The Meaning of Another World
I experienced monstrous difficulty getting this piece written. The difficulty was that of synthesis, which eludes one all the more deftly when one searches for it too seriously. Almost desperately, I wanted, both for my own sake and for the sake of this, our burgeoning compendium of tidbits and travel tales, to provide a perfectly comprehensive explication of my two months in Kumily. But I have to give up the ghost, and I always have to think more humbly about writing.
So after several drafts, I submit an account more prosaic than I’d hoped for, which is the price of my liberation from this imprecise living–both here and there and in neither hemisphere entirely. I have had reason and time to think about travel, specifically about travel and writing, the collection and formation of disparate experiences for the creation of something meaningful. Growing up, I tended to believe that writing just happened–that a writer, when faced with a given circumstance, simply reported what was before him, and that his metaphors and imagery arose spontaneously from the content of his impressions. I don’t believe that any longer. Writing is hard, and writing honestly is harder.
On my second to last day in Kumily, I met in a jewelry store a Dutch woman, whose name I can’t remember. She was sitting at a long bar that ran along the depth of the shop, writing a travel diary and sipping from a paper cup. We exchanged pleasantries, and when I told her I was soon heading home for ‘America,’ she gently but principally chided me for my inaccuracy, and then, with a seriousness that would’ve sounded scandalous in the mouth of an ‘American,’ she said something I already vaguely knew, but that has haunted me nonetheless.
“You’ll go home,” she said, “but you’ll never be able to tell anyone what you experienced here.”
Travel is an education, and like all educations it entails an essential danger: the illumination of possibility. It is, I believe, possible to learn to see nothing and all things as at once necessary, or pre-determined. This is the perspective that makes possible a creative seriousness, and a careful playfulness. When we allow ourselves the vulnerability required for education, travel can show us just what we take granted, and can present to us alternatives to our most ingrained notions about the world and ourselves. What fundamental transformations I underwent this summer remain on the verge of the too-personal, or at least the too-ineffable, to report, and here again I have to rely on suggestion, rather than explication.
But look–I fell in love several times this summer. First, I fell in love with the Periyar, more specifically with visions I cultivated of myself as an animal living inside it, who comes for a moment to the water’s edge and then, having gotten his fill, retreats again up the wooded slope of the river bank into the secret recesses of the unfathomable forest. Or of myself as a part of the savanna hills, sinking mysteriously into the hillside. I’ve never been a particularly imaginative person; I really believe the Periyar gave these images to me. They did in fact arise spontaneously.
And then later, I fell in love with saris, the multicolored fabrics and patterns of those magnificent garments. And then, simply with my being there, in India, with my involvement in the world of the community of Cardamom County and the possibility of my better self. But all these loves fell short of my wonder at the simple success of the newspaper bag enterprise, the people who committed themselves so faithfully to the opportunities it presented. I’ll never forget these precious early days, and I can’t wait to know how the operation develops.
I could never have expected these loves, and they will never be repeated. And that I have looked upon another world…I can’t even say. But I know I learned this: we live on an increasingly shrinking globe; we can either resent or celebrate this development. But if we allow our perspective to shrink at a similar rate, we sacrifice to convenience our greatest and most singularly human asset: our sublime capacity for awe. And travel, as far as I can tell, is our greatest defense against this unimaginable fate.
Thanks for reading this summer, and you can expect other, more modest (or not) posts from me from home, and wherever else the wind blows me.