Sunday, April 10, 2011

Americas Trip Afterword - Five Years Later

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. "The southernmost city in the World." There are, however, towns further south.
Across the Beagle Channel, there's more land! (I guess that's why they call it a channel.) 
When viewing this photo, you must think "cold"!

Five years have elapsed since The Americas Trip concluded on April 10, 2006. Of course, in a very real sense, such experiences never end, and to this day, I continue to digest the lessons of that journey. In recent weeks, I’ve taken the opportunity, really for the first time, to read the story from beginning to end.

(I also took considerable pains to integrate text and photographs, which hopefully results in a more intelligible narrative. It’s baffling why it didn’t occur to me to do this sooner.)

Naturally, through this process, a myriad images, thoughts and emotions come flooding back, accompanied in many instances by regrets. Regrets that a sense of urgency, momentum, or more likely some habitual response in my nature prevented my stopping to appreciate opportunities never to be repeated.

Occasionally, however, the world just forces us to stop and experience the present moment. How often the most powerful and memorable experiences seemed to occur when things went “terribly wrong” or failed to adhere to my plans and expectations.

Many memories stand out, often the result of an unexpected gesture or kindness. A child carrying coffee to my muddy roadside shelter early in the morning. A driver stopping to ask if I’m lost and then telling me to just follow him. A hotelier gently and patiently correcting my Spanish. School children offering their meek salutation "caballero, buenas tardes." The smiles freely given along the way. The earnest efforts of so many to really help. Heartbreakingly beautiful and humble people. Everywhere. Without exception.

I often find myself recalling particular moments and regretting that I don’t have the means to return to some of these places, or simply keep the journey going, without end. It’s unlike me to wish to be counted among the wealthy, but at such moments I think “it certainly would be nice…”

Ultimately, I emerged from this retrospective troubled by a frank observation: that for all the expense and effort, all the investment of time and energy, nothing noble or heroic was achieved.

In fact, one might argue the contrary. Rather than celebrate my “accomplishment” I’m more inclined to feel a trace of shame or embarrassment. It was not something remarkable that I did. It was an expensive excursion made possible solely by my membership in a very affluent segment of the population.

Tourism need not be wasteful and self-indulgent, but looking at my case, it seems an apt characterization. Wasteful, in that I spent roughly $45,000 on specialized equipment, lavish meals, expensive hotels, costly repairs to my “ultimate driving (riding) machine”, and a very sizable contribution to the petroleum industry I so love to demonize.

Selfish in the pursuit of this “dream” through my imposition upon others, not behaving as their guest, but as one entitled to attention, service, satisfaction, and respect, often displacing or inconveniencing others equally deserving. The pursuit was too often marred by my unreasonable demands and expectations, and sometimes impetuous behavior, as if my undertaking were more important than any other.

At the time, I certainly recognized the symptoms of this all-consuming obsession (and witnessed the same in fellow “adventurers”): checking off the famous destinations, accumulating impressive statistics such as miles traveled, borders crossed, countries visited, passports stamped, hours at a stretch in the saddle. Sometimes I simply moved ghost-like across the land without really touching or being touched. More often than not, I would seek out my own kind, gathering whenever possible to exchange tales of the road and compare notes. Later I would look back in wonder at my own isolation from the very places and people I chose to “visit”.

At times it felt like I regarded local inhabitants merely as a “supporting cast of characters.” Did I ever consider the question “how am I enriching the lives of those I encounter?” In retrospect my behavior was shameful, especially when people and lands failed to “measure up to my standards”, as if hapless individuals were in a position to influence or control mankind's systemic failures.

I cannot with a clear conscience endorse the “adventure lifestyle”. I see travelers who have invested their lives and identity in sharing and encouraging this type of activity, but I cannot dispel the notion that rather than some breed of modern heroes, we are more likely to be insufferably ignorant and inconsiderate "rich bastards", indulging in luxuries most can only dream of.

And so, with this little rant duly recorded (it's something I had to get off my chest), where do we go from here? “How do you make it right?” What is a noble pursuit (if indeed there is any part of me that could actually commit and follow through on such an undertaking?)

I know there is another way to travel, one much gentler on the planet and more respectful of the people along the way. A way that involves giving as much as receiving. I have heard of other travelers who immersed themselves in the cultures, learning the languages, and even teaching in schools. In some cases, they abandoned their original personal goals and gave themselves to more urgent, humanitarian pursuits.

If I return to the road, I hope I will be able to follow such examples.