Why We Travel

”How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure . . . You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers”
- G. K. Chesterton
“Sometimes I feel like . . . the world is a place I bought a ticket to, it’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.” 
- Garry Winogrand

I returned to San Jose this year. A trip to clear my palate — an amuse-bouche, if you will. It had been an intense few months in the only life I had. So I returned to San Jose. 

I spent two months living here last year. I remember arriving that first time — turning the wrong way at first, confused by the litany of highways and crossroads which weren’t what was advertised. 

But when I saw San Jose, as intended this time — I saw San Jose.

I remember walking down the cobblestone streets, lined with palm trees that looked as if they had been crafted just for the spot they stood. The town was filled with stores peddling leather, silver, and tequila... then leather again. Every stroll through the town was a mesmerizing melody on repeat — a comforting, foreign familiarity. 

I remember taking in the view along Costa Azul for the first time. The road taken there was just long enough to create anticipation without being discouraging. Sometimes, on good days (and there were no bad days), there would be cows — freely roaming through the streets alongside cars and pedestrians with a peaceful understanding between them that could never be found in big cities. 

And at the end of that long walk, you would finally see the little hand-scrawled sign, “_Ingresa a la Playa_”. It was hidden on the other side of a roundabout — a turnstile to demand respect for the beauty of the world existing behind this final impasse. 

Besides the beach and the town, there were other things to do in San Jose as well. It always had just enough adventures to add a few extra notes to that familiar melody — just enough to give it a semblance of a intro, chorus and bridge, but never disrupting that melody on repeat.

Every Thursday, artists would set up their stands in the town square and tourists (they were tourists, I no longer was) would come in for the displays. The art would be different and the people would be different, but it always looked the same; and it always happened on Thursdays.

Then there were the people.

There was Jose, who’d greet me every time I passed the little collection of restaurants where he worked as a host — each time more delighted to see me than the last. There was Mauricio, my boxing instructor who trained me three times a week. We we would do the same few series of different exercises and listen to the same few songs while sweating through the summer heat.

For two months, that little town became my home and I built a life. It was a life of luxury — but it was a luxury we had forgotten about in our big cities. It was the luxury of simplicity. 

And so I returned, one year later, to my haven of blissful, inexplicable luxury. 

But when I returned to that little town, where nothing unexpected ever happened, the most unexpected thing happened: it changed. 

When I left, life went on in that little town, of course, but not to me. To me, San Jose was a place frozen in that moment in time I was there. I hadn’t occurred to me the melody I heard would not continue repeating, indefinitely, until I returned. 

Because travel, after all, is the act of briefly living in a false world; a long-running show put on just for us. A show in which we are the protagonists— where everything we see is an elaborate set to further the ruse, every event is part of the plot line for our amusement, and every person a character to support our journey.

On vacation, every minor inconvenience is an unacceptable disaster. Because on vacation, there’s no room for anything terrible to happen; no excuse for the cast to go off-script, no excuse for the show not to go on. Because we go on vacation to momentarily escape the pain of understanding our truly small and insignificant place in this world — one in which we aren’t the protagonist.

Why we travel is most obvious in the popularity of resorts and cruises. We get to live in an artificial world, quite literally created for us — one that exists on repeat, that resets every day, every month, every year like clockwork. We get to experience the new, without experiencing anything new at all — because the real newness we seek is an experience of life in which we are meaningful and important. So we travel to artificial worlds with all the comforts we enjoy and all the familiarity of our daily lives, where we get to play make believe — and most critically, where we know we will be made to feel important.

Then there are those of us who seek remoteness in our travels; as if our very foreignness in this distant land will somehow make us notable and our existence worthy of remembering. Or maybe, we hope the experience of seeing lives we perceive to be worse than ours will dull the pain of returning back to our own. 

There is an anecdote Trevor Noah tells in his stand-up comedy, _Son of Patricia_, where he, a black man born into poverty, goes on an organized tour with his white friends to an “authentic Balinese experience”. Expecting to see temples or a cave, he instead finds himself in a Balinese home, as the host sets the stage for the tour — like a ringleader for a circus:

_”This is the home of someone in Bali. He eats here. He sleeps here. And over here you can see the owner of the house, he’s in the corner!” _ 

The rest of the group fawns over the “authentic experience” of touring the home — “poverty porn”, Noah calls it — and basks in the inferior nature of the home and its sleeping quarters, compared to their own lives. But an unspoken conversation happens between him and the host:

_”You shouldn’t be here. This show isn’t for you.”_

In our modern world, we wait in anticipation for the show to come on two weeks a year and we celebrate the nomads we once deplored because they keep the show going. Nomads turn the entire world into a show that never ends, one in which they are perpetually important because they are perpetually wandering — and we’ve convinced ourselves that if they are always lost, by choice, then they have somehow found themselves. 

Once, in San Jose, a little boy ran into us — caught up in that wonderful, childhood exuberance of life being enough. He was young, maybe only seven or eight years old, but old enough to apologize profusely, _“sorry, sorry, sorry”_ in broken English. His mother caught up and grabbed him by the arm, _”Don’t be rude to the tourists”,_ she scolded him, _”they are how we pay the bills”_. 

But the facade of our importance in travel is made painfully evident only on return to the same destination. It is only when we return that we realize lives have come and gone, and the show went on without us. It is only when we return that we realize we were never the protagonist in our own show, but rather the extras in theirs. It is only when we return that we know, to these masters of hospitality, we were just another face in a crowd of thousands they had fooled into believing in the religion of their own importance. That unspoken agreement between the tourist and the toured — _”I’ll play make believe with you and make you be the centre of my world.”_  — gets broken upon return.

And so I returned to San Jose and found myself standing in the memory of it — embarrassed by my unsuspecting, self-centred expectation to resume a show in which the cast had not returned and the set had changed. 

The jalapeño margarita I loved so much no longer existed. The bar was still there. The bartenders were still there. The drink was still on the menu. But that jalapeño margarita I remembered was lost to its moment in time. 

The taco stand I visited daily had become successful enough to open its own restaurant — ready to put on a bigger, better show to a whole new audience. The tacos had become a little more bland to be made a little more palatable to those willing to pay more.

Jose, the host who I looked forward to seeing daily, was no longer working there. Maybe he had made amends with his wife and moved away like he told me he wanted to. And Mauricio, the boxing instructor I saw three days a week in that wonderfully gritty gym, was now teaching in a high-end, air-conditioned resort; to a whole new audience who had higher standards. 

And I became another face in the crowd. 

But there are the few — whose lives have undoubtedly changed over the course of a year but imperceptibly so to an outsider — who remain and who remember me. I never knew them well, but now am grateful for the pleasant nod to the past and the validation that for a brief moment in time, the world I remembered did exist.

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