Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Traveling the World with No GPS

“Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.” —Paul Theroux

At the oldest of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
I was born with no sense of direction. What I did enter the world with is a whole lot of wanderlust. It was hardly in my DNA; my doting parents were middle-class folks whose idea of foreign travel was a jaunt up the California coast, say from L.A. to San Fran.

My plan to backpack around the Continent midway through my quest for a college degree came as a shock to my father. “If you can afford to go to Europe, you can afford to pay for your college education,” he raved. 

Rather than counter with something like, “No one will believe I went to college if I didn't backpack across one continent or another,” I called on St Augustine. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” I told my dad. He continued to fund my higher education until I earned a degree that led to a career as a travel writer.

Beautiful Budapest
In the decades since that parental debate, I've learned an important distinction. There are two kinds of people in the world: tourists and travelers. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” explains Paul Theroux, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

I like to think I´m one of the latter. After all, even without a GPS, what tourist would wind up in New Orleans after boarding a train bound for Mexico? Armed with a boyfriend and $500, I´d headed south in my 20s, clueless we'd wind up in the Big Easy after a dispute in Guatemala landed us in jail. Our best option, after a friend made bail, was to fly due north, to the closest U.S. city, we figured.

And so began my love affair with the world. I lost the boyfriend but remained enthralled with the planet. As in any romance, we've hit some bumpy patches. But like John Steinbeck, who took the pulse of the country he wrote about by driving across it with his French poodle, I realized, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Having ditched the road to marital bliss after 23 years of fruitless trekking, I had no delusions about control. So I let the universe—and a few Dutch con men—take over when I set off down a warren of post-divorce trails.

Crazy Bangkok
These journeys have cost me more than a few unanticipated bucks. And a lot of embarrassment. Indeed, those slanty-eyed stares virtually screamed “crazy farang” when I overturned a trash bin in a Bangkok hotel, sending eggshells, food wrappers and Hong Thong whiskey bottle shards across the room. But how else could I prove my innocence to a hotel clerk who tried to convince me I'd consumed mineral water (60 baht), not drinking water (15 baht), from the mini-bar—an attempted 45 baht ($1.50 or 1) heist?

Thai snacks; do they bug you?
While contemplating bins of fried insects in Chaing Mai or haggling over bejeweled camels in Cairo's Khan al Khalili, I swear I heard James Michener whispering in my ear, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” Although I never tasted any of the crunchy arthropods, I did buy a few golden dromedaries.

Overlooking Jerusalem
Hardly the reluctant traveler, I've always wanted to stray far from home, to learn and grow from globetrotting, taking risks and embracing the unknown beyond the land of ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonald’s. I've found plenty of American fast-food joints along the way, but I try to resist their lure until only a big gulp or a giant burger can satisfy my appetite for Yankee fare.

Even with such indulgences, I've lost inches while broadening my world perspective, for independent travel entails a lot of work. And a lot of decisions. You walk a lot and talk a lot. You call on resources you never knew you had. But it all makes you smarter and sharper, even while you're flailing about, trying to communicate with folks who speak Arabic. Or Italian. Anything but English. And engaging in commerce with cents that make no sense in a wallet familiar with American dollars. On such occasions, I remember Henry Miller´s point, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” And hearing things, I might add.

Yup, IAmsterdam!
When I finally landed in a city that made my soul sing, I pulled up my California roots for good and bought an apartment in Amsterdam. Asked why I traded sunny SoCal for a soggy patch on the European continent that might be underwater were it not for Dutch ingenuity, I quiz back, “Have you been outside today? Met any people in this chilly lowland or lost yourself along its twisting canals?”

The real Dam Square
Watching the tourists roll down Damrak in those climate-controlled coaches, I marvel at the comfort they enjoy in their plush seats, taking in the world through giant panes of glass. Escorted by a tour guide who explains, in their native language, what time the bus will depart after their prescribed visit to Anne Frank's hideaway or the stately Rijksmuseum, they hold no scrunched maps or Lonely Planet guides—reminders of confused meanders in search of must-see piazzas or must-have falafel.

Then I return to my computer and gaze at photos posted by a friend who spent three days with me on an “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium``-style romp. “Dam Square,” the caption reads below an image I recognize as A'dam's Central Station. Damn! I love my friend dearly and we had loads of fun when she visited. But now I know how different we are. At least when it comes to travel.