It is a pardonable vanity of travelers everywhere to assume they have no counterparts in the witnessing of wonder. But it is rarely true. Almost every sight we see has been described, decoded, depicted, illustrated, filmed and photographed uncountable times, so that there are few original experiences, only those filtered through eyes before us.
A short time ago, I got a call from an editor at Outside Magazine who was assembling a piece on the collected wisdom of veteran travelers advising the tyro of what essentials to bring when hitting the road. After a beat I blurted, perhaps imprudently, “the best thing to bring is no guide book.” In response, the crack of silence.
But there is some truth to this conceit, if not a bit of hazard. So many times before a trip, I have ticked up the stock of Amazon.com by ordering every guide book, every DVD, every essay collection, even the novels about a place before going … and then inevitably when I arrived and gazed upon the site so amply described it was less than the gorgeously unhinged prose and poetry, even the bad verse, of those who had preceded. It was worse in the image department … how many stunning shots and video clips of the Taj Mahal or Petra or the Grand Canyon had I seen before finally turning the corner, and staring at the real thing in sun-washed disappointment? As Brian De Palma once said assessing image versus reality, “If you love my baby, wait ‘till you see her picture.”
But there is recognition that if I had rounded these same corners without having digested all the prior portrayals and reports, I would have been awed by my personal interpretation of reality.
And I’ve been fortunate in this regard. Long ago, with a small group of friends, I participated in what I believe was the first descent of the Omo River in southwestern Ethiopia, a place with no written accounts of previous passages. We were agog with discovery at most every bend, and at one eddy we parked and looked up to a waterfall, several hundred feet high, spilling diamonds over the canyon wall. I decided to hike to the rim of this waterfall, and spent a couple hours bushwhacking up the extravagant face of the gorge, sometimes teetering on the edge of a fatal plunge. When at last I stood at the lip of these falls, I looked down to a radiant green valley through which the river, which seemed to somehow be lit from below, meandered to infinity. It was a sight that stole my breath, and perhaps one never witnessed by any from beyond the boundaries of this basin. Emotions swelled and overwhelmed, and I suddenly broke out into song at the top of my lungs: “I’m sitting on top of the world, just rolling along …” I felt as glad as a child exploring a new room. It was experience that was original, authentic, and my own.
In the Eastern Asian theology of Taoism there is a concept called P’u, which translates to “uncarved block.” It is a symbol for a state of pure potential and perception without prejudice. In this state, Taoists believe everything is seen as it is, without preconceptions or illusion. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or others’ interpretations. In the state of p’u, there is only pure experience, or awareness free from learned labels and definitions.
There have been other times when traveling where I believe I rolled as an unhewn log, and saw sites with no autographs, and felt feelings with no names. Most often when navigating river corridors with no record of prior descents, the Waghi in Papua New Guinea, the Indus in Pakistan, the Euphrates in Turkey, the Bio-Bio in Chile, the Yangtze in China, the Zambezi in Southern Africa. But, alas, there are only so many unexplored landscapes left on the planet.
Nonetheless, I have found not dissimilar delights when heading to the well-trodden, but resisting the atlas and guide posts, the glozing and distillation of others, and surrendering to my personal perceptions, what might be called “The Man from Mars” approach to wayfaring. A few months ago I traveled to Bosnia, a place with no shortage of ink, but I parked what I thought I knew from television reports of the 1990s war; brooked the urge for guide books, and found myself immersed in pristine landscapes so beyond expectations that I was muttering “Wow!” throughout. “Happiness equals reality minus expectations,” said Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk, and in Bosnia, washed clean of presumptions and frameworks, I found a measure of transport and unvarnished exhilaration.
Last year I was in Assam, in extreme northeastern India, and on impulse and recommendation from a friend, detoured to Nagaland, a place of which I knew nothing. And I was dumbstruck with self-singular discoveries, of finding a mountainous tropical paradise with all the raw beauty of Tahiti, but without the resorts and tiki stands; with communities of people who revel in rich traditional dances and ceremonies not far removed from their head-hunting days. And I found, to my utter surprise, that Nagaland, surrounded by Hindus and Muslims, is the only predominantly Baptist ethnic state in the world, with even more Baptists than Mississippi. I drank in the newness until intoxicated — or maybe that was the rice wine — but in either case, spirits soared with a personal uncovering of this cask.
Yet, there are downsides, pitfalls and perils to the uninformed path. There is the hidden temple passed that is divulged in Fodors; the mushroom omelet missed recommended by Lonely Planet. There are the pickpocket stations, and the parts of town from which there may be no return. I crashed one night in a hotel in Ghat, Libya, without checking TripAdvisor or any source, to awake the day next with my body riddled with welts from bedbugs. Proudly, the scars I carry to this day.
But pre-knowledge and the painted images of priors come at the sacrifice of serendipity. It is the times without GPS, compasses, maps or Yelp that I have found the most fortune, all the kismet, and the highest sublimity of discovery, whether of actual or imagined territory. It is impossible to purge all preconceptions, to even lose the bulk of the baggage of pre-existing exposures … from The Travel Channel to YouTube to cocktail chatter to the scribblings of reprobates like me, it’s hard not to know at least a little of a place before heading out. But rather than add more layers, it is often, I believe, more agreeably terrifying, better able to break the dam of creative juices, and more inspiring to an original line of purple prose, to strip to the personal underwear of experience.
So, I say, to find the grace to sculpt the triumph of your own travel truths, to authenticate the wonder of your own discoveries, toss the guide book, and go … just go.