Back from Ubar or What to Read if You Insist on Staying Home (2004)

[O]ur passions are never accidental. We do not by chance…decide to specialize in epaulets   (Evan Connell, A Long Desire)

 

Friends of mine have a little house on a two-acre island in a small lake in quiet Ontario. I woke up one morning there and realized that from that point on, I would be going back – back in the boat to shore, back in my friend’s van across the border to the bus station, back on a bus to the train station, back in a train to the city where I lived, back on the metro to the station near my house, back in a taxi to my house. It amused me, that from that point I was merely retracing steps. As I was about to walk down to the dock, I realized I was on the very outer limit of the web.

In Women’s Ways of Knowing, the authors posit that women feel more comfortable being in the middle of connections (webs) while men prefer the edge. Perhaps one of the reasons I like traveling and reading about traveling, is that I get to go all the way out to edge and peer over. I rather enjoy edges, that moment you realize the limitations. I like ‘you can’t get there from here’ and all those Italian strikes that keep you stranded for days. I love the moment when the subway car goes underground and the annoying guy yelling into his cell phone suddenly pulls it away from his ear with disgust and shoves it into his bag. You get to the farthest point and there you are, stuck; you now have to wait, turn around, finagle, throw a hissy fit.

If I was going to be perfectly honest about it – I’d say close your computer and go buy Road to Oxiana, West with the Night, Three Men in a Boat, Caesar’s Vast Ghost and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I am so seldom able to make people do what they ought to, even when, perhaps especially when, I know what is best. Those are all real travel books, this is a semi-travel essay. But although I’m not promising enjoyment (go read Mark Salzman), you will get a little edification, like it or don’t.

The question is not now, not ever, “why travel?” The solar system travels, Earth travels, you travel. The question is why travel outside of those tiny, minuscule patches of territory you know. “Ahem,” says a voice in the back, “I have lived in Boston all my life, hardly minuscule.”

But do you know where the Tufts college students party, the best Bollywood theater, the real Italian place in Little Italy, where to get your eyebrows threaded, where the cops drink? Do you know Jamaica Plain and Watertown? A person could live in Back Bay their whole life and never know Quincy. Face it, you don’t really know your home town. You probably don’t even know your neighbors and, if you haven’t been paying attention, you might not even know yourself.

Yet, traveling is not the way to find yourself in any grand scheme: you go along with yourself and your main insights are ‘I hate grey carpeting’ and ‘McDonald’s has better pancakes than Burger King.’ People are always squawking “Paul Theroux” at me, well read his books – what are his insights? He hates it here. It is dirty and the people aren’t nice. And he also hates it over here. It’s dirty. And, quelle surprise, he hates this other place as well. In addition, he hates it over there, too depressing. And, by coincidence, he is unhappy here as well. The people who are impressed with this are mistaking indigestion for insight.

You will get those (very infrequent) moments of revelation, almost all of which will be exasperatingly saccharine. Like me waking up my first morning in Italy and seeing, through a thick fog, a stone wall which enclosed a grove of olive trees (olive trees!) with sheep grazing underneath.

I went to Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Provence because I was going to write my dissertation on Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell. Then, I spent the night in a sort of bed and breakfast place in Pathos and realized that after six months, I knew pretty much nothing about the Durrells and I would have to expand my focus to all travel writers. If you can’t fail little – fail big.

Most scholarly books on travel writing take some small selection and examine it closely, such as Janice Bailey-Goldschmidt’s and Martin Kalfatovic’s article, “Sex, Lies and European Hegemony: Travel Literature and Ideology,” which sounds like it covers everything a person would need to know. But is it only about European descriptions of travel in India until 1761.

When I was doing my dissertation on travel writing, I read all over the place: Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 2nd century B.C.; Egeria’s Travels, a European abbess’ account of her travels to the Holy Land c. 385 A.D.; Gustave Flaubert, Isabella Bird, James Fenton, Anthony Smith.

I ran through ’Abdallah ibn Battuta’s Travels in Asia and Africa: 1325-1354; Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, a Spanish soldiers’ account of his part in the defeat of the Aztec empire under Hernán Cortés in 1521; Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Other Travel Sketches and Back Roads to Far Towns, a Japanese Buddhist monk’s walking tours from the mid to late 1680s.

I adore the English canonicals: Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, 1897; Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, 1922; Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, 1969; Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, 1958.

I read the ones you have to: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, 1962; Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, 1977; Jonathan Raban, Mary Morris, Redmond O’Hanlon, Bill Bryson, and Pico Iyer. And the ones I wanted to: Mark Twain, Mark Salzman, Eric Hansen, Tim Cahill, Calvin Trillin, and Robin Magowan.

It’s a measure of my temperament that I deliberately avoided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark, 1814 and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1841. But I devoured J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal, 1932; Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, 1987; and Anthony Smith’s Blind White Fish in Persia, 1953. What heaven to find No News From Throat Lake by Lawrence Donegan, 2001, Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, 2006 and Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, 1999.

And then there are the immortals: Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, Wilfred Thesiger, Dervla Murphy (would someone please knight her? She would probably turn it down but, honestly, the gesture ought to be made); and dear, cranky Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, 1877.

I got my Ph.D. and moved to the Middle East to teach. While there, one of the places I wanted to visit was Ubar, a stop on an ancient Arabian trading route whose “refinding” is recounted in breathless, “Entertainment Tonight!” prose in Nicholas Clapp’s The Road to Ubar, 1998. I had thought at one point I was close enough to get to it, but it turned out to be much farther away (slavish attention to maps is the hobgoblin of little minds), but I promised myself that I would figure out how to get to Ubar before I moved back to the States.

This involved finding someone to watch the cat, deciphering out airline schedules, securing hotel reservations, faxing the tour company, getting the right visa: pedestrian, unromantic toils. I woke up on the momentous day and hit the first disappointment, I did not have a “real” tour guide; he was a perfectly pleasant guy, but he wasn’t local and had no good stories. Second disappointment – we weren’t going in a Land Rover. As far as I’m concerned, for land travel it is Land Rover or Land Cruiser pick-up or just stay home.

We drove for hours up through the mountains (I think Eden must have looked like this) and then along through the flat, desiccated landscape until the desert started.

The museum at Ubar was closed, so my guide decided to “show me” the Empty Quarter, the Rub al-Khali, an area of 250,000 squares miles of sand dunes. It is the size of France, Belgium and Holland with sand dunes as high as 925 feet. We continued on the road for a few miles, passed a small collection of derelict buildings, then onto drifting sand where the road disappeared. For about 50 yards. Then the car (did I mention it was NOT a Land Rover?) got stuck. It took us about twenty minutes to get unstuck, then the driver turned right around and we were back on the road, headed back to the hotel.

Perhaps aware that the day was not quite the happy culmination of a year’s hope and expectation, after an hour or so, he pulled off the road, navigating between rock outcroppings until he stopped in front of a small group of stubby, scraggily trees with peeling bark.

“Frankincense!” he exclaimed proudly.

Now this indeed was something. Unexpected and marvelous – to actually see the trees close up, especially since the lore is that they are rigorously guarded. Perhaps the driver took every single tourist to this stand of trees. But it was hidden from the road, without other tire tracks, desolate. A quest fulfilled and an extra, unexpected adventure: it was time to go home. Then I was home and what is there to do at home, except plan the next travel?

(photo M. A. Al Awaid)