Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly east, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once? Or to a different law that hasn’t been demonstrated and that we haven’t even thought of yet that says that you can doubly not exist in the same place?
I think there are a lot of people like me. Who aren’t around, who’ve disappeared. They show up all of a sudden in the arrivals terminal and start to exist when the immigrations officers stamp their passport, or when the polite receptionist at whatever hotel hands over their key. By now they must have become aware of their own instability and dependence upon places, times of day, on language or on a city and its atmosphere. Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness—these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.
This opinion is shared by the woman offering me herbal tea from a thermos while we both wait for the bus from the train station to the airport; her hands are hennaed in a complex design made less legible by each passing day. Once we’re on the bus, she sets out her theory of time. She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique; no moment can ever be repeated. This idea favors risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things. This is why you’ll never hear them utter words like “futile” or “empty.”
“Futile effort, empty account,” laughs the woman, placing her painted hand on her head. She says the only way to survive in that sort of extended, linear time is to keep your distance, a kind of dance that consists in approaching and retreating, one step forward, one step back, one step to the left, one to the right—easy enough steps to remember. And the bigger the world gets, the more distance you can dance out this way, immigrating out across seven seas, two languages, an entire faith.
But I take a different view of time. Every traveler’s time is a lot of times in one, the whole array. It is island time, archipelago of order in an ocean of chaos; it is the time produced by the clocks in train stations, everywhere varying; conventional time, mean time, which no one ought to take too seriously. Hours disappear on an airplane aloft, dawn ensues fast with afternoon and evening already on its heels. The hectic time of big cities you’re in for just a bit, wanting to fall into the clutches of its evening, and the lazy time of uninhabited prairies seen from the air.
I also think that the world will fit within, into the sulci on the brain, into the pineal gland—it could well be just a lump in the throat, this globe. In fact, you could cough it right up and spit it out.
These days, any self-respecting drugstore offers its customers a special range of travel-sized toiletries. Some places even set aside whole aisles. Here, one can obtain anything and everything one might want on a trip: shampoo, a tube of liquid soap to wash your underwear in the sink at the hotel, toothbrushes you can fold in half, sunscreen, bugspray, shoe polish wipes (the whole gamut of colors is available), sets of feminine hygiene products, foot cream, hand cream. The defining characteristic of all of these items is their size—they are miniatures, tiny tubes and jarlets, itsy-bitsy bottles the size of one’s thumb: the smallest sewing kit fits three needles, five mini-skeins of different-colored thread, each three meters in length, and two white emergency buttons and a safety pin. Of particular usefulness is the travel-sized hairspray, whose miniature container measures no more than a woman’s palm.
It would appear that the cosmetics industry considers the phenomenon of travel to be a reduced copy of sedentary life, a cute little baby version of the same.
Mano di Giovanni Baptisto
There is too much world. It would be wiser to reduce it, rather than expanding it, rather than enlarging it. We’d be better off stuffing it back into its little can—a portable panopticon we’d be allowed to peek inside of only on Saturday afternoons, once the work of every day had been done already, once we’d made sure there was clean underwear to wear, shirts ironed out taut over armrests, once the floors had been scrubbed and there was coffeecake cooling in the windowsill. We could peer inside it through a tiny little hole like at the Fotoplastikon in Warsaw, marveling over its every detail.
But I fear it may already be too late.
We have no choice now but to learn how to endlessly select. How to be like a fellow traveler I once met on a night train who told me that every so often he goes back to the Louvre just to see the one painting he considers to be worthwhile, one of John the Baptist. He just stands there before it, beholding it, gazing up at the saint’s raised finger.
The Original and the Copy
A guy in the cafeteria of this one museum said that nothing gives him such great satisfaction as being in the presence of an original artwork. He also insisted that the more copies there are in the world, the greater the power of the original becomes, this already originally being almost equivalent to the force of a holy relic. For what is singular is significant, what with the threat of destruction hanging over it as it does. Confirmation of these words came in the form of a nearby cluster of tourists who, with fervent focus, stood worshipping a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Just occasionally, when one of them couldn’t take it anymore, there came the clearly audible click of a camera, sounding like an “amen” spoken in a new, digital language.
The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle
There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.
How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures—even the elevator buttons!—are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them—they are accessible to everyone and everything! I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.
Drowning in Air
In Australia, everyone in the environs would come out onto the seashore when the news was circulated that yet another disoriented whale had run aground. In shifts, people would charitably ladle water over its delicate skin and try and convince it to go home. Older ladies dressed like hippies would maintain that they knew what they were doing. Apparently all you had to do was say, “Go, go, my brother,” or, if need be, “sister.” And, with your eyes shut tight, transfer some of your energy to it.
All day, little tiny figures would mill about the beach, waiting for high tide: let the water take it back. Attempts would be made to fasten nets to boats and drag it out by force. Yet the great beast would become dead weight, become a body indifferent to living. It’s no surprise people would begin to say “suicide.” A small group of activists would appear in order to argue that animals ought to be allowed to simply die, if they so wished. Why should the act of suicide be the dubious privilege of mankind? Maybe the life of every living being has its own set limits, invisible to the eye, and once those have been crossed, that life just runs out, on its own. Let that be taken into consideration for the Declaration of Animal Rights being drafted in Sydney or in Brisbane at just that moment. Dear brothers, we give you the right to choose your death.
Suspicious shamans would come down to the dying whale and perform rituals over it, and amateur photographs would come down, and thrill seekers. A teacher from a village school brought her whole classroom, and then the children drew “The Whale’s Farewell.”
Usually it took several days to die. In that time, the people on the shore became accustomed to the tranquil, magisterial being with its impenetrable will. Someone would name it, usually a human name. The local television station would show up, and the whole country, and the whole world, would take part in the death, thanks to satellite TV. The problem of this individual on the beach would conclude every news broadcast on three continents. Then they’d take the opportunity to talk about global warming and ecology. Scholars would be brought into the studios for debates, and politicians would tack earth-related topics onto their election platforms. Why? The ichthyologists, and the ecologists all gave different answers.
A collapsed echolocation system. Water pollution. A thermonuclear bomb at the bottom of the sea that no country would admit to setting off. Could it not be a decision, à la elephants? Old age? Disenchantment? As was recently discovered, after all, little distinguishes the whale’s brain from the human’s; a whale’s brain even contains certain areas Homo sapiens lacks, in the best, the most developed portion of the frontal lobe.
In the end, the whale would finish dying, and the body would need to be removed from the beach. The crowds would have dispersed by this time—in fact, no one would be left now, except the service people in bright green jackets who would cut the corpse up and load it onto trailers to haul if off somewhere. If there was a cemetery for whales, it would definitely have been there that they took it.
Billy, an orca, drowned in air.
Everyone inconsolable in their grief.
Although sometimes they have actually saved them. In response to the great and dedicated efforts of dozens of volunteers, whales would take deep breaths and head back into the open sea. Their famous fountains could be seen springing joyfully up, and then they would dive down into the depths of the ocean. The crowd would break into applause.
A few weeks later they’d be caught off the coast of Japan, and their gentle, pretty bodies would be turned into dog food.
An old friend of mine once told me how he hated traveling alone. His gripe was, when he sees something out of the ordinary, something new and beautiful, he so wants to share it with someone that he becomes deeply unhappy if there’s no one around.
I doubt he would make a good pilgrim.
Home Is My Hotel
I look around and take each thing in again. I look at it from scratch, like I’d never been here before. I discover details. I am particularly struck by the hotel owners’ attention to the flowers—they’re so big and pretty, with their luminous leaves, and their appropriately moist dirt, and that tetrastigma: impressive.
What a big bedroom, although the sheets could be better quality, white and well starched linen. Instead they’re the color of faded bark, such that they require neither pressing nor ironing. The library downstairs, though, is actually terrific—it’s actually exactly the kind of stuff I like, and it has everything I would need if I ever had to live here. In fact, I may end up staying longer just because of those books.
And by some strange coincidence I find some clothes in the closet that fit me perfectly, mostly dark colors, which is what I like to wear. They fit me perfectly—that black hoodie, so soft and so comfortable. And—and this is now beginning to be truly incredible—there on the nightstand are my vitamins and the earplugs I always buy. This is really too much. I also like that you never see any of your hosts, that there is no housekeeping staff here in the mornings pounding down your door. That there isn’t anybody wandering around. There’s no reception. I even make my own coffee in the mornings myself, just the way I like it. On the espresso machine, with steamed milk.
Indeed, it is a good hotel with good rates, this one, perhaps a little bit in the middle of nowhere, and a ways away from the main road, which in the winter gets buried in snow, but if one is traveling by car, it doesn’t really matter. You have to get off the highway at the town of S. and go a few kilometers more along a regular road and then turn at G. onto a chestnut-lined avenue that leads to a gravel road. In the winter you have to leave your car by the last hydrant and walk the rest of the way.
A beautiful bald-headed nun in robes the color of bone bends over a tiny reliquary where, on a little satin cushion, there rests what is left of the burned body of an enlightened being. I stand beside her, both of us just at that speck. We are aided in this endeavor by the magnifying glass that is a permanent fixture of the room.
That whole essence takes the form of this tiny crystal, a little bitty stone barely bigger than a grain of sand. The body of this nun, no doubt, will also be transformed into a grain of sand, in some years; mine—no, mine will be lost: I was never practicing.
But none of this should make me sad, given the number of sandy deserts and beaches in the world. What if they’re entirely made up of the posthumous essences of the bodies of enlightened beings?
Among the Maori
the heads of deceased family members are mummified and conserved as objects of mourning. Stages of mummification include steaming, smoking, and coating in oil. Through such treatments, the heads may be maintained in good condition, with their hair, skin, and teeth.
— translated by Jennifer Croft