Prompt: How does travel influence your writing?
Answer to follow.
* * *
So I spent the early part of the spring traveling east from Istanbul towards the Caucasus, the last outskirts of Europe before one reaches the endless plains of central Asia. Where the first stronghold of Christendom held out against the tides of Islam which swept merciless against it, where the rump of old Armenia still survives, diminished but proud, where the descendants of ancient Zoraster have long since trade the sacred fires for the Salah, and the Salah for Stalin's grim dream of equality (for are we not all equal beneath the ground?), and finally for a Capitalism as pure as the petrol they pull up daily from the Caspian. For years now it has been my custom to wander aimlessly through side corners of the planet, with a backpack and a dense paperback to hold while I stare out the windows of rumbling buses or old Soviet-style trains, a hard cot to spend the night, two Lari
for a cup of weak tea.
I came through the Azari-Georgian border around noon, having woken up that morning in a small mountain town so little frequented by tourists that children would follow me in the streets shouting their simple English phrases and laughing and blushing when I responded in kind. It had taken forty-five minutes to clear customs, explaining to two very friendly security guards that I was not a spy, not so much I think because they believed I was but mainly because they enjoyed the novelty of speaking with an American. A walk over a bridge took me to a small clearing, a handful of money changes, taxi drivers, and folk just milling about whose purpose I could not entirely fathom. There was also a Marshrutka, a shared van, one of tens of thousands which dot the ex-Soviet countries and are the primary means of public transportation for much of the population.
This particular specimen, bucking form, did not have a sign indicating its destination. I was on my way to Signaghi, which was either two Marshrutkas and three hours or one taxi and forty-five minutes distant. I was equanimous on the method. By custom I prefer to use the cheapest possible means of getting anywhere, a holdover from when I first started traveling, before I sold Low Town, when taking a taxi from the Kosovo bus station to my hostel meant I would not be eating dinner that night. These days it is more a loose rule than a necessity, and I was about half-thinking that I'd already met my daily quota of discomfort and therefore my self-esteem could swallow using private transportation.
“Tbilisi?” I asked a neighboring taxi driver, pointing at the van.
“Borjomi!” he said, kidding or lying. Borjomi is a town in far the other end of the country, obviously not where the van is headed.
“Borjomi!” I answered, in jest. “Batumi, Ankara, Istanbul!”
We laughed together. Of course, in any country which does not have a standard meter system – which is most of the world – a taxi driver is to be trusted less than a rattlesnake on mescaline. To this day I have a moment of nervousness even when getting into a standard NY yellow cab, half expecting them to try and cheat me. (Traveler's tip: never put any of your belongings in the trunk, lest you provide a rapacious driver with an opportunity for ransom). But by the standards this one was not so bad – he was, mostly I think, playing, or at least I knew enough about where I was not to fall for his con. I waved him forward, thinking to at least price him out, but before he could enter a fee on his phone – one which would be double what I would ultimately pay, and four times what the journey would have cost a local – I felt a hand on my backpack, turned round swiftly to discover it was attached to an elderly man of classic Georgian stock, scowling furiously through a gray beard. “Tblisi!” he insisted, and pointed at the van.
Bowing to fate, I took a cramped seat in the front, straddling my backpack. Leaning over me, the old man began to engage in a loud and vocal debate with the infuriated taxi driver. What was he saying? My supposition, based upon the events to follow, was that he was accusing the taxi driver of trying to defraud an idiot tourist, in clear violation of the traditional Georgian ethic of hospitality. That I am not an idiot tourist – or at least, that I knew the taxi driver was lying – is something that I could not possibly hope to explain.
Without warning – or so it seemed to me – the driver of the van, who up till this point had shown no inclination to win me as a fare, or indeed any interest in the proceedings generally, swung open his door and sprinted round to yell at the taxi driver.
Chest bumping. Thick-fingers shaking at thicker beards. Loud words in a language which, I am told, has virtually no relation to any of the rest of the Indo-European offshoots. Fists raised, dropped, raised, dropped. The old man tried to push past me to take an active part in the almost-melee, but not wanting the death of a grandfather on my conscience, from cardiac arrest or physical violence, I turn so as to obstruct his passage. Three minutes passed. Five minutes passed. None of the other passengers are willing to meet my eye. I very much want to film this on my iPhone. Oh, God, how much do I want to film this on the iPhone. A step too far. Seven minutes. The taxi driver who initially began the conflict sat down, exhausted. A second took his place as the van drivers chief combatant. An Orthodox nun, seated deeper in the van, got out to try and reconcile the parties, though her efforts were to no effect.
The fervor died down, finally, and the van driver got back to the wheel. I wore the idiot smile which I have come to realize is the best aegis a foreigner can hold in these sorts of situations. An hour or so down the road, when it was time for me to get out, I discovered that the old man who began the trouble had already paid my way, a bit of generosity for which, in a country the average income of which is about 600 US dollars a month, I felt deeply ashamed. But of course there was no way to repay his kindness without causing deep insult, and we had already established that he was an individual of high moral character and very low threshold for annoyance. I bowed deeply, and he nodded in return, and the door closed and the van continued on down the road.
* * *
I ran into a college acquaintance of mine last week, a woman I hadn't seen since graduation. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, traded thumbnail sketches of the last decade of our lives. As a rule I don't tell people that I'm a writer – it's more trouble than it's worth. I tell people I freelance, which has the virtues of being vague and not exactly false.
She did not press me for detail. She was, like most people, waiting around to talk about herself, and I was happy to provide her with the opportunity. Her story was a familiar one – like many vaguely artistic people living in our great metropolis, she did a lot of things, primarily service oriented – though, she added quickly, what she really did
, that is to say, what defined her spiritual essence if not what actually paid her rent, was write.
“What do you write about?” I asked.
“My life, mostly,” she said. “Things that happen to me.”
I smiled and nodded and wished her well and continued on, thinking – fantastic, just what the world needs, another autobiography of a Brooklyn hipster.
The first thing you are taught is to write what you know. The problem with this advice is that is assumes you know something that anyone else would care to learn. Of course, a brilliant writer can make the quotidian profound, can mine day-to-day existence for insight into the nature and substance of the human condition. We mediocrities are better served in setting ourselves a lower bar, by trying to do something, to become something, which might be of interest to people who are not our immediate kin.
I have attempted to acquire these experiences by aimless wandering. There are, certainly, other methods but this is the one that suits me best. I'm not brave enough to be a soldier, and I'm not pure enough to be a priest. I'm too mean to be a humanitarian. I have, happily, never suffered the sort of personal tragedy which might make for an interesting or an evocative tell-all. There are no new continents to explore, and while I haven't researched it exhaustively my understanding is that astronauts require some mathematical ability, so that puts me straight out. .
But travel is something
, at least, some break from dull-suburbia, some exit from the elite high school → private college → expensive MFA program track which has become the literary establishment's preferred paradigm, and which is slowly strangling English letters. Certainly, somewhere, there is a person writing a moving and brilliant prose about the nature of modernity, of banal existence in modern America. They exist. I have read them. They represent the tiniest fraction of writers, nor do I operate under any illusion that I am the second coming of Proust.
So I strap a backpack on and go poking about in small cities in the second world, in industrial capitals, in bus station depots and dusty alleys. Some of these experiences see direct reflection in my writing – a child brutalizing a stray dog in a New Delhi slum made it into Tomorrow, the Killing, for instance. More often it offers an impression or a feeling which, processed and digested, gets regurgitated somewhere down the line. Getting lost walking from a ferry in Salvador de Bahia with night falling, watching the wolves coming out, knowing myself a lamb. Waking up before dawn in the middle of the Namib desert, watching a baboon knuckle its way across red sand, and the world newborn, still slick with afterbirth.
So, to return to our prompt; travel is how I have sought to become an interesting person, which I believe is an asset to, if not a requirement for, becoming a decent writer. Not that I can promise I've accomplished either, but at least I put in the effort.