Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

Since I’m whining about travel…

In Travel, Writing on January 23, 2013 at 6:00 am

Since whining about travel yesterday, I went to a few old journals to see how bad it really can be–or not. I found this note from 2005 and thought you might enjoy the following:

The Potala

The Potala, home and palace of the exiled Dalhi Lama.

I arrived in Bangkok last night after an exhausting travel day. It started at breakfast in Lhasa (Tibet), when I ordered hard-boiled eggs, which, when they arrived, exploded as I peeled them, being rotten and stinky. The waitresses in the Cafe where mortified and, ever so cautiously, attempted to dab me clean. I was less troubled by the mess than the stench.

From Lasha I flew east three hours, to Chengdu, China.

I’d made arrangements for a guide and was picked up at the airport by a driver and Maggie, my guide for the day, a bubbly little Chinese girl with dancing eyes, who was bound and determined to make sure I saw everything the city had to offer. She ran me ragged, feeding me some of the best food I’ve ever eaten–Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan Province, need I say more?–to imploring that I go to the Chinese opera, which I declined.

Streets of Chengdu

Streets of Chengdu

Leaving Chengdu around midnight, I flew three hours (across one time zone) and arrived in steamy and noisy (even at 2 in the morning) Bangkok, hired a taxi and asked for the Oriental Hotel. The driver didn’t speak English, despite a well-practiced greeting. Road-bound he tells me “No, no, Ort Hotel.” “Oriental,” I say, swaying from side to side as we bound across lanes. I take out my guide-book to Bangkok, pointing, then pounding on the page, describing it as one of the most famous hotels in Bangkok, maybe the world. Oddly, I want to shout “Graham Green,” as if that should somehow register and mean something to either of us. He shakes his head as he looks at the guide-book, while driving, car horns blaring, then hands it back to me, again shaking his head, handing me his cell phone. Me, exhausted–which doesn’t make me happy–and about to explode, hand it back to him, this time I’m the one shaking my head. 

At last he places a call at sixty something miles per hour and hands me the phone. I

Bangkok by tuk tuk

Bangkok by tuk tuk

pronounce “Oriental, Oriental” into it, hand it back to him, at which time he talks to the person on the phone, then pronounces, “Ah, Oriental…” We make a sharp move across traffic and twenty minutes later roll in, about 3 am. I am greeted at the door by three porters, proclaiming, “Ah, Mr. Bruns, we’ve been waiting for you,” as if I was someone to wait up for. A very welcome sign, indeed.

Water taxi, Bangkok

Water taxi, Bangkok

Bucking the hint of intimidation, as Bangkok certainly is to this traveler, and getting a full night–and some of the day’s–sleep, I leave the Oriental and walk the block to the dock where I hire a water taxi–10 Baht (about 20 cents)–and head up the Mae Nam Chao Phraya, switching boats mid-river (neat trick!) and on to the Wat Ra Kang dock, setting out on my most favorite of things: aimlessly walking the streets of a new city, camera in hand. At day’s end, after making my way back via land taxi(s) and rickshaw, I enjoying a killer meal of Pad Thai (as you might expect) then settle in for the night, as the rest of the city, amid serious grid-lock of taxis, motor bikes and rickshaws, marches to decadence (which has been offered, though declined), lights, and clammer. I call it a day.

Oh, the places you’ll go…

In Adventure, Travel on January 14, 2013 at 6:00 am

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The travel section of yesterday’s New York Times reminded me that I was once a traveler. The specific article prompting this observation is called, The 46 Places To Go in 2013. Of the 46 places listed I’ve been to eight. That is not a bad average, I guess. I used to be a regular and steady country counter and was full of myself a few years ago when I had to have more pages sewed into my filled passport. Bragging rights no longer motivate me, and the travel bug, as some call it, has lessened, albeit, all but disappeared. As I said I was once a traveler, which is like saying, I was once a dancer but don’t have the legs any more.

(Perhaps some day we will discuss the distinction between the traveler and the tourist.)

In the same Times section is an article by Paul Theroux (b. 1941) called My Travel Wish List. The piece was tagged, “The Man Who’s Been Everywhere, Except These Places.” I was pleased to discover that I’d been to at least two places on Theroux’s wish list, places he has yet to visit, Bhutan and the Seychelles. (Seychelles travel piece.) He also comments that he’s never been to Maine’s northern-most, and remotest county, Aroostook; nor has he climbed Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. (“Come ‘on, Paul. I’m a Maine Guide, let me show you!”) I’ve admired Mr. Theroux’s writing for years, and applaud his curiosity-driven life.

“Travel is a state of mind,” he writes in his essay collection, Fresh Air Fiend. “It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almostfresh.air.fiend.001 entirely an inner experience.” To the non-traveler this might seem odd, even contradictory, but it rings true to my experience. First travels taught me the artificial nature of conventual education. History, geography, language, literature, culture–they all combine into a monolithic “inner experience” when one travels. “Experience and travel,” wrote Montaigne, “these are as education themselves.” Travel of the right order affords one a unique perception regarding the net of experience. In that way it is not unlike a hallucination, where one caresses the stars while sipping champagne. Odd things are perceived, understood, and accepted, transforming the traveler. The world will forever be perceived differently henceforth.

What happened? Where did my passion for the world go? There is no answer at the ready for that question. Travel has been as important to my life as the books I’ve read, if not more so. Is it, as a friend suggested, that in coming to Maine I arrived at my destination? Perhaps, but that seems too pat an answer–and does not lessen the sense of mourning. Perhaps the restlessness of a younger man has been exhausted–at least the physical restlessness. I find this answer close to truth and sadly disconcerting, for I value the quality of restlessness and think it an attribute worth cultivating. It seems not much of worth is accomplished without a healthy dose of it. I do not know an antidote, nor think one likely, for this condition. I find it quietly upsetting and do not think too long on it.

I invite Mr. Clemens to contribute the last word:

1244“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Thanks for reading,

d

The attraction of hard places.

In Adventure, Books, The Examined Life, Travel, Writing on June 25, 2012 at 6:00 am

Morning, Grand Manan, New Brunswick, from my tent.

Observation of last week while driving north through Maine into New Brunswick: Each mile affords another degree of remoteness. Every hour leaves more people behind, presenting in their place, more trees. This feels very right.

I can not help but wonder what it is about such places that appeals to me so deeply. Perhaps it is the consolation of an only child.

* * *

Years ago, after reading my first Paul Theroux book–I think it was The Happy Isles of Oceania–I fancied the notion of molding myself into a travel writer. Theroux’s style appealed in a significant way. His mix of travel, literature, and the personal experience resonated. His books are not so much travel books as they are a peak inside the head of an astoundingly erudite and observant man on the move. The Pillars of Hercules is the narrative of his adventure walking–yes, walking–the rim of the Mediterranean, Gibraltar to North Africa. His classic The Old Patagonia Express records his journey by trains–one connecting to the next–linking his home in Massachusetts all the way south to Terra del Fuego. His other books follow suit. And they all appeal. (It is not lost on me that he leans to places I like.)

That one appeal of literature: Reading as a function of the elsewhere.

There is something about being on the move to a hard place at the extreme that I can hardly resist. Last week, crossing the 45th parallel gave me a thrill. We’re getting there now, I thought. I would like to have continued north to the magic that is the roaring forties.  It must be obvious that I long to dwell in another place and time, when everything and everywhere are not just different, but less than they are now.

I exist in a fictional region of northern New England where I live in a state of wonder and want and where everything tilts to metaphor.

A couple of years ago, I composed an audio-photo essay (the two-minute video is on Vimeo here) on a canoe maker in Northern Maine. Rollin Thurlow of The Northwoods Canoe Company lives in Atkinson, Maine, and makes wood canoes by hand. Atkinson has a population of  323 (2000). Roland told me that in the summer, when the village gets crowded, he escapes north into the Provence of Quebec. He wondered what the good folks in Quebec do when they feel hemmed in. I know what he means.

My notion of becoming a writer of travel adventures got very little traction. The reality became crushingly apparent while floating in a catamaran four hundred miles off the coast of Kenya. I was a million miles away from home. It was my daughter’s homecoming dance. My satellite phone had no connection. I was adrift, figuratively and literally. Nothing appealed to me so much as home.

Then it was, I think, I truly came to first understand the compromise that is life.