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

Saturday, November 19, 2022

A Cruise Ship To Nowhere–The Vanity Of Foreign Travel

In a well-known passage from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques explains to Rosalind his overly modest, singular view of life.  Foreign travel, he says, is worth more than any profession, for it is a philosophical endeavor encouraging reflection and promoting personal understanding.  Nonsense, replies Rosalind.  Anyone who wastes their time ignoring what is around them in favor of a passion for the foreign, will have nothing to show for it.


I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is
emulation, nor the musician's, which is fantastical,
nor the courtier's, which is proud, nor the
soldier's, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer's,
which is politic, nor the lady's, which is nice, nor
the lover's, which is all these: but it is a
melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples,
extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry's
contemplation of my travels, in which my often
rumination wraps me m a most humorous sadness.


A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to
be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see
other men's; then, to have seen much and to have
nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

Image result for images helen mirren as rosalind

Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth is a story about a Midwestern businessman – patriotic, enthusiastic about everything American, and dismissive of the aristocratic decadence of Old Europe – and his ambitious wife for whom Europe is everything that America could never be.  Dodsworth loves the industry and no-nonsense practicality of America.  He loves factories, department stores, trains and cars.  He loves America’s cities, prairies, and small towns.

New York on a winter night, with the theaters blaring and the apartment-houses along Park Avenue vanishing up into the wild sky rosy from a million lights. Vermont on an autumn afternoon, with the maples like torches. Midsummer in Minnesota, where the cornfields talked to themselves, and across miles of rolling wheatland, dimpling to the breeze, you saw the tall red wheat-elevators and the spire of the German Catholic Church. The grave silence of the wilderness: plateaus among the scarred peaks of the Sierra Nevada, painted buttes in Arizona, Wisconsin lakes caressing in dark waters the golden trunks of Norway pines.
The fan-lights above serene old Connecticut doorways in Litchfield and Sharon. Proud cold sunsets in the last five minutes of the Big Game at Thanksgiving-time--Illinois vs. Chicago, Yale vs. Harvard--yes, and quite as aching with sentimental and unforgettable and lost sweetness, Schnutz College vs. Maginnis Agricultural School.  Cities of a quarter of a million people with fantastic smoky steel works, like maniac

Image result for image book dodsworth lewis

Lewis writes:

Since the days of Alexander the Great there has been a fashionable belief that travel is agreeable and highly educative. Actually, it is one of the most arduous yet boring of all pastimes and, except in the case of a few experts who go globetrotting for special purposes, it merely provides the victim with more topics about which to show ignorance…The Great Traveler has shot lions in Siberia and gophers in Minnesota, and played tennis with the King at Stockholm. He can give you a delightful evening discoursing on Tut's tomb and the ethnology of the Maoris.
Actually, the great traveler is usually a small mussy person in a faded green fuzzy hat, inconspicuous in a corner of the steamer bar. He speaks only one language, and that gloomily…He is as valuable as Baedeker in regard to hotels and railroads, only not so accurate.  He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all…
These are the laws of travel…It is the awful toil which is the most distressing phase of travel. If there is anything worse than the aching tedium of staring out of car windows, it is the irritation of getting tickets, packing, finding trains, lying in bouncing berths, washing without water, digging out passports, and fighting through customs. To live in Carlsbad is seemly and to loaf at San Remo healing to the soul, but to get from Carlsbad to San Remo is of the devil.

Actually, most of those afflicted with the habit of traveling merely lie about its pleasures and profits. They do not travel to see anything, but to get away from themselves, which they never do, and away from rowing with their relatives--only to find new relatives with whom to row. They travel to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as they might play solitaire, work cross-word puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity. These things the Dodsworths discovered, though, like most of the world, they never admitted them.

Worse, as Lewis claims, is the desire “to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as [one] might play solitaire, work cross-word puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity”. 

Yet one of the first things that lottery winners always do with their money is travel; and for those who have led lives without much opportunity, nothing can seem more exciting, romantic, and fulfilling.  Moreover, travel is the very symbol of wealth and privilege.  The very rich may have homes in Palm Beach and Bel Air, but they also have chalets in Gstaad, winter homes on St. Bart’s, and a pied-a-terre on the Piazza Navona or overlooking the Jardin de Luxembourg. No matter how luxurious homes in the United States may be, those on the Mediterranean have a special and enviable cachet.   It is one thing to entertain the best and the brightest of American society; but another thing altogether to party with princes, kings, Milanese models, and aristocrats in Rimini or St. Tropez.

Even dedicated travelers like Paul Theroux,  a writer for whom travel was epiphanic, an experience like no other, an experience opening the eyes and the soul eventually wore out.  At the end of The Last Train to Zona Verde, he admits he cannot go on.  The fly-specked bus stations, heat, dust, and indifference, so long ignored or overlooked in his younger days of exploration and adventure, now are the only things he notices.  He cannot see past them or through them to more revealing scenes beyond; and rather than being filed away on a bottom shelf of memory, these last, unpleasant images -  foul, short moments in a long, productive, and insightful life – are the most important of all.  The essence of travel has been revealed.  Its brief rewards are not only temporary but illusory at best.

The desire to travel is also a function of age.  Most younger people see travel as an exciting adventure – new, unexplored places, the unexpected.  Welcome surprises, steps out of the ordinary.   Most older people have turned inward in an attempt to figure out what’s what before it is too late.  Death is the consummate journey, all the more frightening and compelling because of its unknowability.

An American and his Canadian lover were brought together by Haiti, the American explained. 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.

Image result for images macaya beach hotel haiti

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, passionate, and violent.

The idyll was destroyed when tanks rolled through Port-au-Prince in an attempted coup; when the smoke of ‘necklaces’, truck tires hung on traitors’ necks and set on fire filled the air; when cars were hijacked, hotels ransacked; and when the two lovers were forced to escape the violence by foot across the mountains to the Dominican Republic.  The lovers’ memories of Haiti would no longer be visions of gingerbread houses, palm trees, endless hours at the Oloffson, but of the Tonton Macoutes, flight, and luck.

The only images of Haiti that remained were those of Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a story of unremitting danger and death.  The foreign environment that the lovers saw as enabling, or at least contributory to their happiness was not what it seemed.

At least the lovers and the characters of Greene’s book were not tourists looking for instantaneous romance, but people whose lives intersected as serendipitously as anywhere else and who took advantage of the moment, although unware of what was to come.

Tourism to Cuba has flourished after the Obama Administration opened the doors to the island, and Americans were quick to jump on planes to see the country ‘before it changed’.  In other words, to see it in its state of ruined, impoverished simplicity – old, crumbling buildings with an air of faded elegance, old cars remembered from childhood, safe streets and stickball in the streets – before the Castros were removed and Cuba rejoined the community of nations, modernized, and became like every other country in the Americas and Europe. 

A French tourist to Mali a number of years ago, remarked how the hotel in which he was staying – owned and managed by two old ex-colonists from La France Profonde - reminded him of France fifty years before, and was a snapshot of a simpler time.  What he did not see was the growing resentment to the regime, the building coup, the terrorism in the desert, the increasing influence of radical Islam all of which led to the country’s rapid disassembly.

Those who are a bit shaky about being typical tourists on cruise ships, stopping in ports for a peek at the country, are given cover by the presence of docents – young men and women who talk culture, history, geography, and language and give the impression of seriousness; but the passengers still form orderly lines off the pier, are guided through carefully selected, particularly memorable parts of town, and are back by dinner.

“Let’s go to Ireland”, a woman suggested to her husband; but when she could offer no better reason than, “I would just like to go”, he demurred, suggested two weeks on the Bay, joined by friends and family.

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