visitation rights

9 06 2009

As I travel, I’m reminded of two things: one, that I oftentimes prefer the travel itself to the destination or its activities, and two, that when I’m somewhere novel, I appreciate less the “things to do and see” and more the being there, experiencing it as it is. I think maybe I like the actual travel because the goal is clear when you’re on the road and heading someplace, whereas when you arrive, you have to start making decisions on how to spend your time and are compelled, therefore, to concern yourself with something not so important.

With precious few exceptions, though, I’ve found that I prefer meeting the people of an area to touring the area. There are some amazing sights to see, to be sure, but for the most part, landmarks, museums, certain events, and the like really don’t excite me. It’s not their fault that they fail to deliver. They’re just things, sitting and waiting for gawkers, it seems. Some people seem to really get off on seeing these things. I remember telling my traveling partner in NYC once that I didn’t really care if we went over to Ellis Island to stand at the feet of the large green person likeness, and she was shocked. That’s fine if you can attach that kind of emotion to such things. I can’t.

I so much prefer to merely exist in a place. To see what the people who live there do. How they talk. How they react to strangers staring creepily at them from behind a book. I hesitate to say that I like to be there and try to feel the “soul” of a spot because it sounds so lame, but that’s what I prefer. Walking amongst the locals, visiting their haunts, or even simply sitting in a park for a couple of hours doing whatever, you can quickly catch onto the energy of a place, and for whatever reason, that excites me far more than pretty much any sight I’ve seen.

I struggle to word this idea well, but it’s okay, I brought a quote with me. Dr. Mark J. Plotkin, ethnobotanist extraordinaire, wrote of his time in Suriname: “In… that moment… it became totally clear to me that different people, cultures, and places can have their own realities; that just as one can learn the spoken language of a foreign land, one can absorb its spirit—even if that spirit and its wisdom differ radically from those of one’s culture.”

Obviously my experiences in the continental US are far less dramatic, but I think the effect isn’t dissimilar. Every one of us looks at life at least a little differently, and different communities tend to have different takes on life, whether it be because of the landscape, the history of the area, or indeed just the character of the people who live there. There’s nothing like sampling, which teaches you so much about yourself and your world that it’s a thrill all by itself.

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