The air taste clean up in the mountains; light in a way that was refreshing compared to the acrid smell of pollution that contaminated the land below. Even with the pushing and shoving brought by the rampant tourism industry here, in the forest there is a stillness the rest of the area is bereft of. The trees here are ancient, moss-covered creatures, towering overhead and lost in the misty fog.
They call this place the forest bath, with the crisp fog drifting slowly by, and there isn’t a smell other than that of the earth, musky as it is. People travel in groups and their voices are little but a dull murmur beneath the sunlight being filtered down from the sky.
I’ve never been one for sight-seeing. The process feels more than a little tedious – get on a bus, get off a bus, go walk around, go to a hotel. I’m even less inclined to travel in packs. To get up to the mountain of Alishan, dozens of eager visitors cram into a tour bus and are driven up the mountainside, all clamoring about the famous sunrise and the aboriginal culture. My family was decidedly less excited – being on vacation together for a week and half had been taxing on our patience.
The crowd disperses when we arrive, with people flocking to the dozens of little hotels hidden away in little niches. Of course, the forest bath is a must in the visit. We trudged away in an uncomfortable silence wrought by fatigue and unrest. By the time we’re at the beginning of the trail, we are all vaguely detached from our surroundings. I can tell by seeing the glazed look in my brother’s eyes that he is not entirely in his own head. My dad has his camera strapped securely around his neck, and his finger is already on the shutter.
It’s strange. Even with the crowds of people, the excited chattering fades away at the start of the trail and don’t pick up again until after it is over. You’d think that the overzealous nature of tourists could never be squashed, and I’d be quick to agree. This is a little different from that. The situation feels less as if they’ve been subdued and more as if they’ve been shocked into quiet, appreciative awe. Alishan isn’t a secret. Truthfully, the mountain is one of the most famous and consistently visited in all of the little island that is Taiwan. You’d assume that what with all the pamphlets and leaflets praising the site, there would be little to no surprise in store for the visitors, but it becomes apparent that there is more to traveling than exclusivity.
Busload of visitors or not, nobody leaves the mountain without a little moment of perspective. The worth of a trip doesn’t lie in how many places you’ve visited or the remoteness of your location. It’s hidden away in quiet moments, in the peace between breaths, and flashes of clarity. The balm to a beleaguered soul.
In Sputnik Sweetheart, the disappearance of Sumire is merely the beginning of a series of discoveries that alters K’s perception of the world. When Sumire vanishes during her vacation on a Greek island, K’s automatic reaction is that she had wandered off and would be found quickly, wandering aimlessly around the countryside. Instead, days go by without contact, and upon delving into the past with the help of Miu and Sumire’s last written words, K discovers a whole alternate world beyond the realm he lives in. K, Miu, and Sumire are all examples of people isolated from the rest of world, and the discovery of an alternate dimension can be construed as a way to fill up the empty halves of these unfulfilled persons.
Miu lived her life focused on the goal of becoming a concert pianist, leaving out the possibility of love for the sake of her dream, claiming that “never once did I truly love someone. I didn’t have the time. All I could think about was becoming a world-class pianist, and deviating from that path was not an option. Something was missing in me, but by the time I noticed that gap, it was too late” (159). Too late meaning one day, while she was trapped on the Ferris wheel in Switzerland, Miu was split into two people in two alternate realities, unsure of who she was and deprived of any and all sexual appetite. She recognized later that “what happened in Switzerland …may well have been something I created myself. Sometimes I believe that” (160).
K believed it. K even went so far to believe that Sumire ventured to the other side in attempt to fill her own other half, which had gone so long without any intimate contact with any individual. If that was the case, then it was for the best that Sumire realized what she needed as an individual before the split between two realms occurred in herself without her wanting or understanding why. Sumire and Miu were both individuals that cut themselves off from the outside world for whatever their own personal reasons required. K, however, viewed himself as isolated, but truthfully was less of an island than he believed himself to be. His unreciprocated love with Sumire was what tied him down in the realm he lived in, whilst Sumire sought after the other Miu on the other side of the wall who could possibly give her the love she so desired.
When K returned back to Japan, he seemed deflated without his one source of companionship. However, unlike his previous, blasé attitude towards those other than himself, he manages to reorient himself. When his girlfriend, the married mother of one of his students, Carrot, calls for help, K inadvertently comes to his own personal epiphany. He finds solace in confiding to the young boy much similar to himself. Carrot, after being caught shoplifting, walls himself off from the outside, and K, for the first time, attempts to connect with another individual, and sees the benefits when Carrot responds to his story about Sumire. When Carrot accepts him and takes his hand, K is sent back with a feeling of nostalgia. “I could feel his slim, small fingers in mine. A feeling that I’d experienced somewhere- here could it have been? – a long long time ago. I held his hand and we headed for his home” (196).
K’s moment of reaching out is when he truly realizes that companionship (and not one fueled by lust or libido) is what he really needs in order to feel a sense of completion in his awkward, lonely, lifestyle. He “believed that telling him the feelings I held inside was the right thing to do. For him, and for me. Probably more for my sake. It’s a little strange to say this, but he understood me then and accepted me. And even forgave me. To some extent, at least” (203). Like Sumire, K came to the understanding that he can not live his life cut off from others as he so believed. Instead, it took some work on his part to extend a hand in order to reciprocate that naturally, necessary feeling of companionship. A reminder that he isn’t alone in the world.
Loneliness is the human condition. Or something like that. K is a man who lives in solitude by the circumstances of his personality. Sumire is a woman who lives in solitude based off of her views of companionship to be unnecessary (up until she meets Miu). Miu is a woman who lives in solitude due to her belief that she is half the person she was meant to be and therefore has no other option than to merely exist. Either way, this entire motley crew of individuals is an example of people that never find their way out of the pernicious grips of isolation, for whatever varying reasons. K is largely fueled by logic and subsequently drew “an invisible boundary between myself and other people… As you might guess, I led a lonely life” (55). K might be a more extreme version, but don’t most people? Isn’t it a kind of human self-defense mechanism to forever maintain a certain distance between yourself and another person in an effort to stay out of harms way? The way that the novel sets up the idea of companionship can be derived straight from the title. As Miu mentions, ‘sputnik’ means ‘traveling companion’ in Russian, later fueling musings on the nature of relationships in general. All of the characters are, in Miu’s words, “lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits” (117), destined to merely pass by each other by chance and be left to their own devices until their demise. That. Is Just. Depressing. I understand the concept of distance as a means of self-preservation. I understand what it means to feel like not all of yourself is there. I even understand what it means to adore without reciprocation. Don’t we all? The premise that loneliness is destined to be all that any of us can look forward to is more than a little extreme. K wonders to himself “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why?” (178). It’s not a bad question. Obviously, I don’t think people want to be alone, but everybody seems to be living in a state of continuous fear of rejection. Understandably so – nobody wants to be shot down, especially when it seems destined to be the outcome, as with the case of K and Sumire. If loneliness is the human condition, it’s only because we made it that way.
Zhuang Xiao Qiao goes by Z for the duration of the novel, but an interesting fact may be that “Xiao Qiao” can also mean “little bridge” in Chinese, which is an effective name for a woman trying to cross over and marry her Eastern heritage with a Western world. One of the most interesting facets of the novel is how things get lost in translation when two people communicate. One of the more humorous issues Zhuang deals with is her apparent rudeness to those trying to converse with her. This is both a culture issue as well as one of a lack of understanding of a language. Chinese people, more often than not, don’t beat around the bush when it comes to questions, especially those less acquainted with Western forms of politeness. To them, they don’t find themselves to be rude, but rather are just focused on getting an answer through the most direct way possible. In a language composed of fifty thousand characters or more, the spoken word is often times the easiest way to get to the point, and as Zhuang has been taught by her father, “Wasting time is shameful, just like leave the grain rotten in the fields” (271).
Zhuang doesn’t go to London to escape or to wander; she arrives with purpose, however reluctantly, as English is commonly viewed as a pathway to success. Even with a purpose, Zhuang becomes lost in a limbo of sorts, unable to connect fully to her lover or the outside world, even whilst her English improves by leaps and bounds. By all means, this novel is more of a love story than any of those we’ve read yet, but still it doesn’t end well, further accentuating the point that communication often times has nothing to do with words and everything to do with actions. Many times, when Zhuang is speaking with her lover, she notes less of what she says and more of the sound of his voice, which by the end “sounds vague. Not only vague, but also cold” (270). Personally I think this has to do with the way the Chinese language works – there are at least “four intonations, so every tone means different word” (88). The word that means ‘ten’ can mean ‘die’ with just a change of inflection, so the Chinese are more attuned to such differences inherently.
At the base, it doesn’t seem as if Chinese and English are polar opposites – Chinese is made up of phonetics called pinyin, with about twenty three sounds and five different kinds of inflections. The base of the English language is twenty six letters and different manners of pronunciation. Whilst everything else may be different, the similarities in the basic structure of each language lends hope that those that learn one may learn the other, and that between the two there could be a little bridge where people from both sides may meet in an effort to understand each other.
You know who Qindil reminds me of? He’s reminds me of a Dean Moriarty, only operating under the cover of religion for his reasons to be traveling. Qindil breezes through countries, originally under the pretense that “Ten days anywhere is long enough” (Mahfouz 15) in the search for wisdom. His one year plan turns into many years, as he gets absorbed into the culture and lifestyles of each country before escaping (or being run out, or just plain getting bored of the scene).
Granted, Qindil has more legitimate reasons of leaving a country… most of the time. In Mashriq, he was chased out for bringing up his son with Islam. In Haira, he gets arrested for not wanting to hand over his woman to a more powerful man (which seems to be a recurring event, so kudos, I guess, to picking wanted women). The rest usually involved wanderlust, or his incapability to prolong his ten day stays. Still, for all of his morals, Qindil falls in and out of love like a prepubescent teenager, passionate but ultimately short-lived, and he gorges on the feelings, staying still in countries to raise families with the different women he falls for (Halima, Arousa, Samia, Arousa again…). I suppose Qindil has got it in his mind that the grass really is greener on the other side and country hops in an effort to find the land of Gebel, the El Dorado or Shangri-la of the story. The fact that there is no definitive conclusion as to whether or not Gebel is found leaves the story wide open to inferences as to what really happened.
To me, the most likely end to this story involves the endless country-hoppin of Qindil with no resolution of the fabled land of Gebel. Where on this earth is there really an utopia anyways? The thought itself is somewhat laughable, as there are far too many flaws in any country to allow such a country to exist (case in point… the five countries Qindil visits are all different, and while each of them sets a different premium on different moralities, none of them are perfect), so Qindil must forever be doomed to the roaming of the world, picking up lovers, creating families, and ultimately leaving them behind until maybe he finally realizes that utopias are just myths created by a dissatisfied people who want to believe in the best qualities of the world.
In Erik Cohen’s A Phenomenology of Tourist Experiences, the author diffuses the tensions between two camps regarding the truth about traveling – Boorstin, who finds tourism to be “an aberration, a symptom of the malaise of the age” (179), marked by insincerity and a lack of authenticity, and MacCannell, who argues that tourists “pursue ‘real’ authentic experiences, but are denied them by the machinations of a tourist establishment…” (180) – by stating his belief that traveling can not be generalized into two extremes, and that, like life, traveling is made of in shades of grey rather than black and white.
Ironically, all of the books read thus far in class have only served to emphasize the dangerous nature of being too extreme in either direction. Those characters more than often wind up dead by the end of the novel. Case in point: Daisy Miller is a classic example of Boorstin’s views on travelers, and falls under Cohen’s first mode of touristic experiences, the recreational mode. The people in this category use travel as a method to relieve themselves of stress and usually look forward to their return home. According to Boorstin, these individuals “thrive on… ‘pseudo-events’” (184), whilst Cohen argues that in truth they are meant to be viewed as “persons who attend a performance of participate in a game; the enjoyability… contingent on their willingness to accept the make-believe or half-seriously to delude themselves” (184). In this manner, travelers such as Daisy Miller merely use the places they visit as a form of amusement and treat the locale with a cavalier attitude. This careless manner leads to various repercussions, least of which is death to the character.
On the other hand, there are those who fall into the existential mode of tourism, on the far end of the spectrum compared to the recreational mode. Cohen says that those in the existential mode are characterized by “the traveler who is fully committed to an ‘elective’ spiritual centre, i.e. one external to the mainstream of his native society and culture” (190). A character that falls easily into such a category is Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. Kurtz submits himself entirely into native culture, submerging himself until even the natives accept him as their rightful leader. There, in such a position of power, he slowly slips out of touch with his previous European sensibilities, leaving him in a limbo between whom he used to be as a person and who he strived to be. In the end, such a lack in distinction coupled with his own greed driven personality steer Kurtz into illness, and subsequent death.
While Cohen’s essay is meant to persuade both camps, Boorstin and MacCannell, away from their strict belief in extremes, it can also be taken as a reminder that people, let alone travelers, can not be grouped into merely two categories – the characters in our novels cover all five of Cohen’s modes of tourism, which alone is indication enough that there is some truth in fiction.
Ian McEwan’s novella The Comfort of Strangers takes place in what may or may not be Venice. The ambiguity regarding location serves to provide a sense of displacement that manifests itself in the ironically uncomfortable way the characters navigate the city and their own lives. Neither Colin nor Mary are satisfied with their lives, merely existing together as one entity rather than two due to the longevity of their relationship, which spanned seven years. They meander around the city, unnamed, armed with maps either too generalized or too specific, and little desire to explore. Both of them blow off their mistakes by reminding each other that they’re “on holiday” (24), resulting in their blasé attitude to what they were actually doing.
Colin and Mary are drifters, through and through. They are fairly unaware of their surroundings and seem to be merely coasting through their vacation, minds full of the people they left back home and the state of disrepair their relationship had fallen into. Colin goes so far to say “the thing about a successful holiday is that it makes you want to go home” (106), giving way to the assumption that the two of them getting away to a foreign land was a means for them to mend whatever they had between them and return back home a whole, unbroken unit. Due to their unawareness regarding the perils of travel and whatever is going on around them, they fall prey to the plotting of Robert and Caroline and, in true Travel Fictions fashion, die (Colin) and lose themselves (Mary). Much like the desert in The Sheltering Sky, the unknown location of their story (presumed to be much like Venice) serves to exemplify the way that neither Mary nor Colin had a chance at finding their way out of the city from the very beginning when they got lost in the city, which resulted in their meeting Robert.
I’ll admit, when I first read the back cover of the story, I had jumped to the conclusion that Aschenbach was a creepy pedophilic character and nothing else. After finishing the story, he became more than the two dimensional persona I had pigeonholed him as. I believe that Aschenbach’s initial admiration of Tadzio stems from his own childhood history. Tadzio exemplifies youthfulness and vivacity whilst Aschenbach’s own childhood was filled with isolation and the development of his own talent as a writer. Before knowing of Tadzio’s existence, Aschenbach seems largely at peace with his lifestyle and acknowledges traveling as a “hygienic precaution to be taken willy-nilly from time to time” (7). It’s important to note Aschenbach’s reaction towards the old man dressed as if he was still a young man, cavorting about with his youthful friends “Did they not know, could they not see that he was old, that he had no right to be wearing their foppish, gaudy clothes, no right to be carrying on as if he were on of them?” (29).
After seeing Tadzio, however, Aschenbach gradually begins his transformation in the very man he was so appalled by on the ship. Tadzio captured his attention through his beauty and frailty and the stark contrast between him, so full of radiant life, and his sisters, prim in their slate colored dresses. Originally, Aschenbach would’ve certainly been able to identify with the sisters, straight-laced and disciplined, but seeing Tadzio evokes the Dionysian qualities he had suppressed from childhood. His subsequent obsession and stalking of the boy further exacerbates his descent from control and dignity into being a mere shell of his former self, enslaved by his own obsession that it traps him in Venice and allows cholera to take his life. Had he been raised differently, had he not been the genius they had discovered him to be, I have no doubt that Achenbach would not have been susceptible to the allure of Tadzio. Instead, his newfound passions overwhelm him, even influencing him to dye his hair and cover his face with make-up in an effort to conceal his true self.
The man who once believed that “nearly everything great owes its existence to ‘despites’: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles” (16) ironically finds his greatest find in a situation filled with all of the above. He becomes swept up in the life that Venice offers him and can not extricate himself from everything as he has never experienced anything like it before. For all of his experience and fame, Aschenbach is as lost as the rest of the world, and his hyper disciplined lifestyle is what makes his fall to passion that much more potent.
I don’t particularly grasp the aesthetic of travel that On the Road offers readers. When I look into Kerouac’s world of exploration and adventure, I don’t feel compelled to go on my own journey – in fact, more often than not, I feel frustrated or angry at the characters as they continue moving along the path of life with no regard to anybody apart from themselves. Sure, Sal shows some sense of responsibility with the money he sends back home to his aunt, but I find that his actions stem more from guilt that he left her to travel with people she so blatantly does not approve of. Dean Moriarty, on the other hand, for all of experiences and “wisdom” of the road seems more of an immature child than all of the characters. It seems as if he is purely hedonistic, living for what will bring him the most pleasure and avoids pain. Dean runs whenever things become too serious for his liking, and when he runs, he is capable of abandoning friends, family, and anybody else he might’ve claimed to be close to. As Marylou tells Sal sullenly, “Dean will leave you out in the cold any time it’s in his interest” (Kerouac 159).
I can’t even bring myself to consider Sal and Dean’s relationship to be that of true friendship. From what I can discern, Sal acts like Dean’s pet dog, barking for scraps and attention whilst Dean is usually too distracted or just plain crazy to attend to Sal. From the very beginning, when Dean and Carlo hit it off, Sal recalls, “they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me…” (5). Once I discerned what I found to be their true relationship, I couldn’t be bothered to respect or admire Dean at all because in truth, the world we live in is based off of how people treat each other, and a person like Dean isn’t worth following. Dean is the type of person who takes and takes what he needs from a person before moving on, displayed through his relationships with Sal, Camille, Marylou, Ed Dunkel, and more.
I’m not averse to the ideal that in traveling, one has the capability of self-discovery and adventure. What I do take issue with is traveling in order to escape from issues back home. Sal is the type to leave and then complain of his troubles back home whilst Dean completely disregards his responsibilities. “Troubles, you see, is the generalization-word for what God exist in. The thing is not to get hung-up. My head rings!” (111). I can’t decide which is worse. The fact that Dean so completely immerses himself in the delusion that he can get through life scot-free without caring about anybody except for himself, or the fact that Sal knowingly leaves behind the people he is meant to take care of and does nothing substantial to help them. There are too many loose ends left behind by the two of them for me to really empathize with their troubles or even admire their triumphs. Instead, all I can do is view them, as well as their merry band of men (and replaceable source of women) as individuals that never manage to see anything other than their own possible happiness.
In the story, The Sheltering Sky, despite Port Moresby’s blatant claims to being a traveler rather than a tourist, he pays little attention to what is truly going on around him, a trait that lead to his death from typhoid. “He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler … moves slowly, over periods of yeah, from one part of the world to another” (Bowles 6). This underlying pretentiousness that Port holds is tested throughout the novel when he comes into contact with the people of the land he inhabits. Even though he can be seen replying to Kit saying that getting into the natives’ lives and knowing what they are thinking is unimportant, that “this town, this river, this sky, all belong to me as much as to them” (113), when his passport is stolen, this false sense of camaraderie immediately dispelled.
Upon the theft of his passport, Port is quick to accuse a native, Monsieur Abdelkader. When questioned by Lieutenant d’Armagnac asks why the thief must be native, Port replies that, “Apart from the fact that no one else had the opportunity to take it, isn’t it the sort of thing that would naturally turn out to have been done by a native – charming as they may be?” (151). Port, for all of his posturing regarding his closeness with the land and the people, reverts to his original American sentiments of paranoia towards foreigners, subsequently insulting and offending those individuals he claims to have a kinship to. The irony in this situation is that the thief is really an American, Eric Lyle whom Port doesn’t even think to accuse, despite his dislike for the individual who, coupled with his mother, are the major irritants in the novel. The mother, in particular, is more racist and judgmental than the son, saying “The stupidity of the French!... They’re all mental defectives…. Of course, their blood is thin; they’ve gone to seed. They’re all part Jewish or Negro. Look at them!” (47).
That judgmental, negative attitude that the Lyles display is what Port so openly scorns, together with Kit, but the truth is that for all of his bluster, Port is still, at heart, just as critical as the Lyles. This proves to impede his connection with the land, and leads him to live in ignorance of what is around his, including diseases or epidemics spreading across the land. Before he has a chance to understand what is going on, he contracts typhoid and dies accordingly. The greatest twist in the story is that Kit, who never claimed to be anything but a tourist with eventual plans to go home, is the individual who truly manages to assimilate into the culture, taking up a lover once Port passes and lives amongst the people, even though it is as a member of an Arab's harem. It just goes to show that those that are only capable of talking will never be able to prove to themselves or others that they are truly deserving of what they desire which is, in Port’s case, an identity.