The Traveler's Journey: From Departure to Arrival

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Chapter 7 (v.1) - Conclusion; Bibliography

Submitted: May 21, 2007

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Conclusion, Boston 2006

The village was set among the hills and deep gorges on the edge of eastern Meghalaya, bordering the flat plains of Bangladesh. To reach its location, we had taken a bus for four hours along the highway until we reached a small collection of houses and small shops at the intersection of the road and a footpath into the hills. The shacks lined up one against the other along both sides of the road and corrugated iron sheets covered the shacks. A teashop was selling tea, a bitter Assam tea mixed with sweetened milk.

The footpath consisted of flat stones placed one after the other on the forest floor, winding around the green hills. As we entered into the hills our party became strung out along the path, and slowly the sounds of other people faded away. We looked out for signs left by our guides: cluster of branches pointed down a particular path, and row of stones blocking another path. We walked in silence, taking time only to drink from our water bottles. The path was difficult and at times the stones were slippery from rainwater that had fallen off the leaves of the trees. We pushed branches away from our face and every so often we would hear and echoing cry, the call of one Khasi to another as they traveled among the hills.

As morning drifted into afternoon the fog began to roll in. The clouds began congregating and the sun passed behind them every so often, darkening the whole area. Peering across the gorges, one could see the shadows of the clouds, distorted onto the topography of the hills, passing over the trees. The fog made curls around the hills and drifted casually between them. The air was more humid now further into the subtropical jungle but was just as hot if not hotter than before. Sweat coated my back and my forehead. The path seemed to wind down, and before we reached our village, we saw it.

The village was located at the crown of a hill, about halfway down the side of the valley. Facing us, it was a collection of maybe forty houses, spots of brown in a vast array of green. We could make out a clearing in the center of the village, then the path turned and took us away, and we could not see the village again until we had reached it.

The path came down into the village, and we knew we had arrived when we saw the first houses made of strips of bamboo and corrugated iron. All the houses were perched on wooden supports to let the rain run beneath them.

The elementary school of the village, near the center, was where we dropped off our belongings and rested. It was a long rectangular building with a wooden frame and mud walls painted white. A verandah ran along the side. Corrugated iron covered the rafters and verandah and within was a single light bulb connected to an extension cord, two long tables, and several benches. The villagers had prepared two large pots of boiling water and several plates of purple cherries, a local fruit with a large pit and flesh that tasted of pomegranates.

I took a handful of purple cherries and stood on the verandah looking out at the village. The clouds had condensed to the point of rain and the rain came down in heavy drops. The drops hit the corrugated iron roofs in rhythmical plops and the chickens scurried to find shelter under the houses. I watched the last of our group come in to the village, soaked by the rain. A little boy squatted under the corner of a house among the chickens and looked at me. He wore a tattered t-shirt and had no pants. For a moment I fell into reverie: the heat and humidity, the monsoon rain, the little boy squatting beneath the house recalled a scene from a book by Naipaul. Months later, during a doctor's appointment, the scene returned to me. I had talking with my physician about her travels. She had been with her husband, who did research on infectious diseases, and had spent a significant amount of time in India, working with sick orphans in Mother Teresa's orphanage.

When she saw me, she asked about my trip. I mentioned that we had spent a month in India. She asked where. I told her the Northeast. When she asked how my health had fared, I told her that other than a bout of malaria and salmonella poisoning, I had been okay. The food and the water had not been as bad as I thought.

"Well I didn't stay in rural villages," she said with emphasis, "but we had to be careful of the water in Delhi."

The statement was defensive. Here we were, defending our experiences. She was a doctor with years of education helping children in India who were probably sick beyond anything I could have understood, professional in manner, yet still prone to insecurities as a traveler. Months after my travels, I was using them as a signal of the uniqueness of my experience.

I left wondering if I had really seen what I thought I had seen. Had I really seen the boy squatting beneath the house? Was he the result of exploitation by globalizing companies, as we were encouraged to believe? Or had I simply gone and recovered a scene I had carried in my head all this time, a scene from Mr. Biswas, where Mr. Biswas is building his first house and only Anand is with him and then there is a thunderstorm that ruins the house.

We had traveled with the implicit assumption of return. We would not have gone otherwise. To arrive in that place would have been to go without that assumption, something none of us would have been able to undertake. We believed that all the time spent in the villages in Northeast India and all the lectures on their history, political systems, and social organizations could bring us closer to understanding. Yet we could not accept the realities we saw as they were, but interpreted them to fit some larger scheme: the result of exploitation, the injustice of poverty. For all our professed understanding, that life was something we had never really understood.

After the appointment, I went back to my dorm room and looked over some pictures I had taken during my trip. They were souvenirs, in a way, from places were souvenirs were few and far between. There was one that was a particular favorite. On our last night in the Khasi village, the villagers held a celebration for the time we had spent with them. I had taken out my camera in preparation for the Kodak moment. Three boys, seeing this strange and shiny device, started pointing at it. I took a picture of them and me and immediately showed them the result on the LCD display. Now, in my room, looking at their facial expressions, I began to discern several different reactions: one was surprised, one was confused, and the last rather nonchalant and perhaps a little smug. I realized then that they didn't know what a camera did and thus did not know how to react in front of one. They had looked at my camera and I as they would a stranger and strange device, trying to fit us into something they might understand. The nonchalant boy had apparently figured me out: what it was that he figured I had no idea. Yet his expression suggested that those boys had seen me in much the similar way I had seen them. They saw me in terms familiar to them; I saw them in terms - innocence, injustice - familiar to me. Looking at the picture, I could recall feeling that these children were so innocent, could recall what I saw in those brochure pictures. The nonchalance of the third boy did not fit with the feeling. So as I remembered the celebration that night, the apparent smugness, as I first thought when looking at the picture, began to disappear. I took myself further away from understanding. And I knew then, that despite the fact those boys and I had missed understanding each other, I wanted to travel to India again.

Bibliography

de Botton, Alain. The Art of Travel. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Chatwin, Bruce. The Songlines. New York: Viking, 1987.

Culler, Jonathan. Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions. Oxford, England, and Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Gussow, Mel. "The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul's Search for Himself in Writing." The New York Times. April 25, 1987. April 19, 2007.

Iyer, Pico. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

London, Scott. "Postmodern Tourism: An Interview with Pico Iyer." Scott London. April 19, 2007.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Naipaul, V.S. An Area of Darkness. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Naipaul, V.S. The Enigma of Arrival. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Shakespeare, Nicholas. "Introduction". In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Theroux, Paul. Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. New York and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.


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