The groom is Bulgarian, the bride South African, and I, an American, will be traveling with a Japanese.
South Africa is a continent I’ve never visited, and Cape Town an entirely mysterious city to me. Its name rings bells in my mind only via the lyrics of an old Randy Newman song—“Christmas in Cape Town”—a dark portrait of anomie and racial enmity in the grip of apartheid.
I doubt the Newman song did much to boost the city’s tourism industry, but it clung to my mind like a spider in the window—a speck of meaning I might never know.
When you meet a new person in a public place, a bar, an airport lounge or plane, you open yourself in unexpected ways. You might reveal a personal secret you’d never discuss with your closest friends or family. Or you might ask questions of your acquaintance that you would never utter in close company.
New destinations stoke that secret spirit. The first time I visited Vietnam, I felt mentally stripped. Here was the country I’d read about and studied in my youth, a people and a land, not just a war -- as the word and concept, "Vietnam," had long been portrayed in America. I saw a rusting American tank in a muddy ditch adjacent to the runway in Ho Chi Minh City as my plane touched down.
Story, or the dream that triggers it, must arise from the friction between what you know and what you don’t know, and the giddy frisson that can arise when those two worlds rub against one another. I don’t think anyone would bother to write stories if they didn’t believe in the value of unknowing.
A century ago, travel necessarily meant mystery and adventure and danger. Melville’s Moby Dick is a comic tragedy, but it would have less impact without the narrator’s fanatical drive to fling himself to the seas.
Today we usually board flights with diminished expectations. There will be a fast food restaurant nearby, and if not, there will be access to one. If you can’t get online where you are, there's a new kind of luxury—as the head of Twitter Japan told me when he couldn’t access his account in China last fall: “I’m now free from work.”
We impose our own thoughts and identities on the places we discover, we impose maps on places and people, we trek that little blue bauble on our iPhones.
Now I am reading about Cape Town’s colonized past and apartheid horrors, Nelson Mandela’s release, Table Mountain, meeting of the seas, and tourist enclaves. I plan to take a safari expedition east of the city to see the lions and rhinos and giraffes in their modified natural surroundings. Doubtless they will be as impenetrable as the place I am trying to study, in books and on maps, online and via emails, a place I’ve never been to and will see naked soon.