I starting traveling to get away from myself (and all the boring twats in my suburban high school), stayed away because I felt more at home abroad and came home because I wanted to make a world for myself that didn't feel complicated by all the things awry with traveling.
Traveling feels complicated to me. It’s an individual act, but an action that also impacts the places you are visiting, and especially as a white person traveling has a sordid history from colonialism to cruise ships.
To temper all this and provide an affirmation of the magical life-affirming aspects of travel, the four biggest influences on my traveling aesthetic and mentality are David Foster Wallace, Claude Levi-Strauss, Wolfgang Tillmans and John Steinbeck. The first two are critics of the act of leaving home, providing much-needed perspective, and then last two give the act traveling warmth and the beginnings of a sense of love.
I’m American and David Foster Wallace is the patron saint of any American trying to not be nauseating traveler. Wallace distills it this way in his book Consider the Lobster,
To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience, It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
So that is my starting point as soon as I leave the general region that defined my upbringing and my culture- the America northeast. The first thing I do is try not to be a fly on a dead thing. I try to appreciate what I see, be respectful of its history and its people and use my travel funds mindfully.
Claude Levi-Strauss is a father of modern anthropology, and gives this great tidbit that always brings me into the present, no matter where I am and how I’m judging it- and especially provided a beautiful framework for living in Bali for five years. From the incomparable Triste Tropiques,
The paradox is irresoluble: the less one culture communicates with another, the less likely they are to be corrupted, one by the other; but, on the other hand, the less likely it is, in such conditions, that the respective emissaries of these cultures will be able to seize the richness and significance of their diversity. The alternative is inescapable: either I am a traveller in ancient times, and faced with a prodigious spectacle which would be almost entirely unintelligible to me and might, indeed, provoke me to mockery or disgust; or I am a traveller of my own day, hastening in search of a vanished reality. In either case I am the loser…for today, as I go groaning among the shadows, I miss, inevitably, the spectacle that is now taking shape.
John Steinbeck begs the question of roots in his book, Travels with Charly. My ancestors came over to American on some of the first ships from England, looking for religious freedom, and most likely with the same itchy ticket-buying fingers I have. And for that impulse, I can forgive myself, it’s in my cultural and fleshy history.
In the pattern-thinking about roots I and most other people have left two things out of consideration. Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home... But that is the short view. Our remote ancestors followed the game, moved with the food supply, and fled from evil weather, from ice and the changing seasons. Then after millennia beyond thinking they domesticated some animals so that they lived with their food supply. Then of necessity they followed the grass that fed their flocks in endless wanderings. Only when agriculture came into practice - and that's not very long ago in terms of the whole history - did a place achieve meaning and value and permanence.
But land is a tangible, and tangibles have a way of getting into few hands. Thus it was that one man wanted ownership of land and at the same time wanted servitude because someone had to work it. Roots were in ownership of land, in tangible and immovable possessions. In this view we are a restless species with a very short history of roots, and those not widely distributed. Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.
And Wolfgang Tillman, well, one comes for his concepts and stay for the warmth. Especially his book, The Cars, he uses the most average thing, objects we usually try to avoid in photos, and transformed the way I look at everything. He took photos of cars and showed them in completely a new light, transforming not just cars but the way we look at common objects and the way we go through everyday life. I love it when an artist and a body of work can do that for me, when they can ring the bell and allow me to re-settled into time and place and my own body.
The following photos are a selection from my travels in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Caribbean. I lived for four years in Bali, Indonesia after I graduated from college. These photos are all from the last two years, the first time I started to take photos again after studying photography briefly in college. I’ve stopped traveling as much these days, and I’m not sure I’ll ever pick it up again. I’ve only ever gone somewhere for weeks and months on end, but for the first time since family vacations I’m taking my first week-long trip soon. Something is making me want to stay.