The rest of the world will always see you as they see your country, and you will see yourself, in a way you never did at home, as a child of the land that raised you. There isn’t a place on Earth where you won’t stand for a set of values.
I began believing in ghosts early one morning—at what would have been dawn if Antarctica bothered with dawns—on the bridge of the National Geographic Explorer.
There comes a time in the Heartland when you look about, take note of the pastures & silos, shopping malls & Main Streets, and realize you’ve all but exhausted your resources. When this notion came over me, I knew there was more of the Midwest to scour.
Have you been following Wave Books’s “Great Indie Bookstore Tour?”
From 1962 to 1963, before he wrote a famous novel about Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson traveled through South America as a journalist. Fifty years later, Brian Kevin retraced his steps and wrote about it in The Footloose American. Shortly thereafter, Nathan Gelgud illustrated the whole beautiful mess. (h/t randomhouse)
When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.
In 2012, the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto, on the occasion of Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday, went to North Korea for a fifteen-day trip. The experience led him to write a travel memoir, Inside the Secret, which you can read in serialized form online at Ninth Letter magazine. You could also read Pulitzer laureate Adam Johnson’s new Granta essay about the country.
In the new Granta, Adam Johnson writes about the mind-bending experience of traveling to North Korea, an experience which informed his Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son. Perhaps the saddest anecdote — and there are a lot of sad anecdotes — is the one about the North Korean tour guide who couldn’t believe the author didn’t want to buy knockoff goods.