In July 2015, I returned to the US after three months of travel in Israel, India and the Balkans. In each country I tried to pay close attention to history – visiting the war photography museum in Dubrovnik, for example, or the Srebrenica exhibition in downtown Sarajevo. I talked to cab drivers who were in their teens when the Siege of Sarajevo began. Then I returned to O’Hare.
I had a stopover there – at one of the world’s busiest airports – and as I slumped against a chair, my eyes turned to one of the dozen of TVs flickering with CNN. A haggard Obama was delivering a press conference about ISIS in Syria. And then it hit me: America, because it shares borders with so few countries, because it is so isolated, has an apocalyptic relationship with the world. It only hears about other nations, such as Syria, when the worst possible thing has happened to them. Missing is the constant intercourse that exists, say, between India and Nepal and its neighbors, or the somber knowledge that the Croats have of the Serbs and Slovenes and Bosnians, or the Bosnians have of their swarms of Turkish tourists.
This one revelation – as obvious as it may seem now – was worth more than all the forced, self-serious, world-historical, proud, second-hand mourning I undertook in Croatia and Bosnia. It concerned home; it worked its way into my marrow.
The estrangement that travel engenders is far more profound than the images consumed on a trip. I would prefer to see American writers who have spent significant time abroad magnifying and expounding on problems at home. Too often, a kind of travel writing – especially the novel set abroad in an exotic locale – feels like a way of allegorizing and escaping problems at home. Travel literature should go local and micro, but with international heft.
The second thing about modern travel writing: I am tired of the nation state. I grew up in India and moved to the US when I was seventeen; for the last fifteen years I have ping-ponged haplessly, crazily, self-destructively, between countries, unable to a choose one place over the other, always missing or mourning one when I should be enjoying where I was. In my mind, India and the US are two incommensurate universes – places where not only the air, water and food differ, but I, by association, change as well. I see them not as part of a continuum of humanity but as levels in a video game I must leap between – quantum states, almost.
Travel writing often feels dated to me because it stresses these differences and orients itself the way tourists do, around the nation state. Why not give people like myself a new, comforting idea of space – the way it has been blurred and rearranged by travel? Why not take us someplace new in the mind – someplace between countries rather than inside them?
Photograph © Thong Vo