The Truth about Travel

While my grandfather was lying on his deathbed many years ago, I asked him if he had any regrets in life.   He said: “I regret not traveling more.”

This was from a man who had been around the world and back, thrice over.  He had touched every continent and sailed every sea.  Up to the year of his death, even while impeded by an endless battle with cancer, he regularly found it in himself to get on a plane and go somewhere far away.

Long years before my grandfather perished, while on a road trip with my family, I complained to my father (his son) about how I had never been abroad.

He replied, “Why do you need to travel abroad?  The whole world is right here.  Look out the window…”

He pointed to a grassy hill.  “That’s England.”
Then he pointed to a field of grain.  “That’s Poland.”
Then to a reservoir: “And the fjords of Norway.”

Since that conversation, I have had the good fortune of opportunity to see distant lands, and I have taken those opportunities.  Sure, I’ve been to Transnistria, I bought a shirt in Kosovo, I’ve crashed a car in Poland, I’ve marked territory in the Blue Mountains of Australia.  Even close to home, I’ve been slowly checking off each of the 58 California counties, and only have three counties remaining (curse you, Plumas County!).  Yes, I’ve had a grand old time by way of the road and rail, but there is one thing I’ve learned from it all:

Seeing the world is okay.
Only okay.

When I first stepped off the plane into St. Petersburg (Russia), I was struck with how different everything was.  The suburbs were full of towering gray, concrete monolithic structures – relics of the Soviet Era.  The food relied heavily on potato and herring.  The April air was crisp, and ice still floated in the Neva River.  It was the first moment I stepped foot outside of North America, and I hugged a tree.  No visit to a country is complete without hugging a local tree.

When I stepped off the train in Poznań (Poland), I noticed the monolithic suburb apartments were painted lovely colors of the rainbow.  Also, July is dreadfully rainy, and Okocim Lager tastes pretty similar to Żywiec Lager.

Trains in Germany run on time, trains in Romania are often late, Albanians like Americans more than Serbs do, and Peruvian tourists don’t care much for Dallas.

Italy has cathedrals.  Spain has cathedrals.  France has cathedrals.  Australia has cathedrals.  Las Vegas has cathedrals.  Kosovo has mosques.  Los Angles has mosques.  Italian cuisine combines grain with sauces.  Czech cuisine combines meat with sauces.  Swedish cuisine combines fish with sauces.  Sauces.  Meats.  People.  Buildings.  Food.  Language.

When it comes down to it, everything in the world exists on a continuum.  Sure, the Alps are taller than the Carpathians.  The Carpathians are taller than the Great Dividing Range.  But they’re all varying degrees of the same thing: a mountain range.  A city is a city.  There are variations: big, medium, small.  Smelly, clean.  A place of worship is a place of worship.  Sometimes you hear Latin.  Sometimes Arabic.  Sometimes Hebrew.  A “zh” sound is the same sound whether it be in the word “garage” or the word “żubrówka.”

People like to find things unique in each place or culture, and surely they exist.  But I can’t help feeling that we’re all just rippled reflections of the same image.  There is no true ethnic superlative that we can find meaningful.  Asian parents aren’t necessarily the harshest.  Indian food isn’t necessarily the spiciest.  Alabamans aren’t necessarily the most chivalrous.  Hawaii is greener than Nevada, but Nevada still has some green.

Go to a desert park in the American Southwest.  There will be a roadside exhibit in tribute to the great ecological diversity of that desert.  Go to another desert park.  They will boast of their 152 different species of plant.  Go to a third.  They will brag about their growing bighorn sheep population.

There are bighorn sheep in the Sonoran Desert.  There are bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert.  There are bighorn sheep in Mesa Verde.  There are bighorn sheep in Zion.  Who doesn’t have bighorn sheep?  I’ve been to all these places that boast of bighorn sheep, and how many have I actually seen?  Zero.  And even if I had, does it really count if it was 500 yards away and facing the other direction, partially obscured by a tree?  Is there any real difference between a Yellow-Bellied Pacific Warbler and a South American Jungle Warbler?

There is only so much you can take in with your five senses.  If you look at a mountain, your eyes see the white of snow on the gray of earth, with the blue of sky.  Perhaps the green of trees as well.  White, gray, blue, green.  That’s what you see when you look at a mountain: white, gray, blue, green.  All mountains are just various percentages of white, gray, blue, and green.  Close your eyes and take a sniff.  Is it fresh?  How fresh is it?  Slightly less fresh or slightly more fresh than the wilderness you smelled last year?

So why do I travel if it’s just okay?  Do I seek solace in the idea that all our world’s nations can one day hold hands and sing to the realization that we are all mostly similar human beings sharing a common land?  Perhaps.  Do I seek the great respect that society inexplicably gives to those who go between as many imaginary lines as possible (that is to say: Travel Cred bragging rights)?  It’s likely.  Maybe it’s the pursuit of knowledge.  Perhaps it’s the desire to taste a morsel of history.

I suppose we can also talk about the appreciation of subtlety.  In the effort to find things unique from place to place, one may develop a discriminating palate, allowing for the appreciation of things that aren’t readily apparent.  The Cascades’ forests have reddish volcanic dirt.  The Sierras’ have a brown, stony dirt.  Yes, perhaps we can apply our discerning tastes to every day life in order to make our existences ever so slightly more enriching.

But alas, as I gaze out into the Tuscan hills, they might as well be the oaken hills of California.  And my precious hills of California could very well be the Texas Hill Country, or maybe even the Dinaric Alps.

I suppose if anywhere could be my home, then perhaps my home could be anywhere.

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About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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23 Responses to The Truth about Travel

  1. larissa says:

    Yep, I still love your blog.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Clicking your name finally leads me to your blog (rather than that other Larissa’s blog). It’s about darn’d time.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Oh wait, just kidding, no it doesn’t. If I click your name on my page, it leads me here: http://larissa.wordpress.com/
      It’s only when I click your name in my notifications it leads me to the right place.

      • larissa says:

        Hahaha oh gosh, I don’t know why it does that! I swear my blog has a virus. I wish I had more time to write entries that are as thoughtful as yours…I feel like I could possibly have interesting things to say, I swear, if only I took the time to write things out!!! Haha. Glad to see you are still writing though and happy to be following your blog! Every time I get an email that says “Doctor Quack update,” I’m like, “Yes!!” (Well, if I talked out loud to myself that would definitely be my response…instead, I just click and read your entry immediately). 🙂

  2. Fabulous post. I thought travel was for distraction purposes back in the days when I was 17 and all my closest friends were backpacking for experience. I chose to go to work, they went. We did different things, but lived lives as meaningful and as meaningless as the next man. For me, the real travel is the journey I take when I engage in someone elses reality, or by listening to their muisic, or reading their words. an armchair traveller, that’s me. I love your writing, its alive.

  3. The last line really sums it up for me. What a great post!

  4. Mark Carlson says:

    Every time I travel to another country, even one as similar as Canada, I’m struck by how different it is from back home, and I think that Americans should have a tradition (or a law!) that requires everyone to go to another country at least once in their lives. My reason: Americans have such an insular way of thinking about life, and we tend to think that everyone thinks just like we do (very true from one place to another within these boundaries, as well)–including that many Americans think our way of life is just plain better and more desirable than any others. It’s so instructive to realize that not only are customs and buildings and ways of thinking different, but people elsewhere actually enjoy their lives as they are.

  5. WOW. This post just made my entire day. I remember why I subscribed by email for this blog. This is wonderfully written, thoughtful, and engaging. I aspire to blog this way. Keep up the great job 😀

  6. An absolutely superb post!! I’ve been in CA just over a year now and just love the terrain, but on a camping trip last week from L.A. up to Big Sur, I was often reminded of the coastline of Ireland and at times, Maine. Some of the hillier areas reminded me of Scotland or Wales. I’ve only had the pleasure of a relatively few number of trips outside the U.S. (primarily to the U.K., Central and South America, and to a multitude of lovely islands in the Caribbean), but even with their differences often find myself saying… “oh, this reminds me of… except that…. ” I often tell my partner that California is as lovely a place as any other wonderful place in the world I’ve visited, that he has been lucky to have grown up here and explored it his whole life. But, in reality, so is the place where I grew up (NY). I constantly have that feeling we are all connected by our sameness–the U.S. especially so relative to the rest of the world as its landscapes are so diverse. It’s our cultures and languages that are unique–even right here in the states. Happy traveling!!

  7. Nicole M says:

    I’m currently visiting Salem, Oregon, and while on a walk I was struck by how similar it feels to Enkenbach (in Germany). There are differences, of course… but as I watched the wind in the trees and walked along its streets and reveled in its glorious sunlight, I felt in both cities at once.

    Thanks for the lovely post.

  8. Jessica LeAnne says:

    When I was younger (and when I say younger, I mean about five years ago) and lived in a small Appalachian mountain community, I traveled everywhere. It’s fun to get out of your own town, take a break from work/school/life and just relax somewhere else. Now that I’ve moved to a city, there’s literally no place that I love to visit more than my mountains. Every time I plan a mini vacation, I have to resist the urge to just rent a cabin in the middle of the woods and enjoy my home. Now, if someone offered me a free/cheap trip to a place outside of the country, I would say yes in a heartbeat. But as you get older (again, I’m not THAT much older), you start to appreciate the world around you for its natural beauty.

  9. greaaat post! somehow it reminds me of the writing “Why we travel” by Pico Iyer:

    “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
    http://www.cmi-gear.com/tim/travels/chapter12-travel.asp

    always love your writing!

  10. Fortis Anima says:

    What a profound post! Many of my friends place such high value on being ‘widely travelled’ and often talk about how incredible everything is when travelling. My experiences don’t really reflect this, sure the culture is new-ish, sure we make temporary social connections, but as your post so beautifully pointed out, are these travel experiences really unique and ‘better’ than what we experience anywhere else? I value the break from routine and responsibility that travel allows but the beauty from the lushest of overseas paradises is not so different from what can be found in my own backyard.

  11. larissa says:

    I hope you don’t mind, but I posted your blog on my facebook as one of my favorite blogs. Hope that’s alright/not a breach of privacy!! Also, not to be completely pretentious, but your post totally reminds me of this one really amazing exhibit I saw in Paris (when you read this, read it out loud with a snobby French accent) of Matisse’s works, and I was obsessed with one of Matisse’s obsessions. He was really into dualism, that is–creating the same painting, but in two different cities. So for example, in one, he takes an island in Jamaica and paints it in contemporary-impressionistic Matisse style (art critic right here, yo) and then he paints exactly the same painting (same lay-out, same style, same colors) of Paris!! The ultimate effect is that when you step back, it really looks like you’re looking at two almost identical paintings, and it’s only when you walk up and look at the placards underneath that you realize they are two totally different places. So I feel that Matisse would have totally agreed with you; there’s something essentially similar and identical about all places (especially the sunlight). When I saw that exhibit, I was tired of Paris and feeling that it was really no different than L.A., and that’s why I remember being in awe of Matisse’s obsession. I just remember thinking, “I’m brilliant, I’m just like Matisse!” :p
    This is completely off-topic but maybe you would appreciate it, so I thought I’d also mention that Matisse was a secret deconstructionist (or at least that’s what I think)….he also had a set of two Notre Dame paintings, one in the classical impressionistic style of oranges and yellows and pink and green colors, with a dim, foggy outline of the church and the other which is just like some gray and a dark blue block that very vaguely resembles Notre Dame. And I think it’s freaking awesome, because in the end, Notre Dame is just a construction, right? Just like the Eiffel tower, which has come to represent all of Paris, was only built towards the very end of the 19th century for the Universal Exposition at the time, and was hated by all Parisians–and now it is the symbol of Paris. It’s difficult to even imagine Paris without it! Anyway…now I’m just going on crazy tangents. I need to find the brochure from that exposition and download the pics I took and hey–maybe even make a thoughtful blog entry out of my jumbled thoughts. 🙂 Thanks again for the thoughtful blog entry, and geez…you are insanely well-traveled!!!

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Mon Dieu, mademoiselle, vous savez beaucoup de l’art français. Dites-moi, s’il vous plaît, qui êtes-vous? Que faites-vous en France? (attempted with limited use of google translate)

      I’m glad my little entry could remind you of Matisse. I’m afraid that’s quite a bit of a flattery you have presented to me. Honestly, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Paris, but perhaps I should give it another try. If someone of your taste enjoys it, then it must be something worth going to.

      As for posting my blog on your facebook, it’s an honor. It also explains why my number of visitors stat shot up today.

      • larissa says:

        Haha, I love Google translate. Have you Google translated and then had Google actually read it out loud to you? I’ve done this with Spanish and literally can’t stop laughing, the intonation and pronunciation is so bizarre. I don’t know much about French art though, really! I have been painting for a few years though and I love good exhibitions, so I try to go whenever I can! I was in Paris the past year just working on becoming fluent in French and working at a law office (which nevertheless has nothing to do with my studies, which will be in Comp. Lit), but now I’m in Los Angeles, my home base.

        I honestly have never been the biggest fan of Paris either, funnily enough. It just happened that I ended up there because it was the only place where I had found an apartment (I was very lucky). I have plenty of thigns to say about Paris, but it would be quite the long rant, so I won’t get started! But essentially, it’s not my type of city–it’s too city-y. I really prefer more relaxed places. I also think it’s over-rated and it’s just the stereotype that attracts people–it’s sort of a label or a brand, if you will. Omg, I have so many things to say about this, I could just go on and on…

        Anyway, always nice to read your blog posts. I promise that I have a few coming up (I won’t promise too much for now, actually, let’s just say one or two posts). See you around! 🙂

        Lara

        Anywa

      • Doctor Quack says:

        Los Angeles, eh? How do you feel about the good ol’ City of Angels? Is that where you’re from? I had been living in Los Angeles for the last six years before moving to Texas.

      • larissa says:

        Yes, I am from that sprawling metropolis that personally makes zero sense to me. IIf I had to sum up L.A., it’d be like: oh hey, a beach? 40 parking lots? random ethnic neighborhood? more parking lots? another neighborhood? chain stores? and that would be pretty much it. I feel that almost in every way, I am not a good match for L.A., but yes, I was born’n’raised in Santa Monica to Russian-Ukrainian parents. Maybe I haven’t explored it enough, but I do kind of like more compact spaces (not because I’m a Sanfran hippy), just because I feel you can get a better sense of them–I like to know all the nooks and crannies of a place!–and I just can’t really wrap my mind around Los Angeles or what it is. I honestly feel I know Paris better than I know Los Angeles, and maybe that is one of the reasons I appreciate it more. Maybe I haven’t done enough exploring though–to be honest, for the longest time I just rebelled against the idea that I lived on the West Coast as opposed to the East Coast, so I didn’t really explore my surroundings. But now that I’ve come back from France, I’ve really come to appreciate how laid-back and informal and friendly everyone can be here, and also the weird beauty that random stores, parking lots, cars, and freeways can have in West L.A. There’s a certain appeal to it, right? It was refreshing to see crazy, spastic L.A. after the carefully manicured streets of Paris (Paris is not allowed to have any advertisements and all property owners must have any changes to the external appearance of their residences approved in the fear that Paris change–God forbid–from its 19th-century self). I am not a particularly patriotic person in any way, but just yesterday I did say, “I love America” out loud after a particularly great day full of friendly people (and waitresses). What do you think of Los Angeles as compared to Texas? The only stereotype I have of Texans is that they are always polite gentlemen or gentlewomen, and that’s because I know two people from Texas who are, therefore I like to just make broad generalizations and imagine this ideal world in which everyone is ridiculously polite and elegant. Don’t tell me if it’s not true!!!

      • Doctor Quack says:

        Well, like you, I have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. There are certain things I miss about it (Ethiopian food, temperate weather, the Santa Monica Mnts, Mt. Baldy), but there are certain things I kind of hate with every fiber of my being (the idea that it’s okay to be charged 12 dollars for a burger if they call it gourmet, Hollywood as a tourist destination, rental rates).

        I haven’t once regretted moving to Texas. It’s not as pretty, and the weather is worse in every way, but the wide open spaces feel freer and the people seem more courteous. But mind you, I’m in Austin, the city full of outsiders. Real Texas is something I drive through to get from Austin to somewhere outside of Texas. Sure I’ve stopped, and I’m sorry to say, but I haven’t seen too many country barn dances and beehive hairdos.

  12. spotell says:

    Really interesting post- it made me think about my reasons for traveling. There are definitely times when I get some place and I think, “What am I doing here? I don’t feel like this is travel because it is all too similar.” I guess the when you boil it all down, language (or even accents) is the most significant reason why places feel foreign. Maybe that is what keeps convincing me some new adventure is waiting just around the corner.

  13. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Loved this post! Especially the part about my culture not being the harshest, thank God. 😀 I Twittered this and hope others can take the same carpet ride that I have with your amazing writing! 😀

    Your grandfather would be proud. 😀

    Pink.

  14. becky says:

    You need not go to Oklahoma. Just take a good look at the countryside as you head south on Interstate 5 west of Bakersfield. You also don’t have to go to Detroit. Just look at Oakland as you go north on 880 past the Coliseum. Other than that, the fjords of Norway are worth a look even if you have seen Huntington Lake. Father wrote this, not Mother.

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