As someone who studies travel, and loves to travel, it still makes me feel self-conscious at times to BE a traveler. This is because the experience of travel rarely feels purely experiential to me: sensations of places, people, and things are always mediated by ideas of travel, by my awareness of the histories of exploration, contact, and encounter. In short, I rarely seem to find the “raw feed” of the travel experience. When it arrives, there is always a news ticker scrolling somewhere at the bottom of the screen.
I imagine that psychologists go through something like this when talking to their therapists. Does the shrink-on-the-couch recall her experiences as pure sensory feed, a chronicle of acts and feelings that follow in easy succession? I doubt it. She must be analyzing these acts as she recalls them, “shrinking” her own actions as she relates them to her therapist.
This is not unique. One does not have to be a historian of exploration or therapist to weave third-person narratives out of one’s first-person encounters. Chris McCandless, idealistic explorer of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, writes a journal about his travels as if they were happening to someone else, an else that McCandless even gives a name “Alex Supertramp.”
In this conscious creation of an alternate self, McCandless is tipping his hand: travel is not really the subject of his drama; it is merely the stage for self-discovery, a platform upon which he (Chris/Alex) acts the part of heroic protagonist and omniscient narrator. Not all travelers are so dramatically inclined, but it does lead us to a broader question: can we ever experience the journey as raw feed of new experience? Is it ever possible to turn the news ticker off really?
And if travel experiences are unavoidably hybrid and impure, jumbled together with ideas about places and our ideas about ourselves, why do they still manage to affect us so deeply? These were the questions that took hold of me in Moscow as I prepared for my journey to Naryan-Mar, a small Arctic city near the Barents Sea in a region known as the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO). I was heading there for the Arctic Perspectives XXI Conference, an international, interdisciplinary gathering of scholars talking about about circumpolar issues in the far north.
By any literary measure, my 48 hours in Moscow were uneventful. I did not get arrested. I wasn’t poisoned or ransomed. I did not suffer from a temporary bout of amnesia. Nor did Moscow resemble the exotic communist fantasy of the Western imagination. The Moscow of 2010 is not Stalin’s Moscow or Gorbachev’s or even Yeltsin’s. It is a modern European capital ablaze with neon, populated by chic clubs and fast food restaurants.
And yet I found it amazingly, frighteningly, marvelously other. It was most dramatically other in language. I do not speak more than 50 words of Russian and can only slowly decipher Cyrillic script. But the experience of foreignness went deeper, attaching itself to little things rather than big ones. Circular outlets. Underground crosswalks. Conventions of dress. Codes of conduct in the metro. On the train. In the airport. In the cafe. These are the quotidian marvels that every traveler experiences, the state of being a stranger in a strange land.
Yet however small, they are pervasive and all-encompassing. At one level, the traveler sees Moscow as the Muscovite sees it: a landscape of imperial edifices and perpetual motion. Yet for me, it was a landscape of little differences, some of them comprehensible, others not. Yet more affecting was the sense that these surface differences – in language, brand names, architectural style – were the thinnest film over a great well of difference lurking beyond the visible. Who do Russians watch at 11:30pm while Americans are watching the Late Show? When do they file their taxes? What are the Russian equivalents of the televangelist, the road trip, the visit to Burning Man? And if there are no equivalents, what are the Russian customs which defy cultural translation? What are the rhymes that parents sing to their children at night?
How can any traveler fathom the depths of such difference? How many years in Moscow would be required to apprehend it from the inside? And in this feeling of profound otherness, I suspect there is an answer – a partial answer at least – to the question of why we travel even as we are constantly trying to analyze and box what we experience. We adopt these analytical modes — seeing oneself as a character, comparing experiences with other events, recalling background literature — because the experience of difference would otherwise overwhelm us. They give some order – a shabby, imperfect order – to the flood of unfamiliar sights and sounds.
Even those of us who enjoy the vertigo of travel – this feeling of incomprehensible otherness – still need this crutch I think, a way of organizing what we see so we are capable of functioning. And perhaps it is more than just a crutch too. Because in rendering it in familiar terms, the travel experience becomes integrated into the world back home, a part of us despite its unfathomable nature.
Next post: Field Notes: Naryan-Mar