In Ft. Worth, recumbent on my sister's reclining chair, chatting with my sister across her comfortable living room furnishings, I watched a girl-child snooze in my sister's embracing arms as I heard her ask of me: "What part of Mexico do you like the most?" She runs a daycare out of her home. This particular kid sleeps through everything. I hesitated. So many parts of Mexico, I reflected, and every one impresses me differently. I told her this by way of qualification. Then I replied, "I guess it would be the colonial towns in the center of the country."
Today, sitting in one of those colonial towns in the center of the country, sitting in Tequisquiapan, Querétaro, on a stone wall, before a sprinkling fountain, before a very old church, in a small sunny red-cobbled plaza, I told myself I would never hesitate at that question again. Completely ignorant to this little burg, I left Querétaro this morning. And I could not have been more stirred by my arrival. All the charm of colonial cities, it has, but with none of the traffic, the bustle. Calmer than Querétaro, it is, to the same degree Querétaro is calmer than Mexico City. Idyllic almost in air. You walk the rough stones of antique lanes without a thought of vehicles approaching. One car might trundle by--might--but quietly, slowly, unhurried. And the lanes are too narrow for two vehicles. And the sidewalks are too narrow for two people. Bougianvilleas climb the walls of two-hundred year-old buildings. Crepe paper stencils festoon the brickways, their pastels swagging from this old window casement to that. It's a simple quiet beauty that words only complicate. It has the affect of alcohol after a single swallow--That still tranquil sigh of the blood.
Travel empowers you. Travel gives you control over your destiny. When you really travel life is no longer a flood into which you have been swept, but a river down which you paddle, a wave you ride. Today I will go here, you decide. Tomorrow I will go there, you muse. Life does not dictate to you your life when you travel like this. You dictate your life. Today I exercised this power. I picked for what town I would leave Querétaro. I rose early. I bathed. I shaved. I bussed to the Querétaro terminal, traveled to Tequisquiapan, spent the day there, and returned. I was the master of my destiny today. And this just the first of some fourteen daytrips that will populate the rest of this journey. It went well. My notes were copious.
I thought of my sister again this afternoon. I was slogging back from the lavanderia with my armload of laundered clothes. I envisioned her there again, there on her comfortable couch, a sleeping child in her folded arms. This time, though, instead of Mexico, I was her subject. She asked, "Why do you like traveling so much?" And I snorted. I snorted because the question was so bald; because it was so obvious; and because no one had ever asked it before. I peered at my sister. I squinted at the child in her arms. I stroked with my fingertips the comfortable chair upon which I there reclined. I looked up at the protective ceiling under which I there rested. And there, through the windows, I glimpsed a picturesque tree-lined street. "I don't know," I answered disingenuously. "It's just interesting." And my sister smiled. And I saw that she would not press me. And I began to consider the real answer. But, "You want some cookies and milk?" my sister winked. For the child had begun to wake.
My sister resides in a newish house on an out-of-the-way street with her husband and three daughters in suburban Ft. Worth. There are two garages for the two cars. There is a lawnmower for the green grass. There is a dog bowl on the back porch so that Rumpus can lap water after frisking with the children. A tire swing is there, as are bright flowers under the eaves, as is a sparkle from the window panes. In short, my sister lives exactly the kind of life that my lifestyle strips from me. And, in short, this is the real answer to her question, to why I like to travel. I like having this comfort and protection stripped from me.
My sister's life is dangerous. Dangerous for me. For I know that if ever I let myself enjoy the comforts and protections of her life long enough, I would begin to let those comforts and protections define me. In some irresistible way, my center of gravity would shift from myself to all of those comforters and protectors. This process, once consummated, would render me a wholly different personality. You would need only jerk me out of my comfortable armchair to make me feel vulnerable. You would need only remove me from my picturesque street to make me feel threatened. My center of gravity would be outside of myself then. I would be dependent on things outside of myself for my sense of wholeness and security. I would be dependent on things outside of myself, in other words, for my sense of self.
This is an inescapable tendency. And for this reason I stay in motion. Movement keeps me free of those comforters and protectors, prevents them from adhering to me. A long journey like this one, a mobile lifestyle like mine wrenches them away, sloughs them onto the wayside. In motion, I have nothing outside of myself by which to anchor myself. I have nothing outside of myself to make a part of me. My only orientation is myself. My only being, my only existence, therefore, is within myself. My only center of gravity is me.
A very liberating exercise. For once these comforts and protections are stripped from you you realize their superfluity. And you realize that what once felt like vulnerability is really just freedom. And what once felt like a threat is really just life in its agitation. It is arriving at this realization, I think, that makes the true traveler. True traveling is not a leaving and a returning, not a week spent as safely as possible, not a time bracketed by airplane trips. True traveling is a constant progression, an ever-moving forward, an always-continuing on, and a willing confrontation with fear.
At the very beginning of this journey, days before I even scribbled the first of these words in that Ciudad Juárez cafe, in La Fonda Vieja, I met a young woman at a Tucson street fair. She approached me peddling translations of a sacred Hindu text. I asked if the book was the Baghavad Gita. Surprised by my query, surprised that I had read the Gita, she questioned me. We conversed briefly about religion. Then, seemingly out of context, she asked, "Are you a traveler, too?" And this, I knew, was what she meant. She was not asking if I had lain on a beach in Mazatlán (though I have). She was not asking if I had been chauffeured through a cathedral by a tour guide (though I have). She was asking if I had discovered this other more profound spirit of travel. She was asking if I had forsaken comfort and protection. She was asking if I had tapped into the joy of invulnerability. She was asking if my center of gravity was solely within myself. Knowingly, I eyed the young woman. "Yes," I responded. She smiled. We seemed to share a secret then. "I'm from Boston," she tittered. And I grinned. "I'm from southern Kansas." We exchanged a comradely nod.
This is an approach to life directly opposed to that of my sister's. Hers, necessarily, is a life of reaction. She protects her family from the discomforts and threats in order that they might survive the discomforts and threats. Mine, by choice, is a life of proaction. I suffer and engage the discomforts and threats that I might be made stronger by them, that I might be made more keenly myself by them. One approach is not superior to the other. They are just different. They are different kinds of living determined by what we want from life.
I could not have explained this to my sister orally. So I just said instead, "It's just interesting."
And then I rose to gobble my cookies.
And my cookies were of chocolate chip.
At some point in Mexico City I lost my fear of leaving my hotel room. I would shower. I would meditate. I would dress and depart and not even feel the slightest twinge of dread. I realized this one day--that the fear had gone. I said to myself that day: "Ah ha! Three weeks it takes to shed those jitters!" Even rising Wednesday morning to travel from Mexico City to Querétaro I felt no fear. Preoccupied with getting to the bus terminal, I was, yes. Preoccupied, too, with protecting my green bag on the metro. But no fear. I readily found a ready counter at the bus terminal then. I easily bought an easy ticket at the ticket counter then. There was the gate, the bus, my seat. And my fears had vanished--I thought.
This morning the bus from Querétaro to Tequisquiapan arrived at a dusty vacant lot. Its engine was killed. I squinted through the window. And then I squinted through the window again. Nothing. A dusty vacant lot. Bound for Tequisquiapan, we had been--I presumed. But where had we arrived? There was nothing. Nothing. Passengers began to fumble about. Passengers began to file off the bus. Passengers began to rise and to file off the bus onto the dusty vacant lot. Was this Tequisquiapan? Where was Tequisquiapan? What should I do? I handed the driver my ticket. I stepped off the bus onto the dusty vacant lot. I affected boredom. My fear had definitely returned. I watched my fellow passengers disperse.
Always when I am afraid, when I find myself in uncertain situations, I feign this boredom. Early I saw it as an effective and easy way to appear sure of myself. Absolute boredom. I waited. I might have lit a cigarette had I smoked. Within a minute I descried a sign through the settling dust. "Tequis.," it said. An arrow pointed. I footed toward the distant sign. I followed the arrow. Fear dogged my every step. In fifteen minutes though I stood in the Tequisquiapan central plaza. In fifteen minutes I stood astonished at the quiet beauty of the little pueblo.
It's always like this. You fight through the terror and beauty awaits.
So there is an ambiguity to truth, according to Shakespeare, or, at least, according to my interpretation of Henry IV, Part 1. It seems that our perceptions distort truth. It seems that appearance obscures truth. It seems that you can never really be sure if something really is as it appears, or, if it is what it purports to be. Not words, not even names can be relied upon for guidance. Everything is strangely relative, plastic. The meaning of love, for example, of nobility, of justice; even such broadly-experienced ideals as these depend in meaning upon how they are interpreted, upon whom is interpreting them, upon whom is their manipulator.
And I wonder: If I eventually fully comprehend this enigma of the greats will it be the same enigma that the greats comprehended?
And I wonder: And what if I fully describe my comprehension of this enigma? Will my description resonate at all with how, say, you, the reader, experience this enigma?
"What? Art thou mad? Art thou mad?" Falstaff shrieks in scene two of act five. "Is not the truth the truth?"
I bought four of Shakespeare's plays in a used bookstore before leaving Ft. Worth. My choice was determined solely by the availability of the Folger Library Series editions. I really like these paperbacks for their facing-page vocabularies and explanatory notes.
Othello, I got, and was glad of it. My favorite French actress is in a recent American film production of Othello.
The fourth play: Antony and Cleopatra.
A Tequisquiapan woman tidied the sidewalk this morning with an escobón. This is a bundle of twigs cinched together into a broom. A timid church bell tinged behind her as she did so.
And flower scent.