Travel Issue: The Scariest Pleasure

We love travel, we love trouble


Why bother, when to do so is wearying and discomforting in the best of circumstances and dangerous or torturous in the worst? Once it may have made sense, if pane and espresso seemed important, to go to France or Italy, at least to Greenwich Village, for them. Or to go to England for a pint of bitter, or Bangkok for tom yum. Now Seattle is awash in all these and a thousand other once-exotic drinks and delicacies. You want to see lions and tigers and other magnificent critters? You’ll get a better view on PBS, or in the artfully replicated veldt or jungle at your local zoo. Cathedrals, palaces, art treasures, cobblestoned alleys? You could spend the rest of your life wallowing in picture books and video and CD-ROM tours and never have to wait in line, pound your arches, or hurry out when the guards say, “Closing time.” Want to bridge linguistic and cultural divides and share your soul with souls from other lands? They’ll probably speak more English then you’ll ever learn of their language. Want to feel like a citizen of the world? Go hang out in the right U District coffeehouse or Microsoft cafeteria.

Fifty years ago, Borges (Jorge Luis, not Phil, who appears later in this section) had a character—a shameless mongerer of what were clich鳠even then—deliver “a glorification of modern man.” This creature sits “‘in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, time-tables, handbooks, bulletins. . . .’

“He remarked that for a man thus equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.”

Borges wrote before television, jets, communications satellites, fax machines, e-mail, and the Internet combined to bring the mountain to us ever faster—to make the world so small it’s a wonder we don’t fall off it when we turn around. Or perhaps we do, and don’t notice.

SO WHY BOTHER going to the mountain? On real mountains you can fall into a crevasse or under an avalanche. You can get lost, even go over the edge. You can lose the trail, or lose your mind. You can forget who you are or, scarier yet, find yourself. And there’s the reason to travel still, even when traveling’s more obvious pleasures can be had without its trouble or risks: to take a chance on being turned inside out or upside down, to be stretched and tested in ways you never imagined. To live stories, rather than to consume them already packaged and digested. Easy, pleasant trips are forgettable trips. Troubled trips make for good stories.

This doesn’t necessarily entail falling off a cliff, capsizing off the South Shetlands, getting kidnapped by terrorists, or nearly dying of Ebola. (Those stories have already been told.) It includes the sorts of mischievous surprises that can sneak up on you anywhere—at a Burmese night market, or in a Hong Kong flophouse, or on the South African veldt—all those moments that make you stop and ask, “What am I doing here?” and then, “What am I doing here?” Here are 10 writers and one photographer who went and were surprised, and came back to tell the tales. And, if you insist on reading about how to go rather than where they went, a guide to the most accessible (and, for the $1.25 investment, rewarding) non-virtual travel possible—by Metro bus.

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