The magic world

The first time I heard of the Alhambra and saw a photo of it in a book, I was captivated. I couldn’t imagine that a place like that with a name like that existed in this century, on this planet. I was living in central Europe at the time, though, so I was standing inside it two months later, before I was even able to do much research on it beyond one picture-book of Granada. Discovering this place through reading and then being able to take myself right there to see for myself satisfied something primal in me. I earned the word “Andalucia” on that trip.

The language of travel, the odd-shaped new names that roll around in your mouth when you read about an unfamiliar place, the image of a landscape never imagined, the setting of a faraway story, have yanked on me as long as I can remember. Burma, Istanbul, Yemen, Kuala Lumpur. Havana, Johannesburg, Quintana Roo, the Yukon. A K next to a U, a G next to an O—the Belgian Congo, Trinidad and Tobago? I’m swooning.

Now, though, many of the places whose names have captured my imagination over the years—Galapagos, Indonesia, Angkor Wat, the Serengeti, Belize, Estonia, Nepal, Antarctica—are suddenly so well traveled, so photographed and documented and blogged, so understood, that the romance is gone, and I’ve still never been to any of them. The allure of Macchu Picchu, which grabbed me like the Alhambra when I first heard the words and saw a grainy photo, was later decimated for me when someone told me about the “Gringo Trail” of Western tourists filing from Lima to Cusco. I imagined that single-file solid line of gold rushers climbing a rope up into the Klondike, the single-file solid line of Everest climbers holding the railing up to base camp, a single-file solid line of ants going up the bathroom wall, a snaking line at the one-hour mark of a Disneyland ride. How can that give you the magic promised by the words Machu Picchu, with those double Cs and those ending U sounds?

For example, unlike every West Coaster I know, I’ve never been to Hawaii, and I think that universality is why I’ve never been. People go for a reason! It’s an Edenic island paradise! I even go bananas for snorkeling and sea turtles! But for completely irrational reasons, Hawaii is barely on my radar. It’s probably nicer than Fiji, but I wanted to go to Fiji instead, because who really goes to Fiji? Fiji is this evocative word that has teased me all my life. Say it: Fiji. Isn’t it exciting, with those three dots in a row, a word with a J in the middle? What could be more exotic?

On the other hand, Venice–for Pete’s sake, I’ve never even been to Venice, by most accounts the most over-visited and touristy and ruined city in the world, but the visions my imagination has painted all my life are so strong and compelling that I still dream of seeing it. I’m dyyyyyying to go to Venice. It’s not going to look the way it does in my mind when Iago hides beneath the balcony and yells up to Desdemona’s father, or even how it does when Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are searching its canals for their lost daugher in “Don’t Look Now.” Would it be better for me to forever imagine how I think it used to look and probably never really looked, retaining that magic halo, than find out how it actually looks?

Of course, it’s a cliché to say that globalization and the world wide web “make the world smaller” and ruin travel. I’m finding, though, that the more concrete my knowledge becomes, the less interested I get. Does that mean I shouldn’t go? Is the very idea of going to Bali, magical Bali, ruined by parades of American surfers and Elizabeth Gilbert? The word “Indonesia” still makes my mind float. Is the thing itself gone, the way my parents’ 1960s purple and blue mod painting of Mont St. Michel on that rock in the water finally seduced me there after 35 years of dreaming about it, only to vanish as reality assaulted me with alleys of souvenir saltshakers and Kodak stands? Or is it always gone once you replace your dreamy vague associations with unromantic tarmac and taxis and toilets?

Often, of course—almost always!–places do live up to the sounds of their marvelous names, just not in the ways you expect. The allure of mysterious Amalfi, Helsinki, Cartagena, the Isle of Skye, all words I could repeat endlessly for their seductive connotations, has not entirely dimmed for me after making them concrete. The Amazon still feels bewitching and thrilling. The markets in Fez and Marrakech really did look like the ones in “The Man who Knew too Much,” and I had never even heard that vowely word Essaouira when I ended up there, which made it a major plus.

But I feel pressure to pin down the places whose names still evoke exotic, unknown images to me—Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Madagascar—before they too are just the front page of the travel section of the NYT and everyone is mentioning which boutique hotels have the best celebrity chefs and hot towel services. It’s definitely not like I’m a super adventure traveler. It’s also not like I don’t want to go to Paris just because everyone’s been to Paris. I’ve been to Paris several times and will continue to go back all my life for the same reasons everyone else goes. It’s worth going. That’s WHY they go. So why the anxious pressure to find somewhere that still feels like something not everyone else has already seen? It makes me question my motivations in traveling. Do I even care about the culture? Why am I approaching a place with such offensive ignorance of what it really encompasses? Am I just trying for another notch in my passport? Bragging rights for reaching the most difficult, obscure, unpronounceable and impassable destination?

Honestly, I think it’s not that, because the places I’m most drawn to are the ones whose names I’ve heard and whose images I’ve constructed, in vague impressionistic unreal ways, without knowing a lot of specific details about them. I don’t need them to be totally undiscovered–just a little enigmatic, a little untrammeled, a little cloudy, but still clearly themselves.

7 responses to “The magic world”

  1. swells says:

    p.s. I actually do think “tarmac” is a romantic word, also “Klondike,” though I used them as examples of the opposite.

  2. Tim says:

    This is absolutely lovely and amazing. I love how you weave in the look and sound of the names of places with their mystique.

    As to going where no (or few) Ugly Americans have gone before, we travel with expectations of something new and different, to take us out of ourselves and our everyday lives. It’s to be expected that if somewhere feels already known to you — even if you haven’t been there — it will hold less allure. Venice has been over-run by tourists since at least the mid-19th century. I’d still like to go, but it’s not at the top of my list for precisely this reason. Why would I hasten there, when all those descriptions and images I’ve read and seen over the years will hover between me and what appears before my eyes?

  3. swells says:

    Yes, and of course I recognize the irony that by going somewhere at all, I overrun it with one more American tourist.

  4. LP says:

    Exotic places are certainly less exotic than they once were – seeing a KFC at the gates of the Forbidden City or walking by Ikea in Chelyabinsk is ample proof of that. But I think it will be a long time before real, crushing homogenization sets in. There are exotic places and people to be found everywhere – and Bali is still magical, even post-Elizabeth Gilbert. We are lucky to live in a time when there’s so much to experience and we have the means and ability to experience it.

  5. Ivy says:

    It’s interesting that Fiji sounds exotic to Northerners: it is a really common travel destination from NZ. It is one of the closest places to us in the Pacific, and best of all, warm when we are in the depth of winter. If only they would stop with the irritating coups! Tedious.

  6. (one of) The travel partner(s) says:

    Ivy, when Swells and I were in Fiji, we did meet some lovely NZers. It was funny, the differences between the Australians and you all — sort of like Texans and Californians. There was a big rugby match between the two, and I was rooting for the All Blacks (that’s a NZ team, right?) Anyway, lovely people — I really want to visit. Who knows if Swells will approve, though.

  7. FPS says:

    I feel like I 100% get you on this, though I travel barely at all. As I became less and less a traveler I did make some version of Macchu Picchu (or rather of the places that aren’t a thing) for myself, places I might go, but I’d more likely dream about. Places on the landmass, but far away. Small towns in Texas, Baffin Island.

    The thing is it’s wonderful not going to places if you might go eventually. When I’m looking for the silver lining in my fear of flying, I immediately think of the trip I took back to Austin four years ago. I hadn’t been in years. Anyone else would just have flown down for a weekend. When I left, I felt like i was going on a sea voyage in another century (Tony Kusher has the rabbi in the opening scene of Angels in America say “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist.”) and self-justifyingly I was grateful that my trip really meant something.

    Incidentally when I was 13 and we went to Western Europe I tried to get my uncle to take us to Granada to see the Alhambra, having seen it in a book…