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Lightplay 12 – the Lost Travelogue

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

I hope this letter finds you well in health and spirit. Here in Los Angeles, the morning is cool and the air clear. Late fall!

Today, I’m thinking about travel. Partly, this is because I’ve been receiving short, photo-laden daily emails from a man currently walking the 500km Tōkaidō pilgrimage route in Japan. (More info here.) Maybe it’s also due to a seasonal fear-of-holidays, an atavistic terror at the big feelings I and others will surely have. And, oh yeah, the travel-blocking global pandemic might have something to do with it too.

Which is why I found myself delighted when I found deep in my drafts an old travelogue, partially drafted but never sent. I wrote it between January 25th and February 9th, 2016, when I was briefly living in Lao and walking the banks of the Mekong every day. It was supposed to be the ninth installment of the previous incarnation of this newsletter, Jasper’s Travelogue. The piece had the working title “The Farthest Shore.”

It’s clearly incomplete, hardly travelogue but not yet an essay. Nonetheless, I think it captures something of the way travel spurs thought. Reading it, you might remember how travel feels, how travel can be a way of thinking with your body. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Farthest Shore

Tonight it’s raining in Luang Prabang, a cold rain. Foreigners huddle in an upscale coffee shop a block from the main intersection, speaking French and Korean, English and Chinese. We’re all travellers; this much we share. Travel is private, though, as personal and secret as a diary or a bank account. Only the traveller himself can know why he is where he is — so far from home, damp, thoroughly alone. And even he has doubts.

I am sure of this: I will go no further. This is the terminus of my trip. From here I begin the slow march home, a retracing of my footsteps till I end up where I started. Back to the border with Thailand, then to Chiang Mai, to Bangkok, back to Xining, to Hong Kong, and finally back to San Francisco, back home. Though as Heraclitus pointed out you can never step in the same river twice: it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you. It’s not the same home.

I’m in a reflective mood. The rainshower has passed, and the last few drops on the tin roof outside my shuttered window sound like an engine block cooling. Today I went to Western Union and collected enough money to get me back to China, hopefully. While the clerk processed my transfer we talked. He told me that the boys here all want to find a Korean girlfriend, but he likes the Lao girls. His girlfriend teaches English to locals and Lao to foreigners. The locals pay about $20 a month; the foreigners pay over $200. He thought this was funny, and I did too. A pack of cigarettes costs forty cents here.

So some foreigners come to Lao and study the Lao language. I also meet nursing students from Australia who operate a mobile clinic for the hill tribes. Also meet a girl from Santa Monica who is travelling each month to a new country and volunteering there. She’s got it all set up in advance. Meet a German-speaking Italian couple from Sudtirol who only spend one or two days in each place and have in the last two months crisscrossed South America. Meet two Swedish girls who visited many Lord of the Rings sites in New Zealand. Man with dreadlocks on slow boat to Luang Prabang says, “… and you can hike from one beach to next — I’m telling you, man, it’s like heaven.” Other man replies, “Yeah, but does it have wifi?” Meet a Finnish former child film star who drives taxis and still acts but is taking a month off. Meet an older couple who are reprising the magic year they spent traveling in 1986, only now they have guides and hotel bookings and return tickets in one month. Meet a Canadian ex-colonel who owns rental properties in Quebec and explains to me his philosophy of travel: sleep cheap, eat cheap, and pay for experiences. Meet a Danish couple who bought a bike in Vietnam, put a few thousand kilometers on it, and are now trying to sell it for $250.

Why are we all travelling? It’s a question even less answerable than, Why am I travelling?

In the States you can visit a photographer to have your picture made before a blue screen. Then using simple computer software the photographer can add in backgrounds with similar lighting. Look, it’s us at the Great Wall! The Great Pyramids! The Taj Mahal! Aushwitz! Pluto! The Drive-Thru Redwood!

It’s one of the stock fears that modern travelers have to watch out for: the feeling that you’re not really there, not actually experiencing the place, at all.

A friend once related to me this anecdote: She was to spend the summer abroad, living with a roommate. Sometime in May she received her roommate’s name and contact info. Naturally, my friend looked up her roommate-to-be on Facebook. There she found countless photo albums of trips to art museums. It went like this: first the roommate-to-be would be smiling next to the painting, then the roommate-to-be would be would be actually touching the painting. Over and over again, these strange duplicates — one beside a painting, the next one groping it. And I guess that is one way of having a real experience with art. Are these homestays and language classes and volunteer opportunities with the hill tribes also ways of trying to touch, of proving to yourself that you really were there?

When I was eighteen I visited Paris for two whole days. My first afternoon I stumbled into the Orangerie, an art museum next to the Louvre. When Claude Monet began to lose his eyesight, he retired to his garden and took up his final subject: water lilies. Out of hundreds of works the greatest were eight vast canvases. The French government wanted these paintings to display to the public, and Monet agreed to donate them, so long as they built two enormous ovular rooms to display them in. I paced through these rooms, this temple to the impressioniest Impressionist, hungry and tired. The artwork didn’t move me — it seemed centrally to prove that the artist did indeed have cataracts. The objects of greater interest were the tourists themselves, who spent much of their time posing for photos with the murals. Why take a photo with a picture anyways? Why take pictures at all when you can buy a catalog in the gift shop?

I spent an hour in the Orangerie, taking pictures of tourists taking pictures. None of them are very brilliant photos. Much later the fancy camera that I was then lugging around with me would be stolen from a coffee shop in a cafe in the Mission district of San Francisco. The coffee shop was called Mission Creek. Now I travel with only an iphone camera, but I still sometimes take pictures of people taking pictures, images duplicated on viewfinders duplicated on my screen and now duplicated again for you. Do these halls of mirrors only estrange us from reality, or do they conceal other and more subtle realities?

My violin teacher Via was once an art history student at Vassar College. During her studies she once tried to join a graduate level seminar with a famous art historian. She had to visit his office hours to plead her case — usually the course wasn’t open to undergrads. She expected that he would ask her about her grades, which courses she’d already taken, et cetera. Instead he asked her to name a painting that she knew well. She named one, hesitant, and he said that he also knew it. Then he asked her what type of tree it was growing on the banks of the river. She wasn’t totally sure, but she thought she remembered it being a dogwood. Or maybe she remembered it being a pear. Whatever it was, she was right, and she got to take the class.

You can spend your whole life looking at a single great painting and always see something new. Or you can take an Art Appreciation course, as I once did, and memorize a few facts each about “Starry Night” and “Guernica” and “Spiral Jetty.” It actually was a valuable course in many ways, not least because I learned the names of a lot of artists I’d never before even known existed. You need a point of entry in order to begin real study.

I think of the Lonely Planet books as largely resembling a survey course. They summarize a handful of places, suggest where to stay, name a few popular activities. They’re a starting place, and are more than useful when you first arrive. But it’s also good to stay a while, wander down alleyways, inspect butterflies, share cigarettes with doormen, learn the names of trees.

[The travelogue abruptly cuts off, overweighted by its own head-scratching. All that remains as notes for the words that would have followed is a single quotation.]

“But while we are looking for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, that is, the new, which can only be found by plunging deep into the Unknown, we have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote can be found.”

from Roberto Bolaño, “Illness + Literature = Illness”

May we all get to travel in the not-too-distant future. And while we wait, may we each stay safe and protect each other. Till next week, I wish you only the best.

15 November 2020