by Raju Peddada
"I do my best thinking while driving."
—Kary B. Mullis, Bio-chemist, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1993
"The farther you journey into your years the deeper you travel backwards to your childhood."
—Raju Peddada, 17 September, 2012
(Swans - October 8, 2012) Travel is the charting of the unexplored regions of our psyche. The really odd thing about travel is that the day we depart becomes a dainty day. It is no longer a torporific day like hundreds of others, and the moment we shut that car door, the familiar surroundings suddenly appear transposed. Even the familiar objects morph into something adventitious, fraught with mystery and propositions... each thing turns into a jack-in-the-box, charged with a story the moment we see it from a moving window. And somehow, during travel our collective neurasthenia is banished as we scope out in every direction -- attention amplified, reoriented and directed, triggering protean curiosity for more, and inadvertently, the days become replete with opportunities and possibilities as awareness is diverted into a million evocations. Simply put, distance travel is quality "contemplation time."
If we had the ability to catalog every thought that crosses our mind, we would be writing million-page journals and memoirs. Thoughts and memory flashes sometimes occur in a linear manner, or randomly, influenced by external or internal circumstances and impulses. Our sense of sight induces most of our mental peregrinations, cued by simple things like the color of soil, which triggers the memory of a previous life in some other far away place. Cognitive scientists and psychologists have evaluated that with all the sophistication of our sensitivity and consciousness, our senses are only able to react/reciprocate to and invoke images using only a microscopic amount of the energy that pervades us!
Images pass through our brains like electrical impulses, most of which vanish before we can record them. I tried it once, between two towns, and in thirty seconds managed to approximately record only thirty-nine disparate images out of many before I lost track, and took off on a tangent, back to my bus trips early in my career, in New Delhi, during the late 1970s. After minutes had passed, I became aware of the fact that I had lost count, and deduced why my bus trips had surfaced. It was Butch, picking his nose. Occasionally, in travel monotony, our consciousness tends to shut down from gratuitous contemplation. We do not always ruminate on big philosophical issues in that bubble of privacy, our car; rather, we more or less attend to our base and frail animal tendencies, which in our cognitive alacrity would embarrass us and make us cringe in revulsion.
Dilip was this irritant bus driver with a huge handlebar mustache who, I remember, serviced the dusty Tughlakabad Road from Mehrauli to the Indraprastha stop in Faridabad. And during these trips, despite my presence and our amicable palavering, he did something as if in complete privacy, habitually philistine, that remains etched in my psyche, even after thirty-three years. He deracinated his nose hair with his fingers, wet with globs of mucous at the ends, and stuck them up on the surface of a paper, where they stood indefinitely without falling. He had a whole forest of black hairs, appearing as surreal black spikes growing from small translucent mounds on a snowy field, and as he did this, I detected a perverse satisfaction in his face. He also scooped out his earwax with a blunt pencil, transferring the small caramel colored lumps onto paper, evenly spacing them. Strangely, I guess the obscene fetishes Dilip had kept him from drifting off on that tedious ten-hour routine. Subconsciously, we all have indulged in similar activities -- picking our nose, and an hour later, biting the same fingernails that had scraped the inside of the nose. We virtually drank a quarter-gallon of hand-sanitizer on our trip.
We were audience to some necromantic coincidences that even the most jaded individuals would find baffling. Late in the morning, a few miles after Mitchell, in South Dakota, Butch asks, "Daddy... how would it feel to go through clouds... can we touch a cloud?" Then, suddenly, as if Atlas wanted to explain this himself: we pierce this fog bank, where the visibility drops precipitously, forcing a dramatic abatement in speed, then we emerge into Zeus's pellucid courtyard, where the suspended highway snaked through the mist, with no land anywhere in sight, and at eye level, pink-gold clouds, like Nephelai, floated by leisurely against the grand azure. We gazed at this wondrous parade, all the way into Minnesota. Mani, after pondering a while, sarcastically goads the god-of-coincidences in exasperation: "Gaad... can anything I ask show up?" Later, in Wisconsin, I put on some club music by a '90s band called KLF to assuage Mani, who wanted to listen to their "train" song. Then, as if by miracle, as the band ratcheted up the percussion and lyrics: "... all aboard -- all aboard unn-huh..." this sign appears suddenly: "Wisconsin Dells Exit for Amtrak Station." Even I was rocked at this striking occurrence. It made Mani's day, and left me baffled.
The sensation of "being away" is to a great extent shaped by the infrastructure of a country. In the India of the '60s, I experienced the asperity of being away as the primitive infrastructure was an inverse blessing, by giving us a variety of corporeal experiences: the car breakdowns in the middle of tribal areas, with no chance of repair for days, or stalling by a jungle town with rampaging rogue elephants called Hazaribagh, meaning "forest of a thousand tigers," or waiting for a wobbly flat-ferry on a rapid river. Indelible! Travel there was indeed living up that moment, in the present, making survival decisions. On the other hand, the smooth cars and infrastructure here gave us an entirely different travel experience in our imagination. Travel in the U.S. is, more or less, the "think time." Here, every journey forward meant traveling backwards into memories.
Travel today is rather umbrageous, with our changing attitudes. Experiencing travel with our dad was organically rich -- his actions seemed to express "... every inconvenience is an unforgettable moment... an opportunity for amusement." He also, in many ways, showed that travel is a process of experiencing life in many of its iterations, sometimes inadvertently induced by detours or errors that had the potential to be mirthful and wondrous, as opposed to the impotent rage we experience if we made a route mistake today, even with our GPS gizmos. In many ways, our travel has become electromechanical. We have become scanned packages for shipping (travel) that are stored (motels) -- certainly not for an anatomy that carries a brain and a heart!
Trips with dad were indeed "deliquescent traveling" that dissolved away tedium and tension, for he simply turned problems to amusement. I remember an incident from 1965: our Fiat 1100 blew a gasket after the depletion of engine oil. Without any panic, he found a competent mechanic in that deep rural south, then proceeded to turn this roadside fiasco to a picnic by sending a messenger to our expecting relatives in Adavikollu, a few kilometers away, to arrange for lunch to be delivered while we waited on a bench by a roadside shack, with every villager passing by gawking at us in wonder. He simply found a way to adjust to all the curve balls that came our way during journeys. He was a serious, punctilious professional at the office, but in travel, he transformed into the vector of delights and distractions. He was our "alembicator," rendering our journeys into nourishing fare; he also was the anathema to Indian sedentism. He knew, instinctively, that travel was "crossing the frontier" into a sphere that mandated experiencing the present, not postponing it, to suspend our incarceration to obligations, and find release in the unexpected possibilities of the moment and its resplendence.
Beauty is difficult to explicate, as it is a self-evident value that thwarts any sort of query. Think about this: do you ever see a landscape call attention to itself... unless it's a billboard? As a matter of fact, beauty flourishes on being understated and quiet, and remaining unexplained and mysterious. Don't we all respond to the beauty of a landscape as a whole, before we contemplate on its constituents and disparate facts? In nature, beauty is a discursive force in the form of a pervading spirit, and our ambition to possess it, in any sense or iteration, becomes a crippling aesthetic experience. Beauty also happens to be the seed bed for the sense of wonder -- something that Rachel Carson explained like nobody else in her seminal classic, The Sense of Wonder. Also, how is it that everything we see comes packaged with a query inside of it? In travel, our heightened perception also results in heightened curiosity and beauty that induces us into travelogues, just to arrest the fleeting. "Daddy...look, look... are those shiny round rocks there volcanic?" "Yes, boys... more like volcanic glass... incongruous, aren't they?" "What's incongroos?" "...out of place..." "how did they get there?" and, "don't they look beautiful for just being out of place in the golden fields?" "Yes!" In unison.
Long trips have a way of inducing desultory as well as weird concatenations of thoughts. Here's one I would like to annotate -- it started with Butch's query: "What does battle-lust mean?" "Well, lust means passion, a craving of sorts... greed, like an appetite... like Mani's train-lust." Insidiously, the word "lust" slid me into autoeroticism, into my own carnality, as an erection materialized, triggered by the musty details of a woman I had experienced. An erection in the car can be quite discomforting in that low bucket seat, especially when our underwear transforms into the constricting agent. This discomfort cajoled a philosophical detour that led me to contemplate, thankfully mitigating the hardness, and how a two-hour fling years ago had shaped my entire life, gifted with a daughter who is an infinite pleasure, with mesmerizing intelligence.
The trip would have been devoid of cathectic vitality if it weren't for the little details: A distressed two-by-two-inch piece of paper that Butch was excited about for our collection; buttocks in all configurations; furtive glances that woman stole at men while with their partners; the geese flying in a "V" formation by exit 72 in North Dakota; the 27 road kills I counted between Rapid City and Oacoma; that blue butterfly in Montana; helping the kids clean up their old apartment; or those precious score cards from our target games.
Journeys ignite deep thought -- where would we be without some seminal travelogues that had shaped civilizations? The Histories from Herodotus; the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer; travels of Marco Polo, Walter Raleigh, or Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, and many others. It was a trip that Edward Gibbon took to Rome in 1763 that drew him to pen, perhaps arguably the best exposition on the Roman Empire ever. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published from 1776 to 1789. Ironically, it coincided with the rise of the American Empire. Travel induces more than just thoughts. We start out as white canvases embarking on a trip and come back as serendipitously expressive paintings. And travelogues are our attempts, maybe futile, at defeating the forces of oblivion.
And finally, after a week, I had to clean up the car for storage, and cleaning meant scraping off the bugs for a wash, starting with the fog-lamps well below the hood. With a soaped grit-sponge, I lay on a mat and started on the left light. As I moved to the middle of the plastic grille that houses the fog lamps, something deep blue fluttered in the breeze in my peripheral vision. A mental denial ensued, and, before my eyes leveled on it, I had realized what it was -- that iridescent butterfly that had arrested my attention for a fraction of a moment, with its beauty, as we drove out of Circle, Montana, on the afternoon of the 8th of July. It was wedged between the plastic frame and the right fog lamp, most of its thorax was impact-glued, with only the front quarter of its body holding the one-and-half wings. I stared at it, and let my body go limp onto the mat, looking at something that was simply beyond rationalization and quantification.
I stared at this eviscerated piece of beauty after almost 1900 miles, from nineteen days ago, and I could not find a reasonable or a plausible hypothesis as to how it managed to remain there. My gaze devolved to a glaze, as I involuntarily dissolved into a surreal and melancholic daytime nightmare that somehow, we were all butterflies, flying within our circumstances, unaware that we have no control at all, and there are windshields out there that we will never see in our hubris and denials till we thud against them and are extinguished. Zestful and beautiful lives in detail, yet inevitably ending up as wistful entrails.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)