Travel Broadens the Mind?

Maybe so, when you’re younger. Travel did that for me long ago in trips to Europe and South America, later to the Caribbean and Mexico. Living in France for a summer I think changed my outlook more radically than my years growing up in Chicago. One reason is that you are compelled to adapt to new values and lifestyles.

The appeal of travel has waned as I’ve aged. The world has become a lot less engaging as its problems have escalated. Better communications have brought distant peoples (and their predicaments) closer. The hassles with air travel, Covid, and crowds of tourists don’t seem worth it.

Becoming an expat has forced me to look at travel differently from how my fellow expats view it. They have ties and needs that I do not. My family is small, dispersed, and I feel somewhat dislocated from them.

One friend is now on a trip to the East Coast, nominally to get her Covid shots but also to visit an old school friend, family, and rediscover the U.S. after an 11-year absence. A couple just returned from a hectic trip to Philadelphia, seeing doctors and friends and rushing to three other cities. Another couple flew to Minneapolis for a week to finalize the purchase of a condo.

I view these activities with a sense of wonderment. There but for the grace of God don’t go I. Studying French literature years ago I encountered a wonderful decadent novel, À rebours (Against Nature, 1884) by J.K. Huysmans, which contains a remarkable interlude with its hero, Des Esseintes. This reinforced the notion that travel is, of course, a mental as well as a physical act.

In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Charles Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow through with his plans.

I’m not an aesthetic recluse, at least not yet, and I surely don’t reject nature and normal life in favor of artifice, as Des Esseintes did. But I’ve discovered that by not having to resort to travel I can keep alive some of the illusions and discoveries that it brought to me long ago.

Now celebrities and people like Bezos are going into space—in search of new sensations perhaps. For me, travel is just a short circuit for living extensively in another place. A typical article on the benefits of travel finds seven:

      1. Travel Makes You Happier
      2. Travel Lets You Disconnect & Recharge
      3. Traveling Relieves Stress and Anxiety
      4. Travel Exposes You to New Things
      5. Travel Exposes Others to New Things
      6. Travel Makes You Physically Healthier
      7. Traveling Can Boost Your Creativity.

I submit that none of these are really true. They may happen or they may not.

In a way, becoming an expat is the ultimate travel experience because it implies committing to a place rather than just sampling it. Your perspective changes totally, and you see the follies of your home country, for instance, more clearly when you’re detached from them.

Living Here, Not There

Oaxaca, where I live, is a very transient community. Of the Americans living here, many visit for a few months a year or less, then move back in the summer to enjoy the heat, humidity, and dementia of U.S. culture. Snowbirds, we call them. They come from Canada too.

The transiency of this place also affects Oaxacanians. Over the past twelve years I’ve been here, two of my best Mexican friends decamped to the U.S. and it’s been hard to replace them. Some go there to work and support their local families. Others give up on the basically tourist economy. The pull of family draws others, gringo and Mexican.

For Americans, learning Spanish may just be too big a challenge. Some feel (rightly) that they will never really identify with Mexican culture and mores. Asking gringos why they choose to give up on living here—and how long they might stay—elicits many responses: Mexican culture doesn’t work for them; it’s too remote here, too different; they love the beach but it’s too hot in summertime; medical care is too erratic.

Some can’t stand the frequent bloqueos, where aggrieved social groups halt traffic on major thoroughfares for hours. Or the contrasts between poverty and wealth that abound. Living well here requires at least a modicum of wealth and a sense of history.

But the big draws are the rate of exchange (it’s cheap to live here), the food, and the climate. These can mean a lot. The small talk in my group usually covers all of the above, though conversation with the many resident foodies can get a little tedious—for instance, babbling on about the newest restaurant or the grand molé at Le Catedral.

Personal responses to living here vary considerably. One resident couple I know splits up frequently because she likes her time in the U.S. and he enjoys more time here. Another has a house at the beach but they also want to spend half time at the house in Arizona they are building. Another couple will be moving back to Virginia for better medical care and a more congenial social atmosphere.

Twelve years ago I decided to change my life, live more cheaply, and flee American politics and culture, with which I had been too involved. I told friends I was broke and needed a total change. I’ve explained some of the causes behind my move in a post here last July entitled “Expats Exposed.” Take a look if you are curious about my motivations.

My move here accomplished all I had hoped for. After living in many places in the U.S. and traveling abroad in my younger days, I can’t conceive of a better place to flop and face the bizarre, often desperate world we live in.

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.