Friday, February 7, 2014

A Walk Around the Block

"Someday we'll go places
New lands and new faces
The day we quit punching the clock.
The future looks pleasant,
But at present
Let's take a walk around the block."

- Song by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg

We all know, or ought to know by now, the difference between a tourist and a traveler. As defined by Paul Bowles in his novel A Sheltering Sky: the traveler doesn't know where he's going and the tourist doesn't know where he's been. And Bowles's story of a young American married couples' disastrous journey off the beaten track should be seen as an emphatic warning against such excursions. But most of its readers are drawn, nonetheless, to the idea of getting lost. Just as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was a powerful allegory of the fate of civilized men when they voyage too far from civilization, has been giving readers ever since the vicarious thrill of immersing themselves in exoticism, Bowles's writings actually nourished the neurosis that they were attempting to diagnose. By elaborately destroying the young American couple he turns loose on Morrocco, was Bowles tacitly trying to tell us that neither the tourist nor the traveler belong in such places? Maybe he was attempting to head off the inevitable wave of tourism that his novel might incite? If so, he failed miserably.

Tourists have been reviled by writers at least since the creation of "package tourism" - the "14 Days, 10 Cities" tours that were devised to optimize the short vacations that Americans have typically taken to Europe. As early as 1908, E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, A Room with a View, touches on a phenomenon that was already somewhat passé - looking down on the tourist. When asked by Mr. Eager if she is traveling, "as a student of art," Lucy Honeychurch replies, "Oh, no. I am here as a tourist."

"'Oh, indeed,' said Mr. Eager. 'Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little - handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get "done" or "through" and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: "Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?" And the father replies: "Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog." There's travel for you. Ha! ha! ha!'"

Six years ago, when I ceased being a tourist and became a resident of the Philippines, I wrote on this blog:

"Somewhat miraculously still in the Philippines, I have had a tough time adjusting to being a resident rather than a tourist. It's easy being a tourist. You're here for a fixed number of days and you have a certain amount of money to spend. So you know exactly how much you can get away with spending every day. And even if you screw up, there's always the return ticket.

It's completely different when you come here to live. Since your stay is "indefinite," whatever amount of money you bring can never be properly budgeted. You know when it will run out, of course, and you know when and how much will be coming in next month. But you'll never know how much it will take to get you to the other side of that great divide called "indefinite." There is, in fact, no other side out there to be reached. You're already there - it's right under your feet."

Little did I know, but John Cheever wrote virtually the same thing, though far more beautifully, in his story, "The Bella Lingua":

"For the tourist, the whole experience of traveling through a strange country is on the verge of the past tense. Even as the days are spent, these were the days of Rome, and everything - the sightseeing, souvenirs, photographs, and presents - is commemorative. Even as the traveler lies in bed waiting for sleep, these were the nights in Rome. But for the expatriate there is no past tense. It would defeat his purpose to think of this time in another country in relation to some town or countryside that was and might again be his permanent home, and he lives in a continuous and unrelenting present."

Of course, what I've learned (the hard way - which always seems the best way) after six years living poor in an all-too-quiet backwater of a poor country, is how much better it is to experience such places as a tourist. Living in a resort hotel, even a resort as unassuming as the ones here on my island, is a luxury that I, quite frankly, miss terribly. How I long to take risks, to live always on the cusp of my budget, knowing full well that my return ticket will save me if I should happen to go too far off the beaten track. I have learned that I am not, as some of my friends would suppose, an actual expatriate. I am an exile, pure and simple. I banished myself to this place in 2008, just as surely as Ovid was exiled by Emperor Augustus to the edge of the civilized world, to what is now Romania (which, after twenty-one hundred years, remains a bit on the edge). The reason for his banishment is obscure, although Ovid himself attributed it to carmen et error - a poem (Ars Amatoria) and a mistake. I suppose I should attribute my own exile is the result of karma and error. (Coincidentally, Ovid turned 50 in the year of his exile [8 C.E.]. I turned 50 in 2008. But there, alas, the resemblance between us stops.)

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