Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why do we keep on traveling?

For all the breakthroughs in communications—how did people ever buy plane tickets or make hotel reservations before the Internet?—travel is still a bone-wearying affair especially for people like Stew and me who are well past the age of pretending to enjoy spending the evening at a hostel with erratic hot water and deodorant-challenged guests.

Two days ago we returned from a trip to Portugal that was terrific except for the return home, which turned into a forty-eight hour schlep that included a cancelled flight, lots of loitering at airports and even an overnight stay in Frankfurt, a three-hour flight from Lisbon exactly in the opposite direction from Newark, N.J. which is where we needed to go.

As we flew over Paris the cheerful Lufthansa pilot pointed out, "...on the right side of the plane, ladies und gentlemen, a beautiful view of zee Eiffel Tower." Danke, Helmut.

No problema, though, at the end when we arrived at the somnolent San Miguel bus station—partly repainted during our absence but still with a dusty shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe decorated with plastic flowers and multi-color Christmas lights—and into the arms of our gardener Félix, smiling with his wife and baby daughter but predictably fifteen minutes late, who would give us a ride home in his new and rattly 1998 GMC Jimmy.

Santa Clara de Asis, the namesake of
our ranch, is a major figure among
Portuguese Roman Catholics. 
No problems at home either except for the lingering backaches, the mountains of laundry, discombobulated sleep cycles and time wasted trying to find where Rocio, the housekeeper, hid all the kitchen utensils during the disconcerting cleaning blitzes she undertakes when we go away. And two wounded hounds, one from a fight, the other missing his left upper canine for unknown reasons.

As travel contretemps go this wasn't a particularly bad trip. Four years ago we spent thirty-six hours at a snowbound Newark Airport waiting for the flight to Mexico. Indeed we have quite a collection of stories about trips jolted by hurricanes, vanished hotel reservations and one resort whose travel brochures neglected to mention we'd encounter topless, past-middle-age East European women lounging by the swimming pool.

Yet we keep traveling. We already are lining up our annual trip to Chicago with perhaps a three- or four-day extension to New York. For the spring, and something totally different, maybe a Deep South sojourn to Louisiana and Mississippi which neither one of us knows very well. After that, Stew is talking up the border between Peru and Bolivia, though I don't remember exactly why. Lake Titicaca perhaps? He also wants to go to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel.

A good friend in her eighties can't wait for her trip to Mongolia sometime in June. Another, a widow in her late seventies, just returned from Cuba and is talking up Sicily in the spring. Right now she is either in New York or Houston, or maybe back in San Miguel.

Traveling, though, is hardly a universal instinct. Many Americans are quite content to stay home or at least within the confines of the U.S. Only one-third of all Americans holds passports. Some folks in the interior of the country regard New York City as terra incognita, and are happy to keep it that way. Stew had some relatives who lived in south suburban Chicago and talked wistfully about visiting the Loop as if it were an intergalactic destination. Sarah Palin seemed happy to contemplate Russia from her kitchen window and no closer.

For Stew and me the first reason for traveling that comes to mind is a certain restlessness, perhaps a late-onset variety of attention-deficit disorder. We are quite retired alright, don't have to even look at a time clock or put up with a boss or annoying coworkers. Zot! We're not running away from anything or anyone.

Yet there's a certain daily humdrum or tedium that inevitably gnaws at our lives particularly in a three-pothole-town like San Miguel. The American Ballet Theater and the Chicago Symphony, gosh darn it, continue to ignore us though occasionally a mega-watt performer like guitarist Pepe Romero will pop up in town. An annual writers conference can attract an impressive cluster of literati too.

One of hundreds of wind turbines we saw in Portugal. These things
are huge, approximately ten or twelve stories high. 
But the rest of the time we feed the pets every morning, make the bed, run to the grocery store, check e-mails, talk about going to the gym—and sometimes actually go to the gym—and attend church most Sundays, the latter with a faint trepidation that we might hear that someone's died or contracted some sort of rare disease.

San Miguel is not big time, but don't let anyone tell you that life in New York or Chicago is a series of cartwheels of cultural events and three-stars dining. Just look at the blank faces of those masses in the subway and commuter trains going to work every day: I lived in New York for ten years and in Chicago for thirty.

Lest we sound mentally or culturally comatose—or perhaps terminally depressed—here in San Miguel, let me assure you we're not. Stew reads voraciously and currently recommends Donna Tartt's door-stopper, Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller "The Goldfinch." And between running the ranch, writing, doing photography, checking the competing and always amusing lunacies of Fox News and the Huffington Post, watching movies and most of all, spending time with a larger and more interesting pool of friends than we ever had back in Chicago, life in San Miguel is far from soporific.

Traveling, though, is an instant antidote against the quotidian, like the curtain coming down on the first act of a play that's becoming a tiny bit draggy—and going up on a new act, with different sets, added characters, new lighting and surprising plot twists. The sere San Miguel landscape suddenly turns into a Guatemalan jungle where human creations, pre-Columbian or otherwise, are under constant assault by the greenery and the humidity. The starry placidity of dinners on our back terrace becomes the neon buzz of New York where for the first few days we feel our heads are about to explode from too much stimulation, including an obligatory pastrami sandwich at a Kosher deli.

Change naturally brings surprises and challenges to what you've assumed to be true. In Portugal we drove a very comfortable, peppy, three-cylinder, turbo-diesel, manual-transmission Volkswagen with air-conditioning that inexplicably got forty-seven miles per gallon of fuel. When Stew and I went shopping for a new car in the States in 2004 we were told diesels were slightly odd contraptions that could be tricky to repair and that diesel could be hard to find. In Portugal the majority of the cars are diesels.

And what's with all those wind turbines—hundreds of them all over the Portuguese landscape—that produce an average of twenty-three percent of the country's electricity, and some days last year generated as much as eighty percent? Haven't we been repeatedly assured in the U.S. that alternative clean fuels are just a bunch of goofy-doofy socialist propaganda by the "extreme environmentalists" and the "lame-stream media"?

We didn't conduct a scientific comparison between French and Portuguese pastries. Both countries seem to share an obsession for impossibly complex, sugary yet light concoctions, but why doesn't the average Joe or Jane in France or Portugal weigh two-hundred-and-eighty pounds like the typical Walmart shopper in Texas? What gives? Wine? Lot of walking or cycling? No Walmarts? People eating fish all the time? All those wind turbines whooshing in the background? Dunno.

Ultimately the most interesting part of traveling are the different people you meet. On that score, San Miguel scores poorly compared to large polyglot cities: Just about everyone here is Mexican. Even in huge Mexico City there is relatively little ethnic diversity compared to cities like Toronto or Vancouver.

On the flight back from Frankfurt to Newark, aboard a nine-seats-across Boeing 777 that looked like a high school auditorium, Stew made a surprising yet obvious observation. "You know, everyone here is different," he whispered to me.

Subtle signage, another Portuguese specialty.
In fact when I got up to check the overhead compartment I glanced back and saw a myriad different faces: Orthodox Jews with beards and curls around their ears; (presumably) Muslim women with modestly covered heads; dark-skinned South Asians; Asian families; pasty Europeans speaking various languages; plus Stew and me and a woman from Cleveland sitting in the window seat who was reading "The Goldfinch."

Would that different people could get along so peacefully in the world outside the plane.

On the ground in Portugal we spoke briefly with a family from East Timor who knew someone who had studied medicine in Cuba and were fascinated with my being Cuban. (Where is East Timor? Hah, find out by yourself, gentle reader!). Or very outgoing waiters at an Indian restaurant who were Sikhs and chatted to us about their religion and why they all wore silver bracelets.

Just two years ago a presumed white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. and killed six worshippers before being killed by the police. The reason for the attack, authorities surmised, may have been that the gunman assumed Sikhs were Muslims because many Sikhs wear turbans.

The Wisconsin shooter could have saved all that ammunition and blood if he had had dinner at the Aroma Restaurant in Cascais, a Portuguese beachfront resort and spoken to the three Sikh waiters we met.  He would have learned that Sikhism has nothing to do with Islam, al Qaeda or terrorism. In fact, one of the chief tenets of Sikhism is respect for other religious faiths and ethnic groups. On the face of it, Sikhs are about as threatening as the Amish.

With that clarifying nugget of information in his head the shooter might have abandoned his plans and booked dinner at Restaurant Col-Col, across the alleyway the next evening, and tried Chicken Piri-Piri, a deliciously spicy Portuguese dish.

In fact, that is what Stew is going to cook tonight.

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