The Traveling Writerby Eduardo Cervino
At night, airplanes’ navigation lights move like fireflies against the seemingly fixed starry universe. Planes are the writer’s wings. Authors with money travel to learn. Those without let their imaginations fly.
With thousands of planes flying at any given time, you might think the entire U.S. population is traveling domestically from city to city, or to other countries. You’d be wrong. Most people live insular existences, vicariously nurturing their minds with images from television and the Internet.
Only 3.5 percent of the US population has ever gone overseas. Americans think of themselves as a restless people, constantly on the move, but 37 percent of us have never left our hometowns. In the Midwest, that number is 47 percent. And nationwide, 57 percent live and die in their home state.
Talking heads feed the nation’s ego with notions of America’s exceptionalism. Politicians, too, but they have a darker agenda: If you believe you live in the best of all countries, change is unnecessary. Why rock the boat?
The writer’s mind, on the contrary, delights in exploring change. If not this, then what? If not now, then when – and how? How do people live in other lands?
In New York City, a fellow architect once told me, “There’s no civilization west of the Hudson River.” After working with him for several years, I concluded he lived in a cage in Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo, under the heading, “Homo-Non-Sapien Specimen.”
I have friends who can afford to get out and see the world, but despite their clever minds, show no interest in doing so. I have to admit that like these friends, some trees are magnificent, regardless of their immobility. It’s their nature to reach for the sky. Sadly, because of life’s circumstances, most people are forced to live like shrubs, as opposed to even the smallest trees.
Writers’ insatiable curiosity feeds their imaginations. They see a castle in Prague because to them, it’s more than a historic building: it is also the tattered cover of a story spanning centuries. He or she sees today’s tourists in suits and dresses and perceives the ghosts of men in capes and ornate collars courting ladies whose fancy hats with feathers galore shade the ivory skin of their voluptuous breasts.
In my case, beyond curiosity, necessity motivated my travels. My life’s push and pull, although rough at times, impelled my inquisitiveness about what lay beyond the horizon.
Once bitten by the wander-bug, there is no antidote.
What compels people to uproot their lives and relocate to another country? What do emigrants have in common? What does it take to break the umbilical cord to the Motherland and ignore the ancestral murmur flowing through our veins?
Humans, salmon, and other creatures carry in their heads a mystery compass pointing to their birthplaces. Some immigrants never go home, while others dream of it until they can resist not another day.
I say, “The place we are born is an accident of life. The place we choose to die is a decision of a free mind.”
When I find myself in foreign lands, American tourists who eat at McDonald’s and stay at Holiday Inn make me smile. Why do they travel? What are they afraid of?
On a recent trip abroad, an American friend invited me to dinner. He took me to a nice place, clean but sterile. Most of the other customers spoke English. The place was a hangout for American expatriates. “Best American food in the city,” he said.
Dinner was expensive, not because of the price of twelve dollars and change, including the tip, but because I had come four thousand miles to eat as I might at home.
My friend lives in a gated community where just a few neighbors are indigenous, and many of them make extra money as gardeners, drivers, and gofers for the English-speaking residents.
By the time of this dinner, I had already met adventurous expatriates staying at a hostel, the same as me. Their struggle with the local language led to self-deprecating jokes. I accompanied them to a couple restaurants, acting as their translator so that they could tell the owners in their language how much they enjoyed the food, music, and courtesies of the staff.
Soon expatriates, owner, and staff were shaking hands, hugging one another, drinking local beer and tasting, on the house, the café’s specialties.
Traveling to find our commonalities with people from other nations shrinks the world to the size of a family cottage. Still, if we insist on emphasizing the differences to be found in foreign lands, if we travel with an “us versus them” attitude, we reaffirm our prejudices, close the windows of our minds, clip our wings, and continue lurking in darkness like mice in a burrow.
Eduardo Cerviño, a Cuban-American writer, architectural designer, and painter, has published four novels and numerous short stories. He has participated in more than 100 art exhibits in the US and abroad. He is currently working on Crocodile Island, a semi-autobiographical novel. His extensive travels have taken him to Europe, North America, Central America, and South America. Learn more at his website.
I read recently, Eduardo, that on average Americans only ever visiting 1 other country in their lives. I beat the average by having visited 4 – and am privileged to belong to the 3.5 percent. I find it so hard to believe the number is that low. At any rate, my novel is about a man who travels around the world, so I am am hugely reliant on imagination, other world travelers’ blogs, and YouTube for my research. I did largely plan his travels around countries my friends had lived in or traveled to, and was able to get some significant input from people who’d actually lived in some of these places. Nevertheless, I am inspired – by my character and your post – to add countries and stamps to my passport! Thanks for your fabulous post.
Marcie (aka Laura O)
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Excellent post. I wish I could say I’ve traveled more than I have. I regret having lived in Texas and Arizona all my life and never mastered Spanish.
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Eduardo, you are so right! And as long as “We” are here, and “They” are there, the world can never get along.