Register Friday | March 23 | 2018

I'm a Suitcase

The most interesting things that happen on the road are not planned

Although I have travelled to almost every region of the globe, and written about most of them, I am not a travel writer. Travel writers tend to move in groups, frequently on travel junkets—staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants, visiting the most beautiful sights. When I go somewhere, I try to find out what life in the country, over the luxury compound wall, is actually like. I prefer to travel alone, because if you are with someone from your own culture, you will be distracted. It becomes a shared experience, framed in the terms of your common culture, a bubble for two instead of one.

When on the road, I travel with a hard-shell suitcase, a sidebag, my little guitar, field guides to the local fauna, ethnological, historical and political studies of that part of the world, a small high-quality tape recorder, a camera, a little stack of Red Chinese notebooks (or “thought catchers,” as I call them), and whatever clothing and medicine are needed. And, of course, a lot of cultural and psychological baggage.

Being divorced from all familiar referents, culture shock sets in for the solo traveller. You begin to “hemorrhage from loneliness,” as Edward Hoagland wrote after a month of wandering around Sudan on his own. Ancient, long-buried traumas resurface and begin to replay themselves uncontrollably in your mind. One of the most realistic travelogues in this regard is Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which is half about accompanying the zoologist George Schaller on his quest for the elusive snow leopard through remote valleys and mountain passes in northern Nepal, and half about the internal narrative playing in Matthiessen’s head while he is trekking: how little he gave himself to his wife, twenty years earlier, whom he had left at home, dying of cancer, while he went off to slake his wanderlust.

Thing is, you can never go completely native. Your cultural processor never stops working. Nor can you get rid of the voyeur part of you that is always watching you having the experience, the pour soi who is watching the en soi, in Sartre’s terms. Particularly if you are keeping a detailed record of your experiences and observations, the pour soi, the Writer Who Never Sleeps, Crayon Toujours Avec, the voyeur voyou is always on duty.

I am at this point, at the age of fifty-seven, one of the few ostensibly full-blooded White Russians left. Almost all the children of the Tsarist nobles who fled the Russian Revolution in l917 have been absorbed by their adopted lands. Although I was born in the US, I have French, German, Swiss, Colom-bian and Turkish cousins. There is a Russian term that I relate to: neudobnyi chelovek, which means “an inconvenient person,” an outsider, a troublemaker, someone who asks questions about things surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. I see myself as “an ambivalent and tormented representative of the Age of Reason,” as Nicholas Riasanovsky described Tsar Alexander I, who according to legend disappeared in Siberia and became a wandering monk, or starets, named Fyodor Kuzmich. I am a throwback to the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedists who went out and catalogued and classified and compared and cogitated on the life forms and life ways they encountered. Enlightenment for me has always been primarily a quest for knowledge, and there is no better way to broaden your knowledge base than by travelling.

But if I am not a travel writer, what am I? I have described myself at various times as a literary geographer, a cultural ecologist, a “total-immersion version journalist,” a bridge, a vessel, an empty calabash, a free-floating consciousness, a generalist who blithely transgresses discipline boundaries, a participatory journalist (like the late George Plimpton), a borderline, or maybe more accurately over-the-borderline, or borderless personality.

I am a “rootless cosmopolitan,” as Eddie Rosner, a Berlin-born jazz trumpeter who became Stalin’s state musician and then fell out of favour and was packed off to Siberia, was branded. I am Anagarika, the homeless one, a Pali word meaning someone who has given up the home life for the ascetic life of a mendicant. I am outis, Nobody, one of Homer’s epithets for Odysseus; the Beatles’ Nowhere Man; in Czech, nikdo, someone who doesn’t exist, a nothing, a nonentity. In the words of the Mekranoti, a community of Kayapo Indians in the Amazon, I am No Ket, No Eyes, a stranger in their midst who is so out to lunch in the rainforest that he doesn’t see what is going on; the Apache Pale Eyes; and all the other terms for white in cultures around the world, like the Navajo bilagaana, the Latin American gringo, the Swahili mzungu, the Lingala mendele, the Bambara toubab. I am an umushyitsi, as Rwandans call both visitors passing through and children who die young.

But the word I have come to use for myself is Suitcase. This is the name I sometimes perform under at Café Perk on Parc Avenue on Tuesday afternoons, when I am at home in Montreal.

I’m a suitcase
Shuffling from place to place
A weary beat-up old suitcase
No name, no tags, no face
I got no destination or deadline
Just pack my clothes and head on down the line.

The main premise of the Suitcase is that the most interesting things that happen to you on the road are the things you didn’t plan for, the chance encounters and serendipitous conjonctures that can sometimes change your life. My wife and I met on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 7, 1987. Both of us had changed our flights at the last moment, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of youth, culture and sport (Moses Ali, who was later imprisoned on questionable charges of mounting a coup against President Yoweri Museveni) and plunked myself down next to her—and had not a whole chain of other fluky events and coincidences fallen into place—we would never have met. Not only were our two lives radically transformed by this apparently chance meeting, but sixteen others also, and three people came into this world because of it. So you have to open yourself to these things. That is, for me, the Suitcase, the whole point and art of travelling: going with the flow, orchestrating the unpredictable. Breaking away from the patterns of your life that you get rutted in.

When life gets stale
You can always hit the trail
When you’re sick of bills and dishes
And unfulfilled wishes
And life gets boring
You can always go exploring.

With the world growing farther apart than closer together, and American xenophobia and geographically challenged culture-bound cluelessness more pronounced than ever, I consider travel these days to be almost an obligation. North Americans need to be reminded that there’s a rest of the world out there; even if, like a certain President, they have no interest in visiting it.