Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Question of When To Do It And Where To Go

I don't always believe in the importance of "coincidence," especially because everything interesting happens more or less at random anyway and isn't part of a plan that we can't see -- thinking the universe is trying to tell you something smacks of being crazy, as far as I'm concerned -- but still, looking back on certain decisions, you have to wonder whether your subconscious is thinking further ahead than the rest of you. Yes, I just finished another book. The right book at the right time. But first the back story.

To make what could be a longer riff much shorter, my friend Philippe has been talking for a long time about taking a long trip through South America with me. He speaks Spanish, having learned it while spending a year down there after high school (never mind why he was able to do this), and it's always sounded fun, especially since the only South America I've ever seen was the stable, clean, tourist-friendly Costa Rica, and the rest of the hemisphere seems like a good place to really start in on a new era of traveling. We've always considered this idea in the context of me getting paid to write about the trip as it happens, or at least after we get back, to get a return on whatever it costs.

The hitch is that Philippe wants to be let in on whatever profits may accrue. I don't really know how I feel about this, but since the trip won't happen without him -- I'm in no shape with my Spanish to do it myself, and if I tried I would immediately be frustrated with how limited the trip would be -- I'm inclined to just go for it and see what happens. This has been floating in the back of my mind for a while, but I never really knew what shape such a trip would take, or had a good sense of what we'd do or see. I like the idea of wandering and going where the wind takes you, but you also need to know you won't just fall off the end of the earth.

Then, like a tiny nugget of wisdom tucked in a large pile of rags, I found Sara Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country. More on this shortly.

This was about five months ago in Tucson, when I was buying used books as usual and for no good reason (I have hundreds I haven't gotten to yet). Picking through masses of printed detritus for sale puts me in one of two moods: either elated in some strange way, as the very thought of "books" and "writers" gives me butterflies -- a feeling I can't justify without sounding like a dork -- or clapped-out and depressed, as I think of how I need to start writing myself pretty soon or else end up a beachcomber who rambles to anyone who will listen about the Big One he never finished. My last six months, at least, have mostly been devoted to a sitcom I'm still talking about with a friend from college. The scripts are fun and relatively easy to write (although, bad sign, they don't always make Stephanie laugh very much) and are the proverbial siren singing me the lures of Hollywood fame as I let my other projects gather dust. I know I could always be doing more. This travel book project has stood out in my mind as a saving grace in the distance. I'm good at keeping travel journals but have never made a trip long enough to make into a book. Things are supposed to work out differently next time. South America is a good setting. (I won't say subject -- I don't have much to add about the politics. We'd be, I expect, passive observers, not commentators.) I like getting around and getting lost. It's perfect.

But how to do it? What would I actually write? I've read travel books before, including a few by unofficial reigning master Paul Theroux, an appreciation for whom I share with mikeswanson, but have never really felt connected to the process I felt went into the making of them. They always seemed so improbably well-turned and guided by the author's ability to do whatever he or she felt like. Was it raining? Some spectral local turned up with an umbrella and an invitation to tea. (Why do these things happen in travel books?) Did you need help with a visa? Somebody the author "knew back home" comes through with a phone call to the embassy; problem solved. I dislike the idea that traveling worth writing about only happens if you have connections. Che Guevara is my kind of travel writer.

Now Sara Wheeler is too. Remarkably, she has connections in spades -- journalists, businessmen, diplomats even -- and yet she doesn't really trade on them to grease her path through Chile, at least not in this book. She uses her credentials as a writer/reporter (never really explained to the reader, although you gather she deserves them somehow), and her status as an unexpected sort of traveler wherever she turns up, to try to get on boats that don't originally intend to take her places, but I have no problem with this. Other than that, she writes about traveling the way it really feels to travel: the people you meet, the places you see, the friends you make and the annoying hangers-on that gather around any boarding house, it's all here. And she makes her territory sound real, even when she's blown away by it (the chapter on traveling to the glaciers near Tierra del Fuego is intimidatingly good) and especially when there's nothing spectacular to say (the top of the country is hundreds of miles of sand, which somehow sound enticing in her version). This is how you tell someone about a trip. This is how you make art out of it. I'd like to do this.

For those of you who like your coincidences, there's this, too: the other day Stephanie and I went to see "The Namesake," based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (who I've never read). The flashback sequence has a whole section on a young man being told on a train by this older fellow to "Pack your pillow and blanket. See the world. [Dramatic pause with a grin.] You will not regret it." It's not much, but these things do seem to happen in bunches to me all at once.


Anonymous Miklas(mikeswanson) said...

After my last post went un-commented on I figured I'd marginalized myself among lapplander posters as being a whacko third party supporter who obviously doesn't see the "political realities" that others who post here do. Or something. But then I read Lapp informing us that "aircraft emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases, far more than cars or trains," and then in the subsequent post his plans to travel to South America on a whim aboard an aircraft. I'll put it nicely in House of Commons language: Since the right honorable gentleman in Washington must surely understand the seriousness of global warming, will he promise his blog-posting constituents that he will stop being such a prat and no longer consider such travel as acceptible in this current climate? Will he further assure us that such air travel unless for a specific purpose other than self-indulgement should be rejected by all Americans in order to combat global climate change?

9:54 PM  

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