Written Sunday, February 1st 2009
We crossed the Italian border yesterday and immediately had the best pasta I can remember, then today for lunch we hiked up to an unforgettable two-hour Italian meal that Az blogged about already. The entire 4km, uphill hike was over a stone or brick path through terraces and orchards. People had put in so much effort to design the hillside we were on yet there were buildings all over the place that had been abandonned. On our drive up the valley one side of the river appeared to have been developed and then abandoned in many places with terraces overgrown, old houses empty and crumbling. There was an ancient road supported by arches and columns that blended with the cliff, again overgrown and abandonned.
We continued hiking up the stones and I didn’t notice for a long time that there were thyme plants everywhere. We hiked among powdery green and grey olive trees and I bit into an olive from the branch – it was really bitter and pink and satisfyingly oily. I spit for the next five minutes it was so bitter, though. The (proper, table) olive oil here is so rich I can see why cultures base their cuisines around staples like this. When we asked the waiter where the oil came from he pointed to the orchard outside the restaurant. The ingredients here are simply better. As Alice Waters says, the best meals come from the best ingredients. At lunch one of the appetizers was a quarter of a roasted yellow pepper with a slice of tomato and a sliver of onion inside – the taste they coaxed from this pepper is what the idea of a pepper promises but never quite delivers. This pepper was from some other planet.
(I would stop reading here if I hadn’t written it)
Traveling by scooter has consistently coaxed feelings from travel that are what the idea of backpacking promises and inconsistently delivers.
In “The Botany of Desire,” Michael Pollan writes about the draw of marijuana and he describes the effects of short-term memory loss on experience – when you forget, you’re exposed to everything as if for the first time, the banality of the familiar is erased, information filters are disabled so you suddenly rediscover things you’d stopped noticing. You’re in a state of Wonder over the everyday, and if you achieve this state then time slows to a crawl (as happens during other intense ecstatic, spiritual experiences). You live “between the hedges of past and future,” as Nietzsche wrote. The key is to forget, then you can live in the present.
At its best, travel induces those feelings as well, without the need of a drug or intentional forgetting: we are actually being exposed to things for the first time, there’s little familiar, our minds haven’t created filters. Travel produces the same qualities of wonder and slowed time.
At its best. Unfortunately the best is elusive and backpacking looks more like bus stations, buses, hostels and tourist restaurants 90% of the time, and authentic, unfamiliar experiences make up the last 10%. It was still worth it, I figured the time on the beaten path was a necessary evil and that 10% was enough to keep me craving it the entire year… but then we left Colombia early – I wasn’t experiencing that Wonder, nor would I if we didn’t change methods. It was just too hard to get off the beaten path, and the fun of navigating the bus stations had worn off.
We’re passing through the air the entire way. I breathed the fresh air every foot between here and Paris, never bottled, never transported as in an elevator from one floor to another. By being literally exposed to so much, I’m experiencing the new constantly, constatnly in wonder, in the present and the days pass like weeks, and I secretly wonder if the purpose of travel is to live forever.