I’ve recently begun reading The Best American Travel Writing, 2011, edited by Sloane Crosley, whose work I adore. She wrote, among other things, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of essays that I have often referenced for its humor and poignancy. I follow her on Twitter, and I always read anything I run across with her name on it. This post is in no way a criticism of her; this is my thirst for literary discussion in blog format. Oh how I would love to have a cup of coffee with Ms. Crosley and talk about this (and hope that she would start by saying, “Oh, please, call me Sloane.”)
I’m about one third into the Travel the stories so far, but I keep coming back to something Ms. Crosley said in her introduction. In her explanation of her selection process, whittling hundreds of stories down to the 18 that made it into this year’s book, she talks briefly about her own travels. Here I quote:
“As we grow up, most real experience is increasingly hindered by two factors. One is the infamous prism of our own perspective (the real terrain of exploration is seldom external). I would argue that the second, equally intuitive but less discussed obstacle has to do with a kind of virginity of the mind. We can only learn something—I mean really be introduced to it—once… I will say now that I’ve been to Puerto Rico three times in my life and won’t be returning. Because Puerto Rico is a terrible place? Well, it ain’t no Bali, but no, that’s not why. It’s because of the other 30 percent of the planet Earth covered in landmass. I have the one life and the one brain to match it, and I’d rather not waste either on knowing a foreign locale like the back of my hand unless the front of my hand is singing a lease there.”
(Ms. Crosley goes on to add a few disclaimers to clarify.)
In any case, here is my thought: What about getting past the “wow factor” to experience the authenticity of a foreign locale? How can someone from the Midwest (or anywhere for that matter) not be overwhelmed on their first visit to the ocean, waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, cocktails, and everything else that people seek out on trips to vacation locations? If vacation time is limited, of course one wants to see the highlights. But, I would argue, to really get to know the best of any place, one either needs to know a local, or spend enough time there (in one trip or multiple trips) to get past the awe of salmon-colored sunsets, warm, white-sand beaches, jagged, snow-capped mountain tops, and the 4-star restaurants with an English-speaking waitstaff, to find the family-run “restaurants” where the locals go for breakfast, find the hidden waterfalls, and meet the native with the juiciest mangoes on the beach.
Over the years, I have known many people who have “vacation homes” around the world, and I have said repeatedly that I never wanted to own a second home for exactly the same reason that Ms. Crosley gave above. Why would anyone want to limit herself to one (primary) vacation spot? Once a person owns a vacation home, they’re often either financially or “common-sensically” bound to spend the bulk of their time there over traveling to new places.
However, I can say from experience that my travel experience has been deepened by leagues because we’ve gone back repeatedly to one location. I’ve been lucky enough to spend 19 weeks in Costa Rica in the past two years, and my husband and I are about to head back there for an additional 11 weeks.
The first time I went to Costa Rica I was a “victim” of culture shock . (The scorpions in our house were difficult to get used to.) The second time I went to Costa Rica, I was enthralled by the beauty of the ocean, the volcanoes, the zip-lining and hiking through the rain forests. It wasn’t until the end of our last trip that we began to venture down gravel roads (on purpose), talk (in broken Spanish) to the locals, eat food from roadside vendors, and explore beaches off the “monkey roads” instead of those listed in the Lonely Planet Guide Books.
Now, whether or not one likes scorpions, the first visit to a new location (generally, I would think for a week at a time, maybe two) is often dominated by the wow factor; only upon additional or extended trips can one really get to know a place—and discover a different sort of “wow.”