MENTAL LANDSCAPES

“The farther one travels, the less one really knows . . . “ Beatle George Harrison once intoned, in a perfect distillation of Eastern wisdom.

Today, this seems more true than ever — more than he or any of the sages of immobility could have envisioned – and not just from some transcendental point of view. On the one hand, we are more enabled to experience many of travel’s more salutary aspects from our desktop; on the other, the experiences or immersions we seek out through traveling are less and less in evidence.

This has led to me to start daydreaming about creating virtual tours to “mental landscapes.” By this, I mean that the worlds all of us imagine when listening to say, Indian classical music, or reading a novel set in the Australian outback, are at this point far more exotic, strange and startling than anything we’d encounter in actual places. The India that echoes in the beat of the tabla or the drone of the tamboura is eternal, ethereal, contemplative, evocative of glinting jewels, happy gods, mad gurus, mysterious princesses. When we land in the real India of the 21st century, we immediately have our sniffing tourist noses rubbed in such disillusioning aspects as Indian gas stations, Indian highways and, as of recent developments, Indian shopping malls. Substitute any country you like.

When I interviewed master travel writer Paul Theroux awhile back on a visit to Bangkok, and asked him where he thinks the “exotic” now lies, he did make the salient point that it’s the consciousness of the people in a 7-11 convenience store in Thailand (found on every corner) that matter more than the 7-11 and all its shelves of Lay’s potato chips. In other words, maybe the kid chugging a Coke next to you still believes in burning incense before graven images. But the author also admitted that real travel, as asserted in a film made by one of his sons, might lie at this stage of history only in dangerous war zones.

It’s easy to make fun of the “bad mood” school of travel writing that I unwittingly joined (and Theroux did much to found). Yet perhaps it was about more than a personal predilection toward kvetching and disappointment; perhaps it was even prophetic. “I can know myself only through disaster,” I once wrote. Is not the opportunity for the disastrous, and all the self-learning that can bring, the only thing left that we can’t get from scrolling Trip Advisor? (The triple-negative seems appropriate.) Maybe we really can travel farther through cultural telepathy and by bringing the distilled essence of distant places home through intellectual adventuring.

On Authenticity

The other night I was taken to La Siesta, billed as the only Mexican restaurant in Lisbon. (That’s Lisbon, Portugal – the original, folks, and not the Lisbons of Ohio or South Dakota that come up, to hilarious effect, whenever I Google to find a bookshop.) It seemed a welcome change from the usual local far of salted codfish variants, potatoes and soggy greens. Everything gets old after awhile, even the freshest fish known to man.

Of course, I kept expectations low for an establishment whose main draw was its calming view of the mouth of the River Tejo, where the sombreros on the wall looked decidedly mass-produced and not a single person of Mexican origin could have possibly ever entered the kitchen. (In one such Hong Kong mixed-Mex, I had bitten into a microwaved burrito only to find its filling still frozen hard as an Aztec pyramid.)

So I wasn’t surprised by the runny guacamole, more soup than dip, that was obviously store-bought, the tacos in flower-shaped pastry cups, a puree of black beans too blended to taste refried (all at insanely unjustified prices). When I asked for spicier salsa, the waiters, mostly Africans from Portugal’s former colonies, had no idea how to respond. La Siesta did provide a house mariachi band, though with only two members. Upon my testing, their limited repertoire did not extend to Mexican standards like “Guadalajara.” Then again, we diners were far from Guadalajara, perhaps with good reason.

For the millions of faux replicas of different cuisines world-wide, this one ranked decided in the middle. I tried not to calculate how many such disappointing outposts I had visited in my life. (The Swiss yodelers of Seoul, Korea was one travel writing colleague’s fave.) But what did surprise me here, as in many others, was how full the tables were, and how much the unaware and uninitiated seemed to be enjoying their candlelit dates with canned dreariness. Perhaps they really didn’t know any better (though in an age of migration, jet travel and Internet recipes, this seemed unlikely). More likely, my superfluous demand for authenticity is simply as overrated as it is underappreciated. If you take the actions of humanity as polling results, then the vast majority of us would really rather have our meals, experiences and cultures watered down, boiled down, dumbed down, mediated, packaged for easy access, plated for simple digestibility. Never mind the insistence of hipsters and “new age” travelers that something, maybe everything, is lost each time we give in to the shortcut, the guided tour, the purposely bland.

Authenticity, it turns out, is a bit too bony, gritty, hot and threatening for most of us. Real is what we say we need, fake is what we crave.