My wife, Bridgit, and I were cruising down the west coast of New Zealand in a barely running car. It was the second half of our grand kiwi tour. We’d bought the car for next to nothing from another picker in the orchard where we’d just finished working. When the apple season started winding down, we began tooling around the islands, burning through the money we’d earned.
It was idyllic. It was also a lot of togetherness. As the days wore on, our conversations in that car became punctuated with increasingly blunt comments (mostly from Bridgit), like “I want you to know that I’m not enjoying this” and “Let’s not turn funny into annoying, OK?”
But public transportation was minimal, and tourist buses were expensive. And the islands of New Zealand are, we learned, pretty big. So the cramped old car was our only option.
Getting yourself from one place to another is one of the most stressful parts of traveling. You board the wrong bus. You pay far too much for a taxi. You miss your train. You end up in towns you’ve never heard of (and quickly realize why that is).
You can treat this as an annoyance or as an opportunity. Learning how people move themselves around can tell you as much about their city or country as its food or its art or its history can. It can change the way you see that place.
A few years after our New Zealand adventure, we lived in Bangkok, Thailand. Below our apartment window ran one of the city’s few remaining canals. I would sit and watch the big boats speed up and down them, barely stopping to let commuters jump off at the docks. The water was gray and garbage-filled. Yet children swam in those canals, and once we saw a 3-foot lizard crawl out of the water and into the trees. Somehow the canals still held life, and history. Gazing out my window, I would try to imagine the time when the waterways snaked across the entire city – when Bangkok was known more for its canals than for anything else.
These days, unless we blow a tire or miss a flight, we don’t really think about transportation. But for a long time, it was one of humanity’s greatest challenges. We moved from place to place so slowly and deliberately that there was even a saying: “The soul moves at the speed of a camel.”
Our modern ability to move abruptly from one continent to another must be one of the primary causes of culture shock. In the space of a few hours, we can find ourselves immersed in a world that, over thousands of years, has evolved differently from the one we left.
In Tanzania, I lived in a house at the top of long dirt road. I didn’t have a car, so whenever I wanted to go anywhere, I had to walk. At first, this seemed hellish. After a lifetime of getting around by car in the United States, walking seemed like an incredible waste of time and energy. Picking up groceries took half a day, sometimes longer. Running any errand, in fact, required a major expedition.
And yet, as a walker, I was a part of local life. After a few months, the hourlong trek to town didn’t seem so far. Besides, that road was how I met my neighbors, and how I got invited into their homes. It was how I found out who their children were. If I hadn’t been forced to walk, I’m afraid I would have stayed hidden away in my house.
The idea that the way you move through a place is key to how you experience it has been around since at least the mid-20th century, when French postmodern intellectual circles influenced, and were influenced by, movements such as dadaism, surrealism, lettrism, and situationism. Guy Debord, a theorist from this last camp, came up with the term “psychogeography” to describe the interaction of place and mind. According to the British novelist Will Self, author of the 2007 book Psychogeography, the idea was rooted in the French concept of the flâneur (sometimes translated as the “drifter”).
Psychogeography has undergone something of a mini-renaissance with Self’s book, which details epic walks he’s undertaken, including a stroll from John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens to Manhattan. Another, more scholarly, work of the same title by Merlin Coverly came out in 2006, and the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel landed in bookstores a few years ago. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.” I wouldn’t go so far as that, but I do believe that the way you physically move through a place profoundly affects your knowledge and understanding of it.
Figuring out how to get around, maddening as it may be, is a matter of figuring out the rules. And there are always rules. Not long ago, Bridgit and I were driving through France, reliving the lowest points of our New Zealand trip, when we realized that the names of roads didn’t actually matter. What mattered was the name of the towns the roads led to.
This learning curve can be as steep and treacherous as a mountain road – and full of icy glares from one’s spouse – but the satisfaction that comes with mastering the train or the canal or the bus, or even the car, can make the journey that much more rewarding.
One day during that tour of New Zealand, Bridgit and I pulled into a campsite overlooking the Tasman Sea. We were tired. It was late. There had been sniping.
We set up our tent and trudged up to the communal kitchen to cook dinner. When we came back, Bridgit tried to open the trunk.
“Do you have the key?” she asked.
“Um,” I said.
“Don’t tell me.”
I didn’t need to. Other than our tent and some dirty dishes, everything we had was in the locked car, including our only key.
The campground owner showed us how to jimmy the front door open. Once we were in, we pulled out the back seat and found a hole just big enough for one arm. I spent the rest of the night emptying the trunk – item by item – until we finally pulled out our sleeping bags and called it a day.
The next morning, the wind off the ocean was cool and fresh. I started digging in the trunk again and soon heard a promising jingle. Soon we were back on the road, which seemed bright and fast and full of promise.