The first time I went to China was in 1984. I didn’t need a map. You could only travel in groups back then with a government handler to navigate the way and guide thoughts. We travelled from Beijing to Xi’an in a decommissioned military airplane reserved for the exclusive use of Party leaders and foreign tourists. From Xi’An to Luoyang we took a train that required eight hours to cover a distance that now needs just half that.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
My grandfather, Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), was the third governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Pro-Statehood Party. When I was little, he used to say it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a sardine in the big blue sea. It was a reminder of how good we had it on our little island, and a warning against leaving it in pursuit of a bigger and impossible dream.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.
—Elizabeth BennettPride and Prejudice
Nobody wants to hear about your trip.
—Amherst College Professor of English Theodore Baird
We don’t travel as a couple anymore, Bill and I, except for the shortest jaunts to Boston maybe once a year, in the summer to the Adirondacks to visit Bill’s brother and family, and to the Berkshires, where friends sometimes take us to indoor concerts at Tanglewood (Bill doesn’t listen to music outdoors). So I travel on my own, but more and more rarely: day trips with a friend, twice-yearly visits to Oregon to keep in touch with son Will and family, once a year or so to the Washington, D.C., area to see my sister, rare overnights to New York. I also dig in more closely here at home—not as closely as Bill does with his piles of books and constant reviewing and teaching at Amherst College, but still, closely.
Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.
Zack was slim and handsome, of mixed race, and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his “protestant work ethic,” and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action.
I’m thinking of a classic geography text that explains how humans use rivers and mountains to mark their borders. The difference is that rivers help humans come and go from each other while mountains keep them apart. But from the textbook of my own travels, I know this isn’t true. The only real borders are those humans make themselves, in their own minds.
—Suddan Wisudthilak, Thai scholar
Two years ago, I stood aghast at the sight of a little island in the Moei River, the border between Thailand’s northwestern Mae Sot district and Burma, on which refugees from the latter had made their home.
“This is it—this is what they call a no-man’s-land,” said my friend, a local provincial administrator, who’d taken me there. “It’s not only that they lack a military force. For me, it also means there’s no humanity. Just look.”
It’s mid-January, and I’ve come to northern Michigan to see a frozen river layered with fresh snow. On winter days, a long time ago, a young woman skated across this river to be with the man she would eventually marry. She lived in Hancock, a town draped on hills opposite my vantage point in Houghton, which sits on highland and spills, like its sister, to the Portage River. Her beau lived on the Houghton side and worked in a hotel with cupolas and a grand ballroom, two blocks up from where I stand observing the expanse of ice. I can’t understand how she skated after a snowfall, or in bitter wind and blizzard whiteouts.
“…to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.”
“You need to be able to receive beauty.”
I am on the island of Patmos for Easter. Though I haven’t come for the holiday specifically. It so happens I’m off from work because it’s Easter, arguably the most important event in the Greek holiday calendar; Christ’s birth the less celebrated event as compared to his death as necessary prelude to resurrection. Patmos, the island where St. John the Divine is said to have had his vision of the apocalypse, generally feels mournful this time of year. Not infrequently it will be a sun-splashed day anywhere else in Greece while here clouds gather in their overcast greys. I am not a believer, though I’m hard put to call myself an atheist. Perhaps agnostic, with its Greek root, is closest to describing my feeling — that is, gnōsis (knowledge), and so agnōsto (unknown) would make me a believer in the unknown.