The first time I got sick in India, I refused to believe that all I had was a case of common Delhi belly. I was certain something in my body had gone horribly wrong. The spasms of vomiting, the diarrhea, the waves of exhaustion that grounded me in my body and made it impossible to hold a thought in my head: how could all that come from a dollop of coconut chutney on my lunchtime dosa, or a plate of cut cucumbers at a five-star hotel, the one place where raw food is supposed to be safe?
I spent the whole night running from my cot to my Indian squat toilet for one reason or another. Shortly before dawn, kneeling beside the toilet and dizzy from yet another violent fit of vomiting, I caught hold of the sink to steady myself as I stood. Just as I found my footing, the sink came out of the wall into my hands.
I think about this scene often, partly because I find it hilarious, the way Kafka found his stories hilarious, and nearly fell off his chair laughing when he gave a reading from The Trial. I must be a little twisted, I think, to deliberately subject myself to such things.
I also think of that night when, once they find out how much time I’ve been spending abroad, people invariably ask if I love travel. More precisely, they tell me I love travel. “You must love travel,” they say, a knowing glint in their eyes. Or else they ask rhetorically, clasping their hands, which I didn’t think anyone did outside Victorian novels, “Don’t you just love travel?” Sometimes I lie and say yes because it’s easier, because the truth is complicated, and, anyway, they’re just making conversation.
But I will say this explicitly: I do not love travel. Travel is dirty and exhausting and frustrating. Travel is lonely. Travel, without fail, makes me physically ill: from food-borne bacterial infections; from parasites; from another continent’s unfamiliar ecosystem of cold and flu viruses; from dirty cities’ dirty air burrowing into my lungs so deeply that I cough for months.
My friend Ted is what is known as a "good traveler." His work with communities in crisis takes him to developing countries several times a year. He eats questionable food and almost never gets sick. He sleeps soundly in hovels. Jet lag has no effect on him.
Ted is not the norm. Most of us are creatures of habit, right down to our intestines, which rebel when confronted with foreign critters. We try to flip-flop day and night, and our body clocks resist. And travel keeps asking us to cope with more, with unfamiliar foods and road signs and gestures, with sounds we know are words but cannot understand. No wonder everything seems magnified -- not only sickness, but hunger, loneliness, confusion. Everything matters more. Being cheated out of a dollar by a rickshaw driver can ruin a whole day. The smallest slight by a fellow traveler or a new local friend can tip us into despair.
So why bother? Why travel at all? I suppose I could reframe Dorothy Parker’s bon mot about writing: I hate travel, but I love having traveled. Indeed, there is a certain pleasure that comes with saying you just got back from Indonesia.
But that's not it, not exactly. It comes closer to say that when I travel, the negative things aren't the only things that matter more. The surprises are not always bad, and goodness is greater when it startles us. What light comes when I travel comes unexpectedly, out of the corner of my eye, where vision is ostensibly sharpest, which is why we’re supposed to watch meteor showers with our peripheral vision, to take in more of those sudden streaks of light, more stars falling, though the one time I watched a meteor shower, in graduate school, driving from Chicago to someone’s friend's cabin in Wisconsin, late-night and last-minute, I was exhausted, and the whole night was cold and clouded and disappointing, like most of graduate school, really, though even then, moments of shattering light flared through the sadness and confusion, though not as strongly or as many as when I travel.
GOOD MOMENTS For I was lonely in Paris...
If pressed, I will admit that there are also moments of expected yet unquestionable beauty: the Taj Mahal at sunrise, say, or late night on a quiet beach in the south of Thailand, waves lapping. But even those seem to come at some psychic or physical cost: the weary road to Agra, the migraine in Phuket along the way, all day in a dark room.
It's as if we need some sort of trauma to make us ready. My father, who rides motorcycles, has remarked more than once that a common refrain in descriptions of motorcycle trips is that the rider had never been so cold, never been so drenched with sweat, never felt such pelting rain. I don't ride, but I get it. That is their way out, and their way in.
The closest parallel I can find is Kafka’s perverse manifesto on reading: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? …we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Without the discomfort of travel, I am a frozen sea. I need my heart broken. I need to be pushed beyond my limits. I need to be lost in a place where I cannot read the signs. I need the assumption that I control my own life to be exposed for the lie that it is. I need to know that I am capable of turning away from a destitute child begging. I need to feel worse than I thought I could feel: physically, or emotionally, or spiritually.
Because that's how travel works for me. The pain pulls me just a little bit out of myself, and I am that much closer to what WH Auden called the Vision of Dame Kind, the transcendent connectedness of all things. I rush up a hill in Budapest to an art museum, where the security guard waves me in for the last ten minutes. I have time to find the Dali I wanted to see, after which I climb the rest of the hill and watch the city at night. Or else, after a long day visiting temples, I see a dusty red sunset in Karnataka. Or else, as I race to try to catch a train I know I can't possibly catch in Prague, I find the train delayed just as I reach the platform. The anxiety or tiredness or disorientation break open, and suddenly I am okay. I have never been more okay.
Just think: if I had not been sick in India, I would never have needed to call, in the wee hours of the morning, a friend who lived one building over. She never would have brought me the purified water and anti-nausea pills that I never managed to keep down. Another friend would not have driven me to the doctor the next morning, and a third friend would not have stayed with me through the afternoon, typing on his laptop while he sat on the bare floor as I slept. These three would not be so dear to me, nor I to them. I would never have felt the shock of finding home, so far from home.
That's what I love. If I could find a shortcut to that – past the jet lag, the persistent cough, the loneliness for English words, the desperate longing for a cheeseburger – I would take it.
I have not found it yet.
Jenn Koiter’s work has appeared in Barrelhouse, South Dakota Review, Rock & Sling, Bateau, and Nothing to Declare: An Anthology of Prose Sequences, and she recently placed in Ruminate Magazine's Vandermey Nonfiction Prize. Jenn has been awarded a federal Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, a Money for Women Grant, and artist residencies at ART342 and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. After years of bouncing between Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, and New Delhi, she has hunkered down in Austin, found a job, and purchased (god help us) a credenza. We shall see how long that lasts.