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.