Some people can’t imagine leaving their own neighbourhood while others can’t wait for their next trip to Bermuda or Bombay. Oakland Ross reflects on the meaning of travel.
During the 1980s I was a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail, first in Latin America and later in Africa. In both cases I was a regional correspondent covering not just one country but a continent or more. Especially in Latin America I was forever on the move, rarely in one country for more than two weeks at a time. I sometimes went five months or longer without seeing the place I called home – a one-bedroom apartment on Rio Nilo in Mexico City.
There was little that was predictable about my life then. I had to write and file my stories, but the circumstances in which I did so were always changing. When I look back, I find it extremely difficult to remember in what part of the year any particular event took place. The normal systems of reference that we use to fix a memory in time – the cycle of the seasons or of the school year – didn’t apply.
To a remarkable degree my life didn’t go around and around. It went on and on. I suppose you could say it was an open, one-way ticket rather than a succession of round-trip fares. And in some ways I was happier than I’ve ever been, before or since. That isn’t to say I’m unhappy with the way my life is now – a small house with a mansard roof, mortgage payments, frequent tennis games, lots of familiar friends, a dishwasher. Still, I rarely get through a day without a pang of longing for the pure and undistracted energy of those vagabond years.
I remember the trajectory of my emotions each time I set out from Mexico City not knowing how long I’d be away or how many countries I’d get to, or whether this journey – ostensibly to Nicaragua, say – would eventually take me all the way to Tierra del Fuego. I’d be filled with excitement at getting away. And then, just as I was closing the door to my apartment, I’d feel a stab of regret. I’d think of the friends, the diurnal rituals I was leaving behind and for a while I would be downright blue. This feeling would last for the drive to the airport and even dog me into the terminal.
But by the time my plane had lifted off from the tarmac I’d be feeling the first rustles of a transformation I experienced whenever I set out on another journey. I felt myself thrilling to an almost effortless pleasure – the joy of perpetual motion. In those days motion meant work. The two ideas were just about interchangeable. While I was on the road I did little else but work – days without end – because there was little else. I was a reporter. Work meant tracking down stories. Everything I did, everyone I spoke to, everywhere I went – it was all part of my job. I never had to force myself to work or to work harder. I couldn’t seem to stop.
I spent very little time on personal or social maintenance. There seemed to be no need. I had no community responsibilities, because I was travelling on my own. All my friends were directly related to my work – either other journalists with whom I could exchange impressions or else local residents who could tell me about their countries. I lived in hotels. I dined in restaurants. I left my laundry in a plastic bag in the hall outside my door. I led a life that was distilled into two almost pure and unadulterated elements – travel and work. And they seemed to merge.
I was rarely unhappy, at least not on my own account. Most people become unhappy because they are dissatisfied with the way things are in the places where they find themselves. But I was always going someplace else. If I didn’t like my current circumstances – well, not to worry. There’d be a whole new set just beyond the next immigration hall. Sometimes I wonder if it was only when human society became settled and sedentary that people started looking inside themselves, into their daily rhythms for purpose and meaning, rather than toward a geographical horizon, a place where they could go. Was it only then that they began to doubt?
In Latin America, the purpose of my life lay well outside myself. It was aboard the next airplane, in the next city or somewhere out on the streets of the next country I was headed for. I didn’t worry about myself, I worried about other things.
Were the rebels in El Salvador right to launch their latest offensive now or shouldn’t they have waited until after the next US congressional vote on military aid to the Salvadorean Government?
Would President Raul Alfonsin in Argentina withstand the latest challenge from hard-line elements in the military? Wouldn’t it be fun to live in an Indian village in the highlands of Panama for a while?
In those days I didn’t experience personal angst. I thought this was a turning outward of my soul, part of my becoming an older and wiser human being. Now I realize it was simply a function of my being always on the move. When I finally returned to Canada, to the day-to-day problems of a revolving life, I quickly reverted to my former state. I now sometimes walk with my head down, staring at the sidewalk – brooding, brooding, brooding. Do I have any hope of personal fulfilment? What is the meaning of existence? Is there a larger purpose to it all?
I rarely broached such questions in Latin America or in Africa. I was far too busy getting myself from point A to point B to worry about the nature of the alphabet. I didn’t think much about time, either. I became a creature of the present, because the present seemed to fill my needs. I suppose that all people are suspended in a more or less uneasy balance between the forces of gravity and centrifuge, between home and horizon. It so happened that I barely had a home and so felt little of that gravitational weight, that pressure to return. I was without an orbit, in a kind of free flight.
Later, in Africa, I lived in a small whitewashed bungalow in a mixed-race neighbourhood of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Sprays of bougainvillea washed over the walls of the yard beneath mango and avocado trees, amid explosions of poinsettia. Friends dropped by unexpectedly. I fell in love with a woman I met there and she moved in to stay.
Each morning – or at least each morning when I wasn’t on the road – we’d awaken to the cool, splashing sunshine of the highveld, listen to the BBC World Service at breakfast and read the Harare Herald. Our days unfolded in predictable ways, developed a pattern, a fabric of ritual.
And my attitude towards travel changed. I still spent most of my time on the road, tramping all over Africa rather than Latin America. But I wasn’t travelling as light. I had to push myself harder to keep going. I felt myself weighed down. I moved ahead, yet I always sensed an emotional friction, the pressure to go back, to turn around. And the reason was simple. I’d finally fallen into an orbit.
Oakland Ross is a former foreign correspondent and author of Guerrilla Beach, Cormorant Books 1994. He is working on a book on the human spirit in Latin America and Africa to be published this year by Knopf.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995