A FRIENDLY WARNING

“My friend!” No other two words in this world are more terrifying.

For the traveler, any such greeting, especially from an affable stranger with loping gait and purposely casual affect, is pretty certain to lead to something other than friendship. Over more decades than I care to count as both an amateur and professional wanderer, I have never had such an encounter, usually started on some crowded street corner, that ended well.

My instantaneous “friends” in China wanted me to buy them cigarettes and blue jeans at the appropriately named Friendship Stores – state-run importers that took only the soon-to-be phased-out “F.E.C.” (not Friendly, but Foreign Exchange Currency). In Vietnam, a sweet girl I met in a Saigon park invited me to a family dinner where her father handed me a photo of her with English scrawl on the back saying, “Please adopt my daughter!” She told me that she loved music and I promised to send her a small electric keyboard — but as I was preparing to do so back in the U.S., I got a letter asking for ten thousand dollars to help fund an older sister’s college education!

Friends in most other places wanted, of course, to change money (a practice I foreswore after an amazing sleight of hand in a Delhi back alley, in which a wad of black-market bills somehow vanished between the time my eyes saw them and my hand grasped them); or to bring me to their family showroom for precious items I didn’t want or need.

In my opinion, the highest expression of slick befriending as art form is practiced in Turkey. This is not a knock at all on the place. In fact, when I first became identified as a practicing travel writer and people began asking me on hot tips for their vacation plans, I would always mention Turkey as the first option. (One of the more puzzling aspects of travel writing, for me, has been the concept that anyone should have so precarious a handle on their own wanderlust as to need to have it stimulated or directed by magazine articles and such — thereby negating the influence of my own pieces and the very occupation I was supposed to embrace.)

Turkey would get a rise since even now, the place is as little-known to Americans as it is overrun with Europeans. But the place seemed to me a fail-safe option, sure to please because it offered a little bit of everything: superb food at a pittance and accessible through points at the nearest simmering pots, magnificent landscapes, Mediterranean weather, luscious sea coasts, numerous layers of history, art and oddities, all mingled in an especially charming state of ruin, the exoticism of Islam in its most non-threatening form, not to mention back alleys teeming with boys bearing silver trays laden with cups of mint tea. The country has always won a sure place in my top ten “favorites” – stay tuned for such a list, and its criteria, coming soon – in spite of the fact that seemingly half the adult male population was employed in trying to sell me a carpet.

How naïve I was once time in the southern port of Antalya when some mustachioed Kemal invited me out of the blue to share a wonderful supper, punctuated by numerous toasts of mind-numbing raki! How could I have believed that I was really the first American he had ever seen in the flesh and that his interest in the Democrat and Grand Ol’ parties was as passionate as presented? Of course, the meal ended with discussion of the ancient local art of weaving, and my new pals exclusive connections to the very best sources for appreciating said art.

The most amazing aspect of such salesmen’s technique is that they seem willing to wait through many meals and toasts, through numerous solicitations, through hours of guidance  and as many cups of tea as it takes and as much time flipping through their entire inventory to coax someone into pulling out their money (often to get rid of the nuisance rather than obtain their goods, which always carry the catch of being too cumbersome to carry or bothersome to ship). I still have a few flimsy area rugs, killer kilims in my closet to testify to my lack of staying power – somehow they never look as geometrically pleasing or exceptionally unique as they did at the time of purchase.

Does travel really foster international understanding, tolerance and brotherhood? Or does it only make the harsh realities of a hustling world that much sharper? And set most of us even more firmly in our suspicions, fears, narrowness?

Sorry, but the jury is still out on that one – and the world will never quite be convinced otherwise despite a barrage of advertising campaigns by the Tourism Boards of Yemen, Bulgaria or Malaysia (my former home and another personal favorite, but chock-a-block with malls, highways and ethnic tensions, and decidedly not the realm of dancing girls and empty sands depicted). True friendship, it turns out, is not one of those items included free of charge on the next package tour.

PARIS:BEAUTY ALONE

“Very old, very beautiful . . . “ That’s been the mantra and constant joke since a trip to Paris as a poor student when a comrade and I sat on a city bus behind the quintessential elderly tourist couple from Middle America who reacted to every site along the route, monuments and apartment blocks alike, with hubby muttering “Very old,” and wifey echoing in confirmation, “Very beautiful.” Four words that pretty much summarize the European experience for most first-timers.

But I am no first-timer in Paris anymore. I have duly found friends to crash with – avoiding the cost and indignity of those cheap hotel walk-ups where the toilet paper was always yesterday’s newspaper torn into careful squares. I now treat the place much like any parent of an eight-year-old, eschewing the latest art exhibits or Left Bank bookshops for un-Celine-like journeys to the end of the Metro line in search of places like the heartless, mammoth and stylishly bulky in the French manner city of science, housing within a “Cite des Enfants” which, much to my daughter’s disappointment, is all sold out on Easter Sunday. The Pompidou Centre’s gallery for kids is empty when I check, but the bookstore, one of the world’s finest, offers more than enough amusement and browsing through a selection of games, puzzles, activity books and stickers that aspire to turn any vapid tyke into the next Monet, Manet or similar.

This time, I have only a single frigid afternoon to wander freely along the Seine or down the back byways of Le Marais, increasingly another designer outlet mixed with falafel and deli outlets that are places of pilgrimages for co-religionists seeking evidence of French-Jewish life (though the corned beef and cheesecake are among the few items that the local gourmet touch seems to have left unimproved).  I don’t really do much: discovering a special bakery window full of home-style plum cakes, taking a chance on small art gallery viewings, or simply allowing myself to get lost and go agog once more at the City of Light’s enduring, bone-white blocks of oldness and beautifulness. And I let the high quality of jazzy buskers in the underground tunnels of the Bastille stop impress me as much as the Mona Lisa.

Yet I am once more put back into what for me is the finest state of travel. Suddenly, a strange excitement clutches at my chest and I feel myself communing with the spirits of the millions of restless, solitary wanderers who have come before me. To me, the best part of traveling isn’t the opportunity to meet and forge mutual understanding with millions of strangers. No, the great gift is to be allowed to have an excuse be alone, even deeply lonely and estranged, in fact to revel in it. Bereft of map or language or purpose or context, to simply amble along streets one has never walked down and never will again, allowing an unapologetic curiosity at new things to mingle with the very old notion of one’s solitary place in the universal, even of circling toward fate.

The French have certainly grown much friendlier, less stuffy, since olden days when they turned up their noses at my attempts to buy just half a loaf of bread (and survived, with my friend, on honey-soaked Tunisian doughnuts instead). Now they all wish “Bonne Journee!” like automatons, void of sincerity in the same way American fast-food greeters spew out, “Have a Nice Day!” But Paris, for me, affords the chance to take stock of the lifetime in between youth and age and to find the link that is always there – the person who is forever happy, perhaps at my most bittersweet happiest, to mingle with humanity while bereft of language or status, simply privileged to look upon the spectacle, and better yet, unequipped to join in, at once accepting the world as it and glorying in this momentary refusal.

MADRID: THE DESTINATION FORMERLY KNOWN AS…

Spain’s capital has always struck me as the least vibrant of e-Spanish spaces.

Maybe the heavily overlay of vaguely Arabized government and army headquarters has done much to squelch and dampen all the frenetic fandangos and trill-like electricity of speedy speech that the country is known for. On a recent visit back to visit my cousin and her long-time mate, two honorary gypsies who, like surprisingly many others, have found their life-time satisfaction in adopting the lifestyle that goes by the name of the art form called flamenco, she an earthy dancer with non-Americanized handle, he a renowned guitarist whose hard-drinking and hard-strumming was never any sort of pose, living in a fourth-floor walk-up festooned in tiled plates and Arabic carpets that would go far to define the term “funky” in décor without even trying. All around on the streets is the persistent hard-edged grubbiness of Spanish life they seem to thrive in, with the usual packs of drunks, drug addicts, Gitano barkers and beggars, further amplified by Europe’s downward trending economics.

But what surprises and amazes this time is how much of the entire historic core of the city around the Plaza Tirso de Molina – upon which I look from a flowered hostal balcony readily had at only 40 euros or so – is entirely claimed and rented out by shop front after shop front of migrant Chinese. Not only that, not merely all the art deco bombast of the past replaced by Chinese calligraphy inscrutable to nearly all but themselves, but nearly all of these identical businesses are doing a bulk trade in the cheapest and cheesiest of scarves, jewelry, blouses, etc. – and sit empty all day, with two or three uncouth Cantonese clerks sleeping at their stations. How exactly did these blocks after blocks of illegal and irrelevant establishments allowed to come into existence? With what official looks to the side? And what purpose do they serve exactly, except as obvious fronts for more sinister purposes of money-laundering, people-enslaving and such?

More importantly, to travelers like me anyhow, what will become of the tiny bars and bakeries and bocadillo shops that formed the web of life that went by the name of Madrid? Are we about to designate spots on a map – the Google map, one presumes – as “places formerly known as…” The disappearance of place, of locus, of individual locality, is no different from the extinction of a species. Whither the Madrid fought over and balladized over in the Spanish Civil War? These unwholesome wholesalers know nothing of that and make for a sanitizing occupier far more efficient than all the battalion of Franco, who were, after all, at least Spanish in their casual brutality.

Still, I don’t think they are ever going to take anyone on guided tours of cheap Chinese groceries. And even if the Sino-ization of the planet reaches the all-encompassing levels of former American-ization, will they leave an imprint that is anything more than replicating their bad taste, their ignorance, their unadorned attempts at mere cash register survival? Maybe it’s only shades of mix-up, levels of cultural dilution, that count or ought to be taken account of now.  Or am I simply over-reacting as an old-fashioned old-timer who wants my destinations straight as most of us once used to take our whiskey?

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TO CHAD AND BACK

CHAD: Everything in life, looked at properly, is a destination. That first unpaid journey down the fallopian tubes and out of the womb is only one of many faced without maps or guidebooks, no trip advisor warnings or hot tips to smooth the shocks or pave the blood-strewn way. Families, neighborhoods, schools – all are landing points on a package tour none of us actually sign up for. We never even get to see the brochures, the itineraries, the promises of romance and revelation all involved know are false. At the risk of getting utterly banal, all of us are travelers. Or are we mere tourists, stealing snapshots as we move through our personal history’s pre-ordained scenic viewpoints?

Not that I claim any special aptitude as an adventurer or even a backpacker, bad packer, on my own meandering expedition. I certainly never aspired to be a travel writer and never took a course or got a degree, advanced or otherwise, in this doggedly amateur profession.   In truth, no person could be less qualified or possess less natural aptitude for such a vocation. Every aspect of the process fills me with dread. The night before a trip, I am up all night in a state of apprehension, anticipating nothing but the anti-thrilling. I can’t stand saying goodbye to cozily familiar set of walls, to own bed and kitchen, the annoyances of living out of a suitcases, with seemingly instant losses in scissors and socks, the terror of airports, the turbulence rocking a tin can high off the ground, and worse still, the sight of those mediocrities of fellow beings one might have to face mass death with.

Still worse, on arrival, the traveler is forever that rare sort of human who has purposely put himself or herself at a disadvantage, in a continual state of being one step behind, out of touch and short on basic information, befuddled and benighted, the ultimate outsider but without any of the nobility that’s supposed to come with the job. It has always astonished me that I could make a living from doing this and even more that so many folks would actually set out to spend their hard-earned money on doing such things and putting themselves in such awkward positions willingly.  See the world? Why bother? It just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, when a lot of what you see leaves you wishing you hadn’t.

Yet I may have always been fated for this calling. Back in the fourth grade, or maybe the third, all the kiddies in my progressive Manhattan elementary school were charged with writing a first crude report on any country of their choosing. Most of my classmates, as I recall, took the easy route to places like Canada, Great Britain – who invented the “U.K.” anyway, when and what for? — or daringly, Costa Rica. I picked Chad. Where? Wha?  Purposely, I headed toward the most obscure and desolate spot on the map, a veritable vacuum in the midst of civilization, some nearly unknown mid-African mess, a nowhere more than nation, entirely left off the posters on travel agency walls. I have no idea what I finally scribbled, probably in crayon, or what photos from those Google-less days I might have been able to paste down on pastel-colored construction paper. There was a big lake of the same name in Chad’s uncharted expanses, apparently, big wastes of sand and small numbers of life-wasting herders. Yet clearly I was already showing myself tragically drawn to the so-called “exotic,” future cause of much of my inspiration and all of my downfalls. If only I’d been satisifed with the New York corner candy store where the salted pretzel sticks still came out of a jar at two for a nickle.

Since that fateful report back in 1959, I have never made it to “real” Chad on my own. I don’t think I ever proposed it, knowing it was so unlikely that Vogue or Conde Nast Traveler would really want to travel that far beyond their readership’s predictable resort-laden wanderlust confines. From my cousin, a journalist sent there once to cover some interminable civil war, I heard that V.I.P.’s in Chad’s capital (quick quiz: N’djamena, formerly Fort Lamy) were housed in the only supposedly five-star hotel, only to find that rows of gleaming new toilets were left in the hallways, so far unconnected for use. Had he been exaggerating? It made a good war story anyway, a great souvenir of the road less, or hardly ever, traveled.

Perhaps even back then, barely out of knee pants and more interested in Mickey Mantle’s batting average than discount air fares, I may have sensed that whatever could be found “out there” had some deep and unspoken connection to explaining who I was “back here” – and that the travel writer is someone who deals in, and brings home, the kind of facts that I could never find in my grade-schooler’s Encyclopedia Brittanica.