Thursday, March 6, 2008

Time To Go

It is, finally, time to go. The Lunatic Express is pulling out of the station. A journey. An adventure; the idea sets in and, as Arthur Ransome wrote in Swallows and Amazons, the first book I ever loved, “nothing but a … voyage of discovery seems worth thinking about.”

A few months ago I was lucky enough to wander through Guatemala with a wonderful half French, half American storyteller named John Heaton. When he was a kid at a crusty English boarding school, “The chalk pits were the fence beyond which we weren’t allowed to go,” he says. “But I had to see what was on the other side and a friend and I snuck off.” Beyond the chalk pits he found nothing too remarkable – just more woods, as it turned out – but for Heaton those woods were like “standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.” No kids had ever disobeyed the order and made the journey. “We came back to a wall of tweed,” Heaton remembers, “and were given a ‘sixer:’ six lashes on our bare bottoms with a cane. It stung like hell but it was worth every lash. In the communal showers the stripes on our bottoms were stripes of glory.” And that’s what good travel is all about, “curiosity leading you to places you don’t know,” says Heaton, “just to have that knowledge of what lies beyond. I saw beyond the chalk pits and I paid the price. But it was worth the risk; you have that knowledge for the rest of your life.”

Knowledge… Adventure… Stories that change your life, and change your perspective. To get them you have to leave. Heaton once turned his car lights off in the middle of a long tunnel. And then promptly smashed into a boulder. I’ve done very nearly the same thing – sometimes I shut my eyes on the highway and count. It’s hard to get to three. It’s not risk for its own sake, but … something else. Curiosity. Knowledge. A taste of the unpredictable.

I think it was flying from Kinshasa to Kikwit in the Congo in a hot, fly-infested airplane when it first hit me: the daily complaints (mine included) about getting delayed in airports or jammed in a middle seat between the two largest, most foul-smelling people on a full cross-country flight is just whining. Really, we have it good. There wasn’t a single fatal crash of a scheduled American airline in 2007. We click on a web site, check in online, get where we need to be, all in one piece and usually pretty close to on schedule. With our choice of movies and music and soda. Yeah, the snacks suck, and the airlines have lost my luggage. But then it was delivered to my door in the middle of the night.

We’re lucky. The world is on the move; people aren’t just in their villages anymore, and most of them are subject to horrendous travel. Buses that turn over and plunge from cliffs. Commuters literally crushed to death on the trains in Mumbai. Planes that might not leave at all, or worse – you’re 25 times more likely to die on an African airline than on an American one. Overcrowded ferries that sink, like the MV Joola that went down off the coast of Senegal five years ago, killing 1,830 (only 1,046 of whom had tickets).

So I’m off to circumnavigate the globe, traveling as the rest of the world must – on the world’s slowest, most crowded, or most dangerous, buses, boats, planes and trains. I want stories, yes, but perspective, too. I want to see the world in a new light, a new way. I want to meet these people. And myself, perhaps, all over again.

What will it be like just to move? Can I suffer with a smile?

I’ve been anxious about it for the last few months. I couldn’t sleep. I doubled my life insurance; I loaded up on Cipro and Tylenol with Codeine and I even bought an inflatable life vest.

But suddenly I feel light. Lucky, soon to be flying from Havana to Bogotá on an old Russian Ilyushin, bound for Quito, Lima, La Paz, Santa Cruz….

Who knows? And that’s the best part.