Spin the Globe and Go

Why travel to remote places? Why bother with the hassle, the expense, the danger? Because it's actually cheap, intoxicating, and easy.

    Photo: Pichugin Dmitry via Shutterstock

WE HAVE COME OUT THE other end. After two months of walking and hitchhiking atop the Tibetan Plateau, crossing range after desolate range, living with the Tibetans, eating yak meat on the high plains under a blazing blue sky, we have fallen out of the mountains into the lowlands of China and its ocean of mankind.

A black night and the train station overrun. We are being crushed by a mob of hundreds, perhaps thousands. The train is days late. A thundering, prehistoric steam engine cleaves the crowd, whistle screaming, a velvet column billowing into the dark. We are shoved against the moving wooden cars. People are clambering onto one another's shoulders and crawling through the windows. Spence and I are wearing packs and will have to make it through a door. The crowd presses us up the steps and into the car as if we were made of Play-Doh.

Inside, the fourth-class passenger car is so packed it makes me laugh out loud. I can see nothing but people through the ribbony haze of rising cigarette smoke. The wooden benches are hidden beneath piles of people sitting on other people's laps. The aisle is teeming with travelers wedged against one another, all standing, some atop boxes and suitcases just to get a little smoky air. There are sleeping passengers lying jammed together in the squalor of spittle and trash underneath the benches.

I wink at Spence over the heads of those squeezed between us. He is in shock. He is a very tall, very taciturn young man, and this is his first immersion in ordinary Asia. Spence, an expert outdoorsman, is quite capable anywhere where there are few people: mountains, desert, tundra. In the hinterlands of Tibet, where there is more elbowroom than in Alaska, he was a calm and elegant presence. Now he is on the edge of panic. In China, elbows are mostly used for working your way through a seemingly impenetrable crowd.

Tibetans require what the Han Chinese abhor: wide-open spaces. They're cowboys, nomads, claustrophobes. A herd of yaks and the sky and a 360-degree view of the horizon and they're happy. The Chinese, by and large, are horrified by wide-open spaces. The last thing they want to witness is a distant horizon. They want to see streets and shops and people. Tibetans revel in the silence of their austere landscape. Chinese need noise. Tibetans ignore the ferocious cold and wind and snow. Chinese hate cold and wind and snow—they like warm rain. Tibetans are outdoor people, preferring stars or a black wool tent overhead. Chinese are indoor people who demand tile roofs, close quarters, and reassuring hubbub.

Which means that the 300-plus people crammed into this train car must be having the time of their lives. It is 2 a.m. and practically everyone is awake and staring at Spence and me. The men are smoking away and shouting at one another, and the women are rocking their babies and spitting on the floor and shouting at one another. No one is angry; this is how Chinese converse—they yell.

A commotion starts next to me. I have no idea what's going on. We're still wearing our backpacks, so I think we might be taking up too much space. I try to move sideways but am held firmly in place by all the other bodies.

Suddenly five inches of bench opens up below me. They want me to sit down. Of course I can't with my backpack on. After considerable effort, several men and women manage to pry the pack off my back and push me down onto the bench. They attempt to do the same for Spence, but he scowls when they tug on his backpack.

I sit on one tilted cheek, my knees dovetailing into the knees of the people seated on the facing bench, and slip a tiny Chinese dictionary from my shirt pocket. Eventually I say, "Xièxie." The dozen or so people pressed against me look perplexed. I repeat, "Xièxie." Someone finally realizes what I'm trying to say and pronounces the word properly, and everyone starts to chuckle. Word of my mangling of Chinese passes through the car like a breeze, raising waves of smiling faces. I smile back.

That's all it takes. A one-word attempt at thank you and a smile. Food immediately begins to be passed our way, hand to hand. Onions, oranges, peanuts, exotic concoctions in paper wrappers. Spence and I try to refuse, but this is unacceptable. We eat and they nod. Pretty soon, out comes the beer, big green bottles of píjiu.

It was cold waiting for the train, but now I'm roasting. When I stand up and strip to a T-shirt, one of the men grabs my biceps, squeezes, and whistles. This draws hoots of laughter. From several rows away a young man begins crawling over his neighbors. When he gets to me, he removes the person sitting opposite, flips down a tiny wall table, and bangs his elbow on it, hand open.

He wants to arm wrestle. I try to demur but I already have a coach (the guy who squeezed my arm) and a coaching staff, not to mention a big audience. What can I do? He is a sinewy working kid, a miner or a farmhand, and eventually I overpower him. The crowd roars. The young man shakes my hand and proudly waves to everyone like it was the Olympics. Before he can drop his arm another man has taken his place.

After lonely, spartan hardships, there is nothing so pleasurable as the great, enveloping affection of the proletariat. The train lurches along through the rain. I take on all comers, one after another, right through the night, until a female bricklayer triumphantly twists my arm flat.

I HAVE ALWAYS thought of that night as an allegory.

We Americans tend to harbor myths about foreign travel, especially travel in remote places. Coming from a country of ponderous size, we are by nature isolationists. We are largely monolinguists and ethnocentrists and damn good tourists, but hapless travelers. Pack us off to Paris or Puerto Vallarta and we get along swimmingly. Drop us in Yunnan or Uganda and we can get a little tense.

American myths of travel fall into two categories—true and false. The top ten:

Myth numero uno: If you don't speak the language you're in trouble.

Think about it. If you've ever had a wife or a husband or a girlfriend or a boyfriend—hell, even a dog or a cat—you know as well as I do that often language just gets in the way. If you're a human being, you can get along with another human being.

If you're worried, memorize the Jenkins nine-word primer and translate it into the local patois before departing for parts unknown. The essential words are please, thanks, hello, good-bye, yes, no, food, water, bathroom. It also helps to know the numbers one through ten. And if you really want to get philosophical, bring a pocket dictionary. Just remember how closely the pronunciations of "six" and "sex" resemble each other in our own language.

Case in point: Once in Lhasa I tried to buy a turquoise necklace off a very attractive young woman with high red cheekbones and coral beads in her plaited hair. We went through all kinds of negotiations that I did not understand in the least. Eventually she took my hand and drew me through a small door into a cave-like room where I was introduced to her father. The father and I had another long conversation of which I didn't understand one word. The father said something to the daughter and she suddenly disrobed. I'd been negotiating for a bride.

Myth deux: Remote travel is expensive.

What's expensive is a new SUV. Or a week in a hotel in New York City. Travel is cheap. Shop the Internet. You can go almost anywhere on the planet for a thousand bucks.

That sound like a lot? Try this: For three months, save the receipt for every latte, soda, snack, and restaurant meal you purchase. Add it up. Next three months live on beans and rice and ten-pound bags of potatoes. (It's good training for remote travel anyway.) Still short? Stop driving. Ride your bike to work, to school, to the grocery store. (More useful training.)

Then buy that ticket to Thailand.

But what about hotels, meals, taxis? You need another grand, which can last ten days if you're taking trains in Europe, or ten months if you're bicycling in India. The amount you spend per day is usually inversely proportionate to the number of miles you get away from "civilization." In central Sichuan you'll have a hard time spending $15 a day.

To stretch your dollars, camp out. To stretch them more, eat off the village markets rather than in restaurants. Recently I spent a month in northeastern India and spent $385, most of which went for two handwoven wool rugs.

Myth drie: It's dangerous out there.

You know where it's dangerous? Anycity, U.S.A. Despite dramatic improvement, America still has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Discounting those countries that are at war, civil or otherwise, you're more likely to get killed or maimed traveling in America than in foreign lands.

That doesn't mean you can be stupid. There are desperate places where the moment you walk into town, you're a target. You can feel it right away. Trust your gut, and watch your back. And sadly, the rules of remote travel are sometimes different for women: In many countries, it is not advisable for a woman to travel solo. I've known a lot of women who have done so, but too many have paid a high price along the way.

Myth vier: If you do get hurt, you'll never get help.

My brothers and I were once bicycling across Africa, and my younger brother Dan stepped off a cliff while taking a leak (it's a long story). He broke his tibia and fibula. His leg was put in a fine fiberglass cast by a South African doctor who kept it below the knee so we could continue cycling. Cost: $8.

Once, in India, my guts told me unmistakably that I had giardia. There was no doctor in the village, only a pharmacist. I told him what I had and asked if he carried Flagyl. Of course: 17 cents.

My wife, Sue, developed an unknown infection in Bolivia. I was off climbing in the Cordillera Real; she was pregnant and alone in La Paz. The pain got so bad that she eventually had to seek out a doctor. The taxi driver took her directly to the hospital, where the physician diagnosed her, gave her a shot of penicillin, and insisted that she return the next day for a follow-up. Total cost: $9.

The reality is that if you get a serious, complicated illness or injury, there is no better place to be than the United States. On the other hand, if all you need is a limb set or an antibiotic, most country doctors anywhere in the world can handle the job.

Myth nga: Travel in remote places is too complicated to organize on your own.

What's to organize? Friday evening, go online and buy a ticket to Tanzania. Saturday morning, put on whatever clothes you wear on Saturday, including a good pair of walking shoes. Pull your backpack out of the closet. Stuff in a light sleeping bag and a small foam pad, one T-shirt, one long-sleeve shirt, one pair of socks, one pair of underwear, shorts, long pants, fleece jacket, rain jacket, warm cap, baseball cap, journal, pen, sunglasses, toothbrush, toothpaste, camera, passport, vaccination record.

Board the plane in the afternoon.

If you're simply traveling, the last thing you want is a guide. The fun of true travel is to be itineraryless, unagendaed. Make your own mad schedule. A tour of mask-makers in Java. A study of tent types in Chad. The fun of true travel is to be utterly spontaneous. Change your mind at the last minute and take a bus in the opposite direction. The fun of true travel is freedom. Stay up all night with the locals in Siberia, sleep away the next day in the back of a truck hauling cabbage. You want to be a spectator or a participant? You want to be a dog on a choke collar or a coyote cruising the landscape?

If you happen to hunger for an adventure that requires technical skills—climbing, kayaking, scuba diving—learn the skills in your backyard from a professional instructor. Get them down perfectly, practicing in several states, and then plan your own damn trip.

Myth che¯: But I need a shower out there.

No, you don't. Americans have taken this cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness thing overboard. No other culture on earth rubs its flesh so religiously. Must be our Puritan heritage. I say give up guilt and there's nothing wrong with dirt. Dirt ain't dirty. Believe it or not, humans can go days—nay, weeks—without bathing and be no worse for wear. Nomadic cultures, from the Bedouin to the Tibetans to the Mongolians, regularly go months without bathing. My own dubious record is 75 days. Most of the world's humans are accustomed to the pungent smell of body odor. Our noses have just gotten a little too high in the air.

NOW FOR THE myths that happen to be true:

Myth siedem: Remote travel takes time.

Absolutely. If you really want to escape, you need more than a weekend, more than even a week. Depending on how mired you are in your own quotidian mess, you may need more than a month. The untrue part of this myth is that time away is impossible to get. They—kids, spouses, bosses—couldn't get along without you. Things will fall apart.

Don't fool yourself. You're not indispensable, and it's probably a good thing if everybody, especially you, learns that.

Ask for a four-week leave of absence. If it isn't paid vacation, your company is much more likely to say yes. And so should you, as long as your desk is guaranteed to be there when you get back.

Myth waló: You'll get ripped off.

So what? Whoever took it probably needs it more than you. Have several hiding places for your money besides the obvious. As for pricey gear, I must have lost half a dozen Nikon cameras in the past 20 years. As long as you're not hurt—mugged, stabbed, stomped—consider yourself lucky. Come home, go to work, make money, buy another camera.

Myth dokuz: Airlines lie.

Vast experience has convinced me there's a clandestine school that all airline employees, from veteran pilots to baggage gorillas, attend. At this academy of prevarication, all airline employees are taught to bend the truth like a miniature pretzel. Ticket agent: "I'm sorry, sir, the plane is completely booked." Pilot: "I'm sorry, folks, there's been a slight delay, but we'll be taking off in just a few minutes." Pilot: "I'm sorry, folks, there's been a slight delay, but we'll be landing in just a few minutes." Baggage clerk: "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm sure your bags will arrive on the next plane."

Myth shí: Don't drink the water—you'll get sick.

Yup. This includes Popsicles and ice cream. But you know what? You'll get sick anyway.

If you're eating off the market, peel vegetables and fruit. If you're eating off the street, just make sure whatever it is is well cooked. I had fried cockroaches recently in northern Burma; they taste like soggy peanuts.

Wash it all down with beer. Bottled beer is almost universally safe. Moreover, it'll help put you in that perfect time-is-an-illusion, Third World frame of mind.

MYTHS ARE HOW we first come to understand our world, Jack and Jill to George Washington. But at some point in life, you must abandon books, forsake the forewarning words of others, and find out for yourself. To travel is to become an empiricist—to test what's been put inside against what exists outside.
The best way to do this is to grab a good friend, spin the globe, and go. Leap before you look.

The Numbers: uno - Spanish; deux - French; drie - Dutch; vier - German; nga - Tibetan; ch¯e - Urdu; siedem - Polish; waló - Tagalog; dokuz - Turkish; shí - Chinese

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