is a terrible and wonderful thing to be an outsider.
is to step outside. Leaving affords an opportunity rare in
my insulated world: a chance to be completely out of my depth.
Even when I travel with someone familiar, as I did recently
with my wife, I may find myself in situations beyond my understanding.
In such moments, at risk, I gain the world.
understanding' I mean more than a simple intellectual failing.
The challenges of travel, after all, include the trivial,
such as the inability to follow instructions or read street
problems are to be expected, they are expected. Confronting
them, the traveler is reassured by the poverty of their scale,
and that of their solution: buy a phrasebook, learn to read
Devanagari, perform every action with the right hand. No problem.
If I get on the wrong train at the border, I will simply go
in a different direction. No problem.
phrase I learn in many languages is no problem. No problem,
because my life will parse itself into the paragraphs of travelers'
narrative either way. The greater the snafu, the greater the
dryness at its telling. 'That reminds me of this time,
in the desert outside
discomforts of dislocation are trivial because they are more
than compensated for by the comfort the traveler takes in
overcoming them. They do not dislodge my ego; au contraire,
they ingratiate themselves to it with borrowed familiarity.
They place me in a narrative: I catch myself thinking, this
misunderstanding, that fiasco,
is one I have read about. I congratulate myself that in proving
equal to such woes, I join a fraternity of the worldly.
I collect from these moderate failures is only moderately
I travel and come home with only it to show, the trip was
course, if this is as far as I get, I never really left.
fortunately, the world conspires, and I am shocked into a
moment of genuine presence. The occasion is often a personal
failure of fundamental understanding, where understanding transcends
the grammar of associative consciousness.
characteristic of these moments is that I get that I don't
it is not easy. I am a prisoner of my ego and my autosycophantic
confidence in my own intuitions. A
willing prisoner, for I worship my intuition.
I travel in a different culture, intuition is a false god.
One very hard to dislodge: it has features so familiar I forget
it is there. It is woven into and underpins my ritual habits.
It is the idol packed most carefully in my pack. Understandably:
I want to believe that I understand where I am.
is necessary if I am to see the world outside my simplifying
representations of it.
the situations I am interested in, that I push myself to find,
that I most fear, are those that defy intuition and stymie
comprehension. These are often occasions of acute humility.
I have returned to Asia is its manifest difference. I have
an undergraduate's hazy understanding of Orientalism, but
I intuit that my romanticization of its difference is perhaps
an example of it. So be it, if that's what it takes.)
I seek to be shocked into leaving. It is a goal in the same
way that insight is a goal of meditative practice. Some of
the koan-like paradoxes are parallel: how does one intentionally
put oneself beyond intention? Beyond everything. Beyond
home and habit.
my answer has been to shut up and listen.
To sit for as long as I can, as silently as I can.
in those moments, I do not capture what I witness. I do not
witness what I record. But the recording is preserved as a
sign that points to what I will quickly forget.
home, my mind filled with the everyday, I have only these
recordings. Every once a while, I remember to listen, and
slip away. Surrounding myself with them, I remind myself to
attend to the world.
this project is about sharing these things.
to my recordings is not to visit the places where they were
made. At best, though, listening creates its own occasion