And So It Goes is getting back to its roots with today’s guest post. And I for one am thrilled.
Richard C. Burke is a professor of English at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he has taught since 1985. He has traveled widely, beginning with a junior year spent in England in 1972-73, but never more so than in 2017, when he saw Vietnam, Cambodia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, China, the UAE, Russia, and Kazakhstan.
In his last trip, he spent the fall of 2017 in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching literature at the Kazakh-American Free University. He also lectured in Shymkent and in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Dr. Burke and I exchanged a few emails before he left and when I suggested he guest post upon his return, he agreed. Yay, me!
What I like most about the post he submitted, is that it focuses on that early stage of travel, what I called — and have since learned many call — the honeymoon phase. Peace Corps volunteers generally experience this for the first two or three months in country. Check out the end of Chapter Five in my memoir, where I describe the end of my honeymoon phase.
Take it away, Richard.
Travel takes us to the new and unfamiliar. And we have to deal with a place that we have imperfectly anticipated. This encounter with the unaccustomed can be anything from a revelation to a collision. On my first venture overseas, excitement at being in London was tempered with the quickly arriving realization that England was not, in fact, the enchanted kingdom of my adolescent imaginings. My first impression was a mixed one.
But there are occasions when we come to a new place and find ourselves filled with delight. This feeling isn’t something we choose. It happens to us, and it’s something more than just pleasure or satisfaction. We find a resonant charm in our surroundings, an easy welcome, a sense of rightness and that this is the best we hoped for from our trip. Wandering or sitting, we draw joy from the cityscape, the natural beauties, the sounds of foreign voices, the friendliness of people in shops, the quality of the food, the abundance of flowers or churches or bookstores or public toilets. We’re not just fine. We’re pleased beyond words.
A single feature—St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, say, or the uncanny flow of traffic in Saigon—can’t create this delight. Our joy emerges from the beauty and appeal of many parts of the whole. And it’s like a sunny moment in London: neither its arrival nor its withdrawal can be anticipated or controlled.
A friend describes this experience as the traveler’s honeymoon. I’ve experienced it in Prague and Barcelona, among other places. Both cities have architectural splendors that surprise and enchant, that can somehow leave visitors simultaneously slack-jawed and beaming with happiness. And then there’s the food and the art and much, much more. (Even the prices can contribute to this effect.)
Most travelers’ honeymoons fade to a calmer pleasure (or less) within a few hours or days as the high spirits engendered by the early going give way to a more balanced range of emotions. Only rarely will that sense of the marvelous endure for the whole length of a trip.
Last fall, I spent four months in Kazakhstan, and the traveler’s honeymoon never ended for me. I arrived at the start of September, full of uncertainty and with a very imperfect notion of what to expect. But beginning with the first morning and the friendly guys who helped me buy a local sim card, I was delighted. Over time, that effect was sustained by the great people I met and taught and worked with, and by completely ordinary things: the daily walk to work and back, the frequent trips on the rattling buses, the familiar vendors at the outdoor markets, the taste of shashlik, even the over-hot radiators in my apartment that required me to keep vent windows open even as the outside temperature fell below zero. These never lost their appeal for me.
I lived in Ust-Kamenogorsk, in the far east of the country, a Fulbright Scholar teaching literature at Kazakh-American Free University, and my traveler’s honeymoon lasted until I boarded a plane for home. It still goes on, in fact.
It’s not that I thought Kazakhstan was magical in some way, or that Ust was a fairy-tale village (it’s a city of some 300,000 where metallurgical industries predominate). But for four months, I retained a deep delight in being there, living amidst friendly people, successfully navigating the public transportation system, seeing sights both marvelous and mundane, enjoying my students and colleagues, and on and on.
Life there wasn’t flawless. Getting the bank to exchange the 10,000 tenge notes I got from their ATM for something more negotiable was regularly an awkward challenge. I disliked the way rain pooled up at intersections, making the walk to work a messy business. But for the most part, I experienced Ust and Kazakhstan through a glow of elation.
How does the traveler’s honeymoon happen? Wherever we might experience it, the local people certainly aren’t living in a state of uninterrupted bliss. So what are we seeing and what are we missing when we’re caught up in this cheerful sense of the place?
First of all, we’re romanticizing the place based on expectations that we’ve brought with us and the best of its most visible features. We try new things, meet new people, compare what we’re seeing and doing with the oh-so-familiar routines of home, and we find that we feel good. Why this happens sometimes and not others, even when we truly enjoy a trip, is a mystery of the emotions.
Unless we are corporate or military marauders, we normally travel with a degree of innocence, a relative freedom from disagreeable knowledge. Where we can, we tend to ignore disagreeable realities: oppressive governments, worrisome economic problems, and, above all else, the day-to-day irritations and frustrations that exist everywhere.
Our enjoyment of a place is not contingent upon everything that influences the quality of life there (if it were, what city would be immune to our concerns and criticisms?). We have to be able to deplore the poverty and corruption that beset Cambodia and nonetheless stand awestruck in the midst of the Angkor temples. If we can’t, there will be no traveler’s honeymoon for us.
We travel for experiences, and we first process these at an intuitive rather than an intellectual level. Gazing at the domes of St. Basil’s or wading through a flood of traffic in Saigon—or riding a tram in Ust-Kamenogorsk—our spirits may rise beyond anything we can explain. Confusion, anxiety, and fatigue are commonplace for travelers, even on good trips. But not inevitable. Sometimes, if our experiences are mostly positive—if we encounter cheerful bus conductors rather than high-handed customs agents, if we find we actually like shubat (fermented camel’s milk), if Stalin-era apartments turn out to be handsome and comfortable—we may find ourselves enjoying the traveler’s honeymoon.
During my time in Kazakhstan, I learned a great deal about the country, its past, its culture, and its people. I had plenty of time to grow disenchanted. But somehow I didn’t. The country I experienced day by day remained (and remains) a joy right to the end. The long-enduring traveler’s honeymoon: it’s greatly to be desired.
But, oh! it makes leaving difficult.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Richard, and giving us an intro to your semester in Kazakhstan. You’ve started us off well, recalling your honeymoon phase in country. It’s such an important part of any world travel and often misunderstood.
I’m eager to see what questions my readers will pose to you and know you’ll be popping-in in-between classes to field them while I’ll be grandmothering in Ohio. Again, my thanks.
You can read more of Dr. Burke’s biography on his Lynchburg College faculty webpage.
How about you? Have you experienced this phenomenon that Dr. Burke describes?
NEXT WEEK: To Vote or Not to Vote, That is the Question.