Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.

Los Angeles (home):


The Rarotonga airport is like no other I've ever seen: when I arrived a bit early for my flight, I found no guards, no airline employees, no other passengers apparently waiting... and not even any doors. The entire ticketing area is sheltered under a solid enough roof, but completely open to the weather, or to wandering over-punctual Americans taken aback at the simplicity.

My American mind insisted that there must have been other people around somewhere, working in unseen back rooms or lurking behind the greenery along the thin chain-link fence providing the only security around the runway.

But my senses insisted otherwise: from all appearances, I had the place to myself.

There are a few bits of shade provided by little triangular huts and a covered sidewalk. So I plunked down my bags and sat, facing the volcanic mountains on the other side of the silent runway, and tried to imagine what LAX could possibly look like.

I couldn't. I swear to you, I couldn't.

In the film in my head, the next bit is a swirling groggy sleep-deprived all-nighter involving a 3 am layover in Tahiti, where I sat amidst decor emergency airlifted from 1975 and munched on a wildly exotic native dish called a SuperPretzel, before waking up to the sight of a stewardess shoving a U.S. entry card into my hand.

There wasn't enough space on the card to write all the countries I just visited. I admit that felt kinda cool. It also meant I had to ask for another card and write really, really small.

The film blurs again, and then I was in LAX, picking up my bag and heading for immigration. A guard stopped me before I got there; apparently everyone gets a quick extra once-over now, before you actually see the man in the booth. I handed the guard my card, he took a cursory glance... and then did a double-take.

The guard stared at me hard. It only took a second or two, but I could feel myself being measured, not entirely pleasantly.

I can't swear to precisely what he said, since I was massively jetlagged and still trying to focus, at least until the words in italic, below, which got my attention and are now burned into my amused brain:

"Hell of a trip. And this was a vacation? Malaysia, Indonesia... some of these are known Muslim countries. How long were you in these places? How long ago? And this was for what, again?"

"Known Muslim countries." He actually said that.

Yep. I'm home.

And it's actually the most disorienting stop on the trip. I feel like I'm seeing with someone else's eyes. Los Angeles is busier than I remembered. More crowded. More paved. Less beautiful. My apartment is smaller than I thought. The paint is older. The walls are flatter.

Returning home after a trip like this is like putting on old clothes and seeing if they still fit.

The easy smiles in passing faces that I so enjoyed in Asia are mostly gone now. So is all the constant novelty. And I think that's why this is vaguely depressing. When you travel, your brain is exposed to a vibrant, throbbing stream of fresh input. It's like being a small child again, when everything is new. Your attention is focused on the moment, so days feel twice as long, and it's impossible not to feel young, at least most of the time.

Coming home, you're faced with large hits of the mundane: collecting mail, unpacking, sorting, arranging. Time speeds back up. Colors fade.

I find myself planning my next trip already, quietly in my head, even while talking with friends I've just come home to.

If any narcotic has a similar effect, then I understand addiction.

And judging from your questions, apparently a lot of you guys want me to pass you the bong, but aren't sure how to proceed. It's actually remarkably easy. I'll put a FAQ about this trip up on my own website after I've had a chance to unpack, along with pictures and a cleaned-up version of these essays. And I still want to find a day or two to write everyone back.

In short, the biggest hassles in doing something like this are finding the time and convincing yourself to do it. Everything else is just details, and none of them are difficult.

The other things I'm getting asked a lot: are you glad to be home? Do you appreciate America more now?

Truthfully, yes and no, to both. Of course I'm glad to see my friends and family. And of course I'm interested in picking up on the various fun stuff I'm lucky enough to get to do for a living. And yes, after Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand and so on, I really do appreciate the freedom to write these words and pursue the work I do more than I did before.

But I've always appreciated my freedom. So much so, that I'd like it to extend to others, the same way a kid in kindergarten knows that it's nicer to share pie. It's common freaking sense, not to mention decency. That's precisely why I've been an activist my entire adult life. And it's part of why I'm not completely thrilled to be home -- because I just wish keeping that freedom wasn't such a goddam fight with a bunch of pinheaded fundamentalist loons who somehow manage to simultaneously think a) our freedom is the reason other people might attack us, and b) the way to win that fight is by attacking our freedom.

This trip didn't make me like or dislike America more or less as a whole; I think it acted more as a magnifying glass.

The stuff I love about America -- the human and natural diversity; the B+ level of freedom we do have; our remarkably creative culture (folks here innovate on some level in almost every artistic field all the freakin' time, and disliking the corporatist bullshit mainstream veneer clouding our view shouldn't blind us -- truth is, the creative stew throbbing underneath is incredibly cool, and unmatched in my experience), and most of all, the democratic, successful dream of what America is supposed to be, and might someday become -- I love even more.

The stuff that drives me up a wall here -- our insanely enduring racism against the world's greatest array of minority groups, all at once (who the hell has the energy?); our childish sexual culture and the medieval religiosity that treats lying about an orgasm as a vastly greater presidential sin than lying to create a hundred-billion dollar war which kills thousands of people while creating even more enemies; and the constant stream of bullshit that passes for public dialogue -- all that already drives me up a wall more than it ever has.

Sigh.

Time to unpack, I guess. I'll have more on my website soon, and I'm also planning to expand this into a book-length thing, if any publishers are interested.

Thanks to our host Tom for posting all this.

Thanks to you guys for reading. And thanks for your letters.

And those of you who are offering housing on the next trip... don't be surprised if you hear me snoring in the next room one of these days.

P.S. Just out of curiosity, I went over my notes and came up with some totals. For example: I've now crossed the equator four times, seen the sun set over three oceans, thrown up from food poisoning on three continents, and mispronounced words in at least nine languages.

Finally, these are all the various modes of transport from the last 37,000-odd miles, as far as I can reconstruct from my handwritten notes:

Airplanes

32964 miles

Rental cars

2958 miles

Taxis  

295 miles

Walking/hiking

287 miles

Buses

271 miles

Trains

240 miles

Subways

40 miles

Mountain bike

28 miles

Hitchhiking

10 miles

Cruise ship

10 miles

Monorails

7 miles

Elevated train

5 miles

Ferry boat

3 miles

Suspended gondolas

5 miles

Bum boat

5 miles

Motor scooter

2 miles (?)

Elevators

1.5 miles

Funicular cable train

1 mile

Kayak

3/4 mile

Travellators

3/4 mile

Tuk-tuk

1/2 mile

Street luge

1/2 mile

Chair lift

1/2 mile

Swimming

1/2 mile

Water taxis

1/2 mile

Escalators

1/4 mile

Running from baboon, screaming

50 feet

Falling off of things, various

30 feet

Ostrich, attempting to ride, stupidly

4 feet



Details:

A "bum boat" is a ubiquitous old chug-chug craft used for touring Singapore, while a water taxi is a much sleeker take-you-wherever thing on which you might get mugged in Bangkok.

The street luge seemed to be a smart way to get down a mountain in New Zealand; it wasn't; thus the chair lift.

The motor scooter has a question mark because I was completely lost, riding with my arms around some Balinese guy on winding roads in the dark somewhere in Indonesia.

Travellators are a much-appreciated (and oddly-named) set of moving sidewalks in the massive Singapore airport.

A tuk-tuk is a small, loud, dangerous three-wheeled taxi in Bangkok, somewhat akin to driving a really fast lawn mower into New York City traffic.

The distance traveled while falling off of things (see "street luge," for one example) is a conservative estimate, and could have been considerably greater except for a big rock.

Distance the rock traveled: zero.

The ostrich was on a farm in South Africa where they put saddles on the damn things, even though ostriches can kick you to death in one blow.

I would have used my better judgment, but increasingly, it seems, I don't have any.