Saturday, April 10, 2010
It all began in Rome, the eternal city that could make anyone fall deeply and quickly away from all of their Anglo-driven ethics of hard-work and stick-to-itiveness. Up until that point it was all good grades and the praise of others, but over there it was long wine-soaked lunches and pouring through the golden cobbled streets to nights of ceaseless and enveloping beauty. There was no return from that first journey, no way to go back to straight A’s and straighter conversations.
Upon returning home, this drive for a more paradoxical (as opposed to conventional) existence took the form of a new insatiable curiosity about the world. There was an abrupt shift in my chosen courses. I went from studying Core Biology and the Principles of Mathematics to The Politics of Gender, Is Development Sustainable?, Hurricane Katrina and American Politics. I brought the wistful sheathe of Rome inside myself in the form of new knowledge, challenges, intellectual frontiers.
Then we spent part of a summer in Ecuador, the most obvious next-step in a logical trajectory of naïve youthful idealism. There, we worked in an orphanage, and got our first taste of the truly comprehensive hopelessness of it all. With the bright glances of dozens of tiny little watery eyes, I truly realized how little we can do, how very much suffering exists, and the rampant and unfeeling disparity between the rich and the poor throughout the world.
This question has followed me through the rest of my journeys and into the present day. Why do we now (in remote villages in Tibet, for example) give up that which is healthy and sustainable (milking your own Yak, for instance) for the seething, all-encompassing tentacles of globalization and modern consumer culture (Chinese department stores, in this case)? Why leave the farm for the city? Why choose Pringles over potatoes?
After graduation, we stuck around for a few months of work to save up the funds and then took off to Europe, where aesthetic beauty abounds and this ugly aspect of humanity is hidden deep in the cracks of time and behind closed doors. This was the first time we fully committed to a migratory life - drifting over the better part of a continent (North Africa to Southwest Asia, the Arctic Circle to the British Isles) and breathing in its history, art, music, and food.
We gazed upon the ebb and flow of civilizations each with their time in the sun and each making the same mistakes as the one before. First the Greeks, then the Romans, the Franks, the Muslims for a while in the South, the Catholics, the Austro-Hungarians. But it was here in Europe where I added a new layer of complexity to the narrative of human hubris I‘d been harboring: with civilization comes art, music, architecture, poets and philosophers. Without Greece there would be no Plato, without Rome no Virgil, no Islamic Alhambra palace, no Sistine chapel, no Beethoven’s Fifth. Without the current empire there would be no Hubble Telescope, no Picasso, no Frank Sinatra. Can the destruction and war, alienation and pain be worth the sensation of standing before Leonardo’s Last Supper?
We returned from Europe and went back to work for a couple of seasons to prepare for another epic excursion to Asia. Across this vast continent we deepened our understanding of ancient civilizations, seeing the same problems, the same arrogance that brought down socities from the classical Chinese to the Khmer in Cambodia to the Mughal in India. Still, it was Asia that first bared to us the grotesque state of our own living civilization.
Our current empire differs from those of the past mostly in terms of scale and energy. Before, the most a single ruler could conquer was some part of a continent surrounding the capitol, but due to the exploitation of fossil fuels, our society (which I will call globalization, but it is called by many other names) knows no boundaries, and it is creeping across the earth like an odorless poison gas.
It is rapidly killing species, languages, cultures, poisoning water, air, land, destroying ecosystems, climate systems, and generally wreaking havoc on any people or resources it comes into contact with. Now, this isn’t anything new. Civilizations have been conquering and destroying their environments and other cultures for all of human history. Again, the difference here is purely the scale, which is global; and boy I saw the effects no where before so much as in Asia.
We saw tiger reserves in India that no longer had any tigers (poached by destitute Indians for the Chinese’s use in folk medicine), floated over coral reefs once abundant with life now bleached and colorless and smothered with plastic refuse and fishing line, worked at a refuge for gibbons (a kind of lesser ape) once ripped from their natural habitats to be sold as pets or circus animals.
I spent time in the homes of women from China to Vietnam to India, learning their food traditions which are slowly being choked by cheaper industrialized packaged foods. I watched Tibetan women, donning brilliant fuchsia headscarves, become captivated by the opening of a new Chinese department store. I saw the Dong people of China’s Guangxi province degrade their culture by putting on a song and dance show for the Han Chinese tourists coming to witness something exotic.
I mean, there are still pockets of pristine nature - as in Thailand’s Surin Islands, and some remaining intact cultures - like the Indians in the desert of Rajasthan, and these are incredibly brilliant and moving to see. But, they are the exception rather than the rule. It is like looking at the past, into a world so bright and diverse and exotic and clean and abundant that it makes the present look like a stinking heap of television and candy bars and smog and polyester clothing and plastic.
At the end of our Asia trip we took a brief detour to Taiwan, looking for jobs as English Teachers. We were thwarted for many reasons, the greatest of them being the global economic collapse, but mostly I just don’t think we were ready to give up the constant enlightenment of a nomadic existence. After weeks of failing to procure any decent interviews, we bundled ourselves in a chilly, gray Taipei hostel, looking out into the wall of smog and hearing the soft ever-present honking and revving of a place seemingly trying to impersonate a city, we thought about the globe, and our ever-dwindling pocket-money and where we would land next.
Running low on funds, we left and attempted to find work and settle down in San Francisco. This proved impossible as well. There were some offers of long-term babysitting for wealthy tyrants, or door-to-door begging for environmental organizations, but we could find nothing in this world that was worth our precious time. We do have only this one life to live, only one youth, only one chance to be healthy and childless and free.
We wandered over the vast and varying west, taking advantage of some of the planet’s last remaining intact ecosystems. Civilization came to the Americas late enough that large tracts of land were left uncultivated, not that that fact isn’t trying to be changed by members of our current civilization. So, we wandered around the national parks of the west, watching the buffalo roam and the stars light up the night sky.
After all of those countries, all of those lessons about civilizations and globalization, we were starting to get an idea of how exactly WE wanted to live. We found that the city is a place of alienation, anxiety, and detachment, but also one of culture, art and thought. A place to visit, we figured, but not to live. That way, we wouldn’t have to bare the constant strain of car horns and concrete, but would be able to put up with them when we do visit the world’s best cities, taking in their museums and symphonies and cafes.
It has become clear that the life we want is in the country (close enough to a city or town), with a little bit of land and a little house and a vegetable garden, some chickens, maybe even a goat or two. It is a simple life, but one filled with fresh food and quiet and natural beauty. So, we decided, there was no better place to study this way of living than Italy, the country where all our travels began, known for its traditional foodways and gorgeous pastoral landscape.
Once there, we hopped from farm to farm, pruning olive trees, fermenting wine, herding goats, learning the land. We met an array of like-minded people, all searching for that balance of solitude and stimulation, culture and nature, provinciality and cosmopolitanism. Here it was in front of us, the life we’ve been searching for: long meals and even longer discussions, fresh eggs and ripe tomatoes, and access to treasures of art and history and culture just a short train-ride away.
But there was one caveat. These people were all attempting to make their living from the land by selling their hand-crafted organic products. All of them were struggling. There remains too much competition from energy and machine heavy industrial food processing, which will always be cheaper than the product produced through care and individual attention. There is no way to compete with globalization, and no reason to wrack your brain trying to figure out how.
We would have to find a another way. A kind of existence isolated from the fear of an unstable system. Still trying to get a sense of HOW this can be done, we decided to get on with the business of doing it. Like pilgrims, we had finally had our epiphany. It took nearly four years, dozens of countries, several continents, thousands of pictures, lots of money, conversations, blog posts, sweat, courage, tenacity and self-reliance, but we finally got it.
With our resources mostly depleted and our hearts nearly ready to give up this nomadic, searching existence, we decided to head back home to make it happen. But before we went, we had to squeeze in one remaining journey, to the place where civilization began. We bound onto an entirely unsustainably-cheap flight to Cairo, and we began our journey into the Middle East.
All of our preconceptions about civilizations were ratified in Egypt. We saw the rigorously documented metamorphosis from simple agricultural people to an empire powerful enough to construct the first ever permanent monuments in all of human history, to build temples rivaling any that have ever been built since, and to erect the still-incomprehensible pyramids.
It was inside one of these feats of imperial power where our plans for domesticity became cemented. Buried in the depths of the temple Karnak, we became engaged. Although strangely incongruous, it was Regina Spektor’s song US that made the gesture coherent:
We’re living in a den of thieves
Rummaging for answers in the pages
We’re living in a den of thieves
And it’s contagious. It’s contagious. It’s contagious.
All of the ills of civilization, the anxiety, alienation, competitiveness, greed, over-consumption, lying, stealing, hatred, pain, they’re contagious. There’s no way completely out of it, no real dropping out, no escape. All we have to combat it is personal strength, knowledge, courage, and in this struggle we have each other. This journey, this battle, has now begun.