At home and away

I’ve got a home.

This is convenient for a number of reasons, reliability and quietude being at the top of the heap. Those of us fortunate enough to own, rent or squat in a place we get to call our own are lucky to have the essentials of shelter, water and food covered in one place. But our homes are more than a simple repository for the checklist of human necessities. When necessary, home serves as a firewall between the frenzy of uncertainty that swirls around recklessly outside and the repose required to cope with it.

As I get older, I find I have an abiding appreciation for the predictable. It’s not sexy or adventurous, but it’s true. Excluding multiple daily exercises in relocating keys, wallet, phone, etc., I can usually find what I’m looking for at home. I can open the windows, and later I can close them. I may not smoke cigs in the house (this is a good thing), but I can go on the porch and puff away, without a shirt on if I please. In short, home is the place where we exact the greatest degree of control in the level to which we engage with the outside.

About 10 years ago, I got the travel bug and did my tour of duty as a long-haired, globetrotting backpacker in search of real expressions of the human experience. It was amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for — well, for the world. It was also totally inconvenient. I’m trying to stem my Early Onset Stodginess, but when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’ve been harboring a secret aversion to travel for a while, and I think it’s a pain in the ass.

Travel’s inconveniences hinge on our discomfort with the unpredictable, and, in some measure, the ironic point of travel is to make you confront the uncomfortable and realize you’re capable of dealing with it; the minor annoyances and enormous inconveniences of travel are often causally connected to the little flashes of humanity that are, in the end, the greatest boon to getting away from home.

On the absolute worst trip I’ve ever taken, I found myself on some swayback nag in the Costa Rican jungle with no one to talk to but a grizzled tour-guide named Don Juan who didn’t speak a lick of English. I was a wreck. When Don Juan told me to dismount and stand on a boulder in the middle of a waterfall for a picture amidst the breathtaking natural beauty, I just did what I was told. Standing there in the rain like Fortune’s Fool wearing a poncho and miserable countenance, I heard the click of the disposable camera. When I turned to mope back to my sickly burro, I slipped and vanished, ass over elbows, into the water. Essentially unhappy as I was, I didn’t need the old gaucho to tell me that all of it was pretty damn funny and that I probably needed to lighten up. I was glad to discover I was capable of levity in even the most uncomfortable situations.

In Spain once, a traveling companion and I went to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. We arrived very late and went looking for a place to sleep. After an endless string of maddening intercom conversations at every hostel in the city, it was revealed to us that there had been a big futbol match that evening and we were, as the Spanish say, “screwed.” We huddled together underneath a little cobblestone bridge down by the river and froze our little asses off. It was miserable. At dawn, we decided to ride a commuter train to warm up. We rode that thing out to the suburbs and back three or four times, and I think I’ve never slept so soundly in all my life. I was warm and content, and I slept.

The prevailing lesson seemed to be that people who travel for sports sleep in beds, and people who travel to see modern art sleep under bridges and on trains. Less obvious, though, was the understanding that discomfort is often fleeting and that, at home and away, comfort is usually most rewarding in its simplest forms.

While I’m a perfect candidate for the job, I’m not ready to be a hermit yet. When I do get around to traveling again, though, you can be damn sure I’ll be calling ahead for reservations.