“You see me, my pimpin’s in 3-D. I take ya ta places you only see on TV.”
~ Ludacris, Pimpin’ All over the World
Fine French cuisine tastes just as delicious outside of France. Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s, and Monet’s works are found in museums all across the United States, not to mention the Internet. The same animals witnessed on an African Safari or Amazonian trek are consolidated in zoos, and the National Geographic and Discovery channels enable observing these animals in their natural habitats.
So why do people travel? Vacation that’s a refreshing respite from daily activities does not need to include travel. Is it simply to fulfill a personal fantasy – to flaunt money while casting oneself as exotic?
“Sex – The poor man’s polo” – Clifford Odets
In Goodwill Hunting, the village sage, Sean Maguire, begins to answer this question when confronting the brilliant, impudent, and troubled protagonist, Will Hunting, about the flaws of his arrogant persona.
You’ve never been out of Boston. If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him – life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.
To Sean, traveling is about expansion of personal tastes and perspectives resulting from the integration of sensory details – beyond what’s controlled by the eyes and ears – to how one perceives a place. It’s about walking with a map in one hand and a camera in the other through Parisian streets and experiencing cigarette-smoking, espresso sipping fashionistas peer at you, judgingly, through tinted shades. It’s about dribbling a soccer ball, shirtless, down sun-drenched Ipanema beach, drinking out of a coconut while watching freakishly athletic Brazilians play soccer volleyball as women in string bikinis pass you on either side with an ocean dotted with surfers in the background. It’s about sweating on a mountain bike in Alberta, and breathing in air that’s as fresh as the view is pristine. And it’s about learning your 67 year-old mom still has the guts to hike up a 2.5-mile canyon trail lined with precipices. Or that your bilingual roommate is liquid smooth with the Spanish ladies in Miami. It’s about a place, and how you make that place your own.
The travel experiences above are easy to romanticize. Both in the moment and when reflecting, the wholesome beauty is relentless. I’d argue, however, that experiencing the fruits of the developed western world yields diminishing marginal returns regarding expansion of perspectives; after a certain point, going from one nice place to another expands one’s tastes, alone. One’s knowledge of fine wines.
“Type 2 fun“: An activity that is only fun after you have stopped doing it
The most immersed I’ve ever been in a non-Western culture came this past summer in Japan. Few people spoke English, and almost as few were literate with Latin numerals. Getting from point A to point B was a pain – I was white, deaf, dumb, illiterate, alone, and, thus, easy to take advantage of. Descending Mt. Fuji, I couldn’t understand any signs and hiked 6 kilometers in the wrong direction. The only reason I didn’t catch hypothermia that night was because my charades were good enough to convince a drug store clerk to call a cab driver who ended up driving in $90 dollars worth of circles before “remembering” where the train station was. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, I’d booked a bed in a $10/night downtown capsule hotel. Sound-proof walls for my 6 x 4 x 3 laundry machine of a capsule would have been nice, and not just to buffer snores – the hotel was located in the heart of the red light district, so many of my neighbors were shacked up with prostitutes all night. Many of the most memorable parts of that trip were not fun. But the opportunity to not have fun was fulfilling.
And I realize that there are many places far more different from the USA than Japan. Places where childhood education entails learning how to heard cattle to an oasis or train birds to kill foxes, not memorizing multiplication tables. Jurisdictions where democracy is a foreign concept; where brainwashed residents believe their tyrant rulers are deities. To optimize travel’s value on a personal level – to expand perspective, not simply taste, as much as possible – experiencing these less comfortable destinations is imperative.
So in the spirit of Chris Jeon, the UCLA math major (picture above) who traveled to Libya towards the end of his 2011 summer vacation because he “thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” – and named in honor of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a harrowing boat trip down the Congo River – I present the pinnacle of a counter-culture vacation: The Heart of Darkness Tour.
During this three-stop journey, activities beyond eating and sleeping in hotels with armed guards are limited. The goals would be three-fold:
(1) Interview locals about first-hand accounts of depravity;
(2) Experience a breed of fear that’s foreign to anyone who’s never been deployed for war; and
(3) Witness as much of the chaos as possible without getting raped and/or murdered.
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary
Summary: Kindu is a jungle town located in east-central Congo on the Congo River, where more rape and murder has occurred over the past two decades than anywhere else on the planet.
Logistics: October 5, 2014: Flight from Dulles (IAD) to Kinshasa (FIH), with a stop through Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) – 21 hours and USD$1,000. With the assistance of a travel agent, book a roundtrip flight from Kinshasa to Kindu.
Heart of Darkness (HoD) Resume:
“I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary
(1) DRC was recently home to the The Second Congo War (1998-2003), often referred to as the “African World War”, in which 5.4 million people died, making it the deadliest war since World War II. According to 2009 estimates, 45,000 people per month may still be dying in Congo, and 76% of people have been affected by conflicts.
(2) DRC ranks 154th out of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.
(3) The prevalence of rape and sexual violence in eastern Congo is considered the world’s worst. During the war, an estimated 200,000 women were raped; and, even since the war, large parts of society deem violence and sexual enslavement of women and children as normal.
Summary: Children are forced to torture and execute their parents here. Picture a slow and painful apocalypse. Mogadishu is the closest thing to hell on earth.
Logistics: Fly from Kinshasa (FIH) to Mogadishu (MGQ) on October 12th 2014 with layovers in Ethiopia and Djibouti – 19 hours and USD$1,500.
“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary
(2) In the words of Conciliation Resources (2010), Somalia’s 2 decades-long conflict “has mutated from a civil war in the 1980s, through state collapse, clan factionalism and warlordism in the 1990s, to a globalised ideological conflict in the first decade of the new millennium.”
(3) In the words of Wikitravel: “Mogadishu still remains very dangerous due to high petty and violent crime rates… The city also remains in great danger of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who manage to get past the security checkpoints around the city. Walking the streets of Mogadishu remains very dangerous, even with armed guards. Tourists are emphatically discouraged from visiting Mogadishu.”
Summary: Yemen is a poor, dusty, desert country where terrorism and Islamic extremism reign supreme and 85% of the population is addicted to qat, a narcotic stimulant. Water scarcity and civil unrest are serious issues.
Logistics: On October 20th, 2014, fly from Mogadishu (MGQ) to Aden (ADE) with a layover in Istanbul – 18 hours, USD$1,000. On October 21st, 2014, fly from Aden to Sana’a for USD$100. On October 26th, 2014, return to Dulles from Sana’a – USD$900, 24 hours.
“It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary
(1) Yemen ranks 163rd of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.
(2) In the words of Wikitravel: “Travel to Yemen is strongly discouraged due to a state of severe political crisis, as well as a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence, and general lawlessness. Terrorist groups actively target tourist groups, with targeted suicide bombings and armed ambushes occurring yearly since 2007.”
(3) A desert country with naturally scarce fresh water resources, the nation’s addiction to qat, a water-intensive narcotic, stresses water resources even further and makes decision-makers even less rational.
In conclusion, the Heart of Darkness Tour might not be fun in the moment, but it is certain to expand the surviving traveler’s global perspective. Far more so than determining whether your favorite part of France is the fine Parisian dining, skiing in the Alps, or sunbathing along the Riviera. But don’t worry. The Heart of Darkness Tour is still expensive, so people can still hate you for it. Even if they’re not jealous.