The road, her siren song calls me; I fear she has become my muse.
Okay, that’s perhaps a bit too melodramatic even if it is apt. Ah, God, why am I still here? Apparently I shouldn’t even watch [tag]PBS[/tag] anymore … it’s too dangerous for someone with wanderlust. It’s been three years since I returned from my month traipsing back and forth across [tag]China[/tag]. There has been some domestic [tag]travel[/tag] back and forth on this continent via jet since then, and a number of car trips. But I haven’t been anywhere beyond the borders of my homeland. I haven’t been anywhere that English wasn’t the native language, or that I stuck out as an obvious foreigner.
And not a day goes by that I don’t dwell on it.
Some days it’s just a passing thought. Other days, I’ll spend hours lingering over images of foreign lands – either my own, or those photographed by someone else – or reread my own journals or passages in well-thumbed Lonely Planet guides, some for countries I’ve been to, some for which I haven’t yet.
In the past three years I’m sure I’ve bored more than one friend to death with my travel talk – regaling them with tales of past journeys, or about half-formed plans to join the Peace Corps in a French-speaking African country, or [tag]teaching English[/tag] in South East Asia, living in a different country every year. One month I plan to start in Thailand; another in Vietnam. Sometimes I think about coupling the Peace Corp with a masters degree program. Or maybe I’m going to go back to China, to teach and eat food in Chengdu restaurants. Or maybe back to Japan. Lately I’ve been seriously thinking about it – I can’t really explain why or what is making me think I’m more serious about it than at any other time in the past three years, but something is different. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that in little more than a month, I’ll ding 40.
And while I have family here, while I presently have a good job and really can’t complain about my career, the world-not-yet-seen beckons. The things that I gather are supposed to interest or concern me as I pass this mile marker of middle age don’t seem to hold much sway over my restless spirit. Indeed, I often catch myself asking this question more and more frequently, why am I still here? Even if I lived to be 100 and traveled for the rest of my days, I don’t think I’d ever see all of the world that I’d like to see. If I were independently wealthy and a person of leisure, what would I do? In a word, travel. So why am I still here? What is it that is keeping me here?
And then I saw this: A PBS documentary viewed entirely by chance, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. Two art school pals, [tag]Francis O’Donnell[/tag] and [tag]Denis Belliveau[/tag], with an interest in history and culture, in addition to art, set out to retrace Marco Polo’s travels. It was just the two of them, and some photography equipment. They lined up a few sponsors to help with costs, but it was just them on the road, even leaving their passage up to their own wits (Marco Polo didn’t travel by air, so they kept to land and sea routes).
In the vernacular of two other intrepid adventurers, [tag]In the Footsteps of Marco Polo[/tag] is a most excellent adventure. I won’t recount their travels; you can view the documentary online, or on your own PBS affiliate. But they had an amazing journey that was anything but easy, one that took the better part of two years. And they more or less proved that [tag]Marco Polo[/tag], his father, and his uncle must surely have made the journeys that they wrote about. While I have no desire to undertake diplomatic missions for the khan, I would love to see the steppes of Mongolia – or any place else along their route, for that matter. Even Iran.
Especially [tag]Iran[/tag], perhaps.
O’Donnell and Belliveau found that, even though they were in Iran on the anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian people were the most hospitable of their travels, even more so than the Turks. Even now, the legend of Arab hospitality proves to be not legend, but truth.
O’Donnell noted at one point that as a former U.S. Marine, he had always thought of the Iranians as a potential enemy, the so-called “bad guys.” However, as many who travel abroad discover, the two learn that politics and ideology don’t tend to mean much when you sit across the table from someone, eating their food. “It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met – travel is the enemy of [tag]bigotry[/tag],” O’Donnell noted.
Belliveau concurred. “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad,” he said. “Get out there and meet them; they’re good.” Remember, these were guys who parleyed with mujahideen and warlords to get them safely across Afghanistan in order to remain faithful to the Polos’ route. Guys who dared travel in Iran, walking the streets with cameras in hand, even as those around them were celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the American embassy.
As their journey drew to a close, the two felt the melancholy that I’m beginning to suspect that all travelers must feel at the end of the journey, upon reaching home. At least, those who enjoy the road merely for the sake of being on the road feel it at journey’s end. O’Donnell’s words at this point struck a nerve, I have to admit, as they were words I’ve spoken myself, more than once. Even when I’m glad the actual physical part of traveling the leg that takes me home is over, even when I rejoice to see friends and loved ones once again, almost invariably, I feel sad. “I wanted to go back there,” O’Donnell said upon their arrival in Venice, where they had begun their journey two years before, referring to the path that strung out behind them. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to go back to the quote-unquote real world.”
Indeed. Damn you, PBS. Why am I still here?