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Why Travel?

The summer before my sister and I embarked on our 10-month trip around the world I worked at a history museum in a small town in Maine. On occasion I’d share my travel plans with my co-workers. A typical reaction was, “But why do you want to leave Maine?”

After a few false starts, I finally decided on an answer: “I’ll be exposed to new ways of doing and seeing things. It will be good for me.”

As convinced as I was that I was right, I couldn’t fully explain. The subject would shift to strawberry shortcake or softball, and I’d be off the hook for the time being. But the question stayed with me: “Why travel?”

One of the first countries my sister and I visited was India. I fancied myself a seasoned traveler. But India took me by surprise. For the first time in my life, I found that I could take nothing for granted. From the back seat of a rickshaw that careened through crowds of cows, scooters, dogs, donkeys, camels, and taxis—always swerving at what appeared as if it would be a second or two too late—even the laws of physics slipped away.

Soon after my arrival I was strolling through the streets of Pushkar with my friend Dharmender. I had just finished a bottle of water and was impatiently scanning the streets for a trash can.

“Why not throw it on the ground?” Dharmender asked.

“I’ll wait until we pass a trash can.”

“Amy,” he said, in the same tone a child might use to announce to his younger sister that there is no such thing as a tooth fairy,

“There are no dustbins in India.”

“All of India,” he declared dramatically, “is one large dustbin.”

It’s not that I hadn’t noticed before that moment the piles of garbage (banana peels, plastic bags, old flip-flops) that lined the streets. It’s not that I hadn’t suspected Indians of the tendency to throw their trash to the winds. But only then did it dawn on me: Traveling was all about liberation! I would free myself of my backward, American ideas.

I flung my plastic bottle to the ground.

But it wasn’t long before I discovered that the attempt to become Indian was not only exhausting, it was impossible. As much as I might relish the outer trappings of Indian life, such as wearing a sari or sitting on the ground to eat, more subtle aspects of Indian society continued to baffle me.

One evening several months after the water bottle incident, a young man molested me on my walk home to the school where I was teaching English. The directors of the school staged an elaborate plot to catch the criminal: I was to retrace my path, with teachers posted behind trees every few feet along the way. They would jump out and tackle my molester, whom they were certain would follow me a second time. Only after this unlikely plot succeeded, and the criminal, when brought before the directors of the school, refused to reveal his identity, did my Indian friends turn to the police for assistance.

At the station, I understood why. The man was immediately dragged into a back room and a couple of officers began to beat him. As his screams filled the front room where I was waiting, I turned in distress to the director of the school.

“Why are they beating him? Do they have to beat him?” I demanded of her.

“Of course they have to beat him!” My question shocked her. “How else would they get him to confess?”

Groping for a response, I mumbled something incoherent about a prisoner’s right to remain silent, glanced again into her uncomprehending eyes, and gave up. I had managed to let go of the laws of physics, but the Fifth Amendment was another matter. Try as I might to be Indian, there was no way around it: I was American at heart.

In China, the last country on my itinerary, a new kind of amusement park had lately become the rage. Called “Windows to the World,” these parks featured small-scale replicas of famous buildings from all over the world: Bangkok’s Royal Palace, Germany’s Neuschwanstein, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Tower of Pisa. Shortly before I returned to the U.S., I visited one such park on the outskirts of Hunan’s capital city, Changsha.

As I gazed out over a fake lake that on one end boasted the Sydney opera house and on the other the pyramids of Egypt, I was again tempted to ask myself: “So why did I leave Maine after all?”

No, I hadn’t come all this way to become Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Japanese, or Chinese. No, I hadn’t come all this way for the sake of the Taj Mahal or the Summer Palace.

I recalled my friend Xiao’s reaction when I had jokingly scoffed at the concept of “Windows to the World.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “You Americans can go anywhere in the world, but we Chinese have only these amusement parks. This is the most we will ever see of the world.”

Only now have I begun to understand why I had been so touched by her words.

I realized that what I treasured most about travel was not that it gave me a chance to see novel things. Travel gave me a chance to look with new eyes on familiar things. Windows to the World was one thing; but windows to death, littering, the right to remain silent, and the right to travel were others. I was returning home a different person—not Indian or Chinese, but a wiser and changed American because of them.

That’s what the world has that Maine doesn’t: only from outside can you look back in. I mourned for Xiao’s lost windows.

 
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