"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 14, 2018

Love In Foreign Places–A Happy, Delightful Moral Pause

In Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, a collection of reflections on the seduction of travelling alone, he writes that travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive.
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)
One can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.

The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

In The Dead Hand Theroux describes the unsettling chaos of Calcutta –  kaleidoscopic and fascinating, but eventually claustrophobic and indecipherable. Calcutta is too much for a foreigner, too intense and unremittingly alien to take measure; too unlikely and unpredictable; too strange.  There is no refuge and no time for sorting out a Westerner’s preoccupation with justice, equality, moderation, and progress.  No time to process holiness, abject poverty and its inverse morality, idol-worship, profound spirituality, and crowds. 

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Yet the main character in Theroux’s story finds an out – a way to square the chaos of India with its spirituality and his own particular search for renewal.  He becomes obsessed with a an American woman and follower of Tantrism.  With her he can lose himself, give in to her sexual domination, and be transformed from ego to acolyte.  She satisfies all his fantasies – the need for a dominant, secure sexual master, a spiritual guide, and a center in a confusing and chaotic personal universe.

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Of course she is too good to be true.  He realizes before it is too late that she is nothing that she seems; and that his dreams of complete sexual, philosophical, and religious satisfaction cannot be realized.  He has been duped, although willingly, his nose open, manipulated, and used.

The story is a grade B exaggerated mystery.  The woman  is an impossible combination of Tantric goddess and criminal exploiter; and her suitor is an impossibly naïve travel writer who should have known better.  But the story illustrates the observation of the many travel writers cited in The Tao of Travel that foreign places are not simply observed and noted but active players.  There is always something about foreignness and climate that disarms preconceptions and neuters objectivity.  No traveler is immune.

A colleague and his Canadian lover were brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

Men have always strayed and always will.  Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Niamey, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Niger – or Chad, Burkina, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are developing, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but for the foreign traveler they represent chance, opportunity, and romance.  Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.  Temples, sacred rivers, holy shrines, seedy hotels, surprising friendships are all part of the particular exoticism of foreign places.  If actual romance and sexual intimacy are part of the algorithm, so much the better.  Not expected, always hoped for, and prized better than any if found.

Such allure was irresistible to Shakespeare’s Marc Antony whose obsession with Cleopatra was his undoing.  A seasoned, heroic military and political leader, Antony, like most older men, was helpless before a beautiful, younger, exotic, and enticing woman – so much so that he followed her questionable lead in the decisive Battle of Actium against the forces of the young Roman Emperor, and was defeated.

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Maecenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.
Enobarbus: Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry Where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her, that the holy priests Bless her when she is riggish
The ‘sybaritic East’, as Enobarbus describes the Egypt of the Ptolemies, was diametrically opposite to the disciplined, cold, and unforgiving Rome of the Emperors.  He knew  that there was no way that Antony could have heeded the more severe, moral, and principled world of the Empire.

There is something disassembling about foreign places to which no one is immune.  Once one leaves the tarmac at Dulles, homegrown cultural constraints are loosened; and once once one lands in Niamey, Bamako, or Luanda they are untethered.  There is no liberation to compare.

It was not surprising that the Haitian love affair continued only as long as the lovers met in Haiti. Neither one ever suggested that they meet in Boston, New York, or Miami; and when her summer internships were over and his last contract delivered, they knew that their affair was over.  Their friendship was uniquely, irrevocably Haitian.

There are always regrets that disturb the phenomenon, cause oscillations. A colleague and frequent traveler never got over his love for a Danish woman who left him for an Angolan lover; a Palestinian Parsi persona non grata in Israel, her home; or a doctor from Timisoara who had attended Ceausescu before his death; but his disappointments were never discouraging.  He was never looking for a mate. Love was never unique nor permanent, but only temporal.

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He had never had a satisfying affair in the United States.  The casual liaisons and even more continuous relationships with women in California and Nebraska, although intimate and special, were never the same as those in Calcutta or Yaoundé.  There was no reason why women in California or Nebraska were less appealing than those met abroad.  On paper they were all within the margins; but there was something disassembling about affairs in tropical climates.

The same women, suggestive over gin pahits on the verandah of the Tallygunge Club in Calcutta were different. There could be no possible explanation for the liaison between two lovers on Anjouan,  an island in the Comoros, both accounted for and neither unhappy.   It must have been the ylang-ylang the microclimate, and the isolation.

What brought the lovers together in Haiti was Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking on a balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti; if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

Image result for images haiti gingerbread houses

However, is travel only a hallucinogen, filled with insights, new perceptions about self and environment; both with some spiritual dimension? A renewed sense of romance? And both leaving the traveler with only residual memories of them? Is it ever anything more than a pleasurable high, a vacation, a welcome respite from judgment, responsibility, and concern? While the philosophical insights of Theroux, Wolfe, Nabokov, and others may be valid, is anything so temporally confined and passing of any real value?

Foreign travel is attractive because of its exaggerated differences.  India feels philosophically important and Ohio does not.  How can India’s mysticism, religious carnival, abject poverty, billions of people, and bourgeois vitality be anything but meaningful?
 
Ohio is more nuanced.  Epiphanies there are hard to come by.  The residents of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town only see its value when they are dead and looking down on what they lost.  Grover’s Corners had everything, and they missed it.

Yet few of us are so attuned to such subtlety and nuance.  We prefer interludes of drama and the suspension of reality to reality itself.

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