I'm sure Roger Ebert is right when he quotes Mark Twain in this post, A slow boat to anywhere. Travel is fatal to prejudice. But I'm also pretty sure it's only true for people, like Ebert and like Twain, within whom prejudice had already been dealt a mortal blow by some restlessness or rebelliousness in their souls, and I suspect that Ebert has reversed cause and effect when he implies that his own early travels in Europe opened and broadened his mind. I think it was likely that young Roger's mind was opening and broadening on its own and that's what inspired him to save up "my 75-cent an hour salary and [board] a DC-6 that took me to London by way of Gander, Reykjavík and Aberdeen."
We all know someone who went all the way to China and back and could only complain that the Szechuan's better at the take-out place in the strip mall here in town. The fact that George W. Bush had hardly ever traveled abroad before he became President was just another sign he was temperamentally unsuited for the job.
Ebert's friends with a writer he calls "the most-traveled man in history," the novelist Paul Theroux.
Not only has he written many wonderful novels and short stories, but a shelf of travel books. He went by rail from Europe to Japan, and back through Russia. Twice. No, Friend of Stu, the train didn't go on the water. He also traveled from Cairo to Cape Town. From Boston to Argentina. From Peshawar in Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh. He walked entirely around Great Britain. He kayaked around the islands of Oceana. He lived in East Africa, Singapore and London. He and his wife Sheila live in a house on stilts in a forest on the windward side of Oahu, where they raise bees. Of course their summer home is on Cape Cod, less than a 24-hour commute.
Theroux is one of my favorite writers. It was through his work that I found my way to the novels of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. I read his novels The Family Arsenal and The Mosquito Coast at an impressionable moment in my life and they convinced me to start writing fiction. I've forgiven him. I own most of his novels and at least half his travel books. Theroux presents himself in his books as an irascible traveler, easily annoyed, quick to find fault, more on the lookout for the peculiar and disgusting than for the picturesque and delightful aspects of any place he's passing through. Actually, he never seems to feel he's passing through a place. He seems to feel stuck there. Even when he's on the move he gives the impression he feels trapped. Although I've enjoyed them and learned from them, I've never finished one of his books thinking, Boy, I can't wait to go there. Kingdom by the Sea convinced me that the whole of Great Britain is one cold, damp, cramped hotel room with a lumpy bed. In Riding the Iron Rooster, China is a barren, birdless, smog-choked land that smells of lots of things you don't want to smell, primarily urine.
Theroux comes across as living to refute Mark Twain. Far from being fatal, travel is to Theroux's prejudices what lightning was to Frankenstein's monster.
Ebert once asked Theroux if all his travels had broadened him.
He says not. He is rather notorious for having written, "Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation; and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind." I know in a way what he means. On our honeymoon aboard the Orient Express, Chaz and I met a retired Houston man who had no home and literally lived all the year round on cruise ships and luxury trains. He told us one of the hazards of taking every meal on a ship was that, after dining on land, he often walked away from his table without remembering to pay the check.
I'm not much of a traveler. I'd call myself a stayer-put-er. But that sounds like I don't like to go anywhere. I like to go places. I like to drive. I like to take trains. Airplanes I'm not so keen on, but that's because I'm convinced that if I'm not eaten by sharks I'm going to die in a plane crash. My nightmare is that I'll be on a plane that crashes in shark infested waters. But I'll fly if I have to and even enjoy it---the part where we're up in the air. So when I say I'm a stayer-put-her I don't mean I'm a stayer-at-homer. I will go places. It's just when I get wherever I'm going I like to stay put there for a while.
What most people call traveling is really, merely sight-seeing. What real travelers do---what Sean Paul Kelley of the Agonist is doing in India these days, what the Apostate is doing in Europe---I call exploring. I had a friend who spent close to a year backpacking through South America, but she wasn't traveling, she was wandering. Actually, she was fleeing, but she took what she was running from with her and brought it home with her again. She'd hoped to lose it in the jungles or on a mountain path but she couldn't move fast enough. She's settled in one spot now but it's still with her and she's still trying to lose it and so in a way she's still wandering but in that one spot.
Set me loose, though, and I won't sight-see, wander, or explore, I'll abide.
Send me to France and I won't see it. I will get to know one or two neighborhoods in Paris pretty well though. Same thing would happen if you sent me to Prague, Shanghai, Mumbai, or Santa Fe. I'm assuming you've sent me off with great big wads of cash in the local currency and carved out a month or two of free time for me to get away in. I like to get to know a place and I think the only way to do that is to live in it the way you would live there if it was your home.
This is Roger Ebert's dream of travel too:
Obviously, the way you broaden your mind through travel is to stop traveling and stay somewhere. In my mind I have always envisioned a room overlooking the Grand Canal, a bed-sitter in London, a cheap little inn in Japan.
He's never managed it either.
But he's gone places---gotten off the map, as he puts it---and he heartily recommends doing at least that, getting yourself off the map:
I did spend a year studying in Cape Town. Never mind what I learned there. The point is, I was there, not here. The United States was away up there overhead to my left somewhere on the map. I internalized the fact that most people live somewhere else, and are perfectly happy doing so.
I suspect some Americans believe there is something wrong with people who don't live here--not that we want them to immigrate, God forbid. If you have a friend who has even once referred to a foreign language as "jabber," travel far away from that friend, whose whole neighborhood is likely to be poisonous. If you are free to travel, do it now. Later may be too late. "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
Ebert's dismayed by a statistic he found---"only about ten percent of Americans have traveled outside their country." He doesn't come flat out and say it but he clearly thinks this a sign of our national tendencies towards complacency, self-satisfaction, and parochialism, and he'd like it if more of us tried to cure ourselves of those tendencies by packing up and shipping out on that slow boat to anywhere.
Trouble is, most of us don't have jobs that will pay us to attend film festivals in Europe. My brother used to have a job that paid him to go spend days in characterless chain hotels in Singapore and Paris which of course is very different from being paid to spend days in Singapore and Paris themselves and he traded that job in for one that pays him to stay at home in Connecticut, but at least he gets to see Connecticut. Those of us who have jobs that don't pay us to travel at all don't have much vacation time, anyway, and there are obligations that keep people at home even when they have the urge to travel and would give anything to see the world or at least a little more of it than the small patch of it where they live and work.
I've never had the time and money to even go sight-seeing abroad, let alone do any exploring, wandering, or abiding. No doubt I'm full of prejudices that need killing by travel. But I've tried to make up for not being able to get to know Mumbai and Shanghai by getting to know the places I happen to be. "I have traveled extensively in Concord," said Henry David Thoreau. I think if you keep your eyes and your ears and your eyes open you see quite a bit of the world in a walk around your own block. I have traveled extensively in Boston and Iowa City and Fort Wayne and Syracuse and I'm trying to travel extensively here in the Hudson Valley. It's a beautiful day. Think I'll take a quick trip around the world down to the post office.