In Writing

When I travel, I realize I’m the worst kind of provincial: the provincial that thinks it is not.

I want so much to be a seasoned traveler. And, by definition, I am. I travel a lot. But my travel is often an exercise in resisting other places.

This occurred to me when checking into my hotel midway between LA and San Diego.

I’d been checking in to decent-ish hotels, but this one turned out to be more of a dive (ah, the danger of booking places online). As I was dragging my bags to the second floor walk up, a turtle hauling all its worldly possessions on its back, I spotted a family all gussied up on its way to what was obviously a very fancy party for them. I saw their two under-3 little girls first, in garishly purple pink matching party dresses with spots of cheap silver glitter on them, their hair combed elaborately. Then I saw their mom, matronly, in a blouse of the same awful color. Finally, I spotted the dad ambling behind then, holding his head high in his improbably colored, perfectly matching shirt.

And I thought: I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous in all my life. People are just insane, dressing to match four humans in this clownishly bad color.

And then I thought: I am a snob.

The family was LA Hispanic (yes, I heard them speak Spanish), and it occurred to me that, after my feeling of being an alien lifeform in Cleveland I should strive to find more kinship with them. But I didn’t. And that’s because I’m a provincial little snob from someplace that considers itself worldly.

Here’s an example of how insular I am: I look for chain stores. I almost always find a Target at my destination, for example, reassuring myself that I’ll be able to keep myself in clean socks and power bars should the sudden need arise (I have an inordinate fascination with not packing socks and underwear for a trip and then going to Target to buy some, reminding myself forever, “These are my Los Angeles bloomers,” instead of correctly remembering them as my mass-produced, Chinese, placeless underthings). This morning I went to buy “forgotten” socks only to step into a Target with the EXACT footprint of mine back home. Books in the same spot, juice, discounted wooden candle hurricanes, all exactly where they sit 3,000 miles away. Not “similar,” EXACT. Eerie and comforting all at the same time. Rather than give in to local flavor, I sought the familiar.

New York and its environs is the worst kind of provincial because we all assume we’re the norm. Of course everyone voted for Obama and buys organic. Of course everyone. Those of us who have never lived anywhere else don’t even have childhood memories to fall back on, memories of places where people eat Nutter Butters and call soda pop. So we titter and call other places quaint, not realizing our own quaintness.

I notice this not to get down on myself, but to chide myself into surrendering to the power of travel: acceptance of lack of familiarity.

There is an amazing show with a hottie of a British guy, Bruce Parry. It’s called Tribe. On it, he travels to far flung reaches of the globe – Gabon, Indonesia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Mongolia – and lives with indigenous people exactly as one of them, dressing like them, hunting with them, chilling with them. I remember one episode in particular in which he trekked through a jungle and then settled in to enjoy a local delicacy: fat little live grubs from the center of a tree. I marveled. Here was a guy who knew how to blend, to accept, to not judge. Who was thoroughly non-provincial.

I want to learn to be more like him. Needless to say, I’ve got some work to do. I think a trip to Gabon or Ethiopia is in order to really stretch my comfort zone.

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