Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why We Travel

I came back from the cruise to find it difficult to know what to tell people about my trip. My description of it as “interesting” seems to either leave people perplexed or feeling sorry for me for not having a “wonderful” vacation.

People want to hear about adventures in exotic places, but that often isn’t what leaves the greatest impression on me. As a photographer I’m looking for patterns in light and shape, but I think maybe I am really seeking the patterns that form the world itself; its geology an geography, flora and fauna, and – most of all –its people, their culture, and the places they create. . . and maybe even the patterns that make up who I am.

The cruise was interesting in part because there was plenty of time to puzzle over a whole variety of patterns with a limited ability to check them against the familiar daily patterns of home and work. That is seems valuable even if it doesn’t make for a very good story.

Jonah Lehrer’s piece “Why We Travel” (published in McSweeny’s and republished in Lehrer’s blog The Frontal Cortex) addresses this question in a way that provides clarity and insight to my own rather vague thoughts.

Lehrer notes that new scientific thinking suggests that getting away “is an essential habit of effective thinking. It's not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it's about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.”

A few excerpts from his article explain how this works:
When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we'd previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities--corn can fuel cars!--that never would have occurred to us if we'd stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we're trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen under-grads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it's hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn't just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn't just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about get-ting around all over the world, and even in deep space.

. . . The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. . .

. . . . According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-minded-ness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn't good enough to finish.

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their "cognitive inputs," as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. . . .

Of course, this mental flexibility doesn't come from mere distance. It's not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat LeBig Mac instead of a Quarter-Pounder with cheese. Instead, this increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same details that make foreign travel so confusing--Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?--turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we're less insular. We're reminded of all that we don't know, which is nearly everything; we're surprised by the constant stream of surprises. Even in this globalized age, slouching toward similarity, we can still marvel at all the earthly things that weren't included in the Let's Go guidebook, and that certainly don't exist back home.

So let's not pretend that travel is always fun, or that we endure the jet lag for pleasure. We don't spend ten hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn't make up for the hassle of lost luggage. (More often than not, I need a vacation after my vacation.) We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

Yes. Exactly.

Read the whole piece.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tahiti to Florida Cruise - December to January 2009/2010

We are home!

I still have lots of pictures to edit and post. As I complete them, I'll provide a link here. (Everything posted during the trip itself will be updated with links and, possibly, additional photos and text.)

As of 5/17 the following entries are complete:
Tahiti, Moorea,
Bora Bora, Lima, and Costa Rica,

Wednesday, December 16, 2009
In the Air!
Dinner with David and Joe

Thursday, December 17, 2009
Morning in El Segundo

Friday, December 18, 2009 - Tahiti
Lost in Paradise
The Royal Tahitian
Driving Around Tahiti
On Board the Pacific Princess
A Few Last-Minute Errands in Papeete
And so it Begins

Saturday, December 19, 2009 - Moorea
Moorea at Daybreak
A Catamaran Tour of the Lagoon
A Quick Driving Tour of Moorea
It's a Small World: the Moorea Shopping Edition
Leaving Moorea

Sunday, December 20, 2009 - Bora Bora
In Port
In and Out of the Lagoon
Afternoon on the Pacific Princess
Bye Bye, Bora Bora

Monday, December 21, 2009 - At Sea

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - At Sea
Still at Sea
Settling In

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - At Sea
All is Calm
At the Far Edge of Polynesia
The Noon Report
Evening at Sea

Thursday, December 24, 2009 - Pitcairn Island (At Sea)

Friday, December 25, 2009 - At Sea

Saturday, December 26, 2009 - At Sea

Sunday, December 27, 2009 - Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Dawn at Rapa Nui
At Harbor
Ahu Akivi
Rano Kau
Sailing Away

Monday, December 28, 2009 - At Sea
Looking Back at Where We've Been

Tuesday, December 29, 2009 - At Sea

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - At Sea

Thursday, December 31, 2009 – At Sea
Worrying About My Nazca Tour
New Year’s Eve

Friday, January 1, 2010 – San Martin, Peru
In Port
Nazca Lines Tour

Saturday, January 2, 2010 – Lima, Peru
Callao (Lima)
Along the Coast in Lima
Shopping at the Craft Market
Too Many People!

Sunday, January 3, 2010 - Lima, Peru
San Francisco Church and Monastery
Plaza Mayor
The Cloisters at Santo Domingo
The Park of Love
Casa Garcia Alvarado
Rather Random Thoughts on Urban Form in Lima
Back Out to Sea
Almost Sunset

Monday, January 4, 2010 – At Sea

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 – Manta, Ecuador
Panama (Ecuador) Hats!
The Nut Factory
At the Boat Yard
Around Manta (and at the Mall)
In a Tuna Port

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 – At Sea
Rougher (but not very rough) Seas
Report from the Bridge
Thursday, January, 7, 2010 – The Panama Canal
Miraflores Lock

Friday, January 8, 2010Kuna Yala, Panama
Saturday, January 9, 2010 – Costa Rica
Costa Rica Through the Bus Window
A Sunny Day in the Rain Forest

Sunday, January 10, 2010 – At Sea
The View from Deck 5

Monday, January 11, 2010 – At Sea
No Access to Deck 5

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Almost Time to Head Home

Previous pot:

At lunch today (a lovely risotto for me), it occurs to me that perhaps cruising like this is really some type of pleasant purgatory or limbo – it’s almost a suspended state of being. It feels disconnected from everything, including the sea.

I’m not saying it’s bad – it certainly is pleasant (and mindless) enough, but it seems rather unreal..

I guess I’m ready to go home and plunge back into a far less predictable (and more stressful) world. . . although it will be strange to dine at home, just the two of us, without Franz there to welcome us or Laszlo and the other waiters buzzing about in their well-rehearsed dance or our tablemates to share their take on the day.

It feels as if one could float along like this forever.

Next post:

Monday, January 11, 2010

No Access to Deck 5

Previous post: The View from Deck 5

Although the seas have settled down a lot compared to last night, the wind is – apparently – ferocious and all the outside decks are closed. The pool area, sheltered behind windows, is open, but the pool has been drained.

This morning the spray from the bow was hitting the windows (hard) up in the lounge on Deck 10, which was pretty impressive.

There is a beautiful sunset tonight, but no clear windows from which to view it. . .

Ok. I’m more than ready for calm seas now. This is getting old.

Next post:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The View from Deck 5

Previous post: Ugh

I can’t stop staring at the water.

The swells have been building all afternoon and, according to the officer of the watch, they will likely continue to do so due to the storms pushing south from the US.

It’s obvious from almost anywhere on the ship when we plow directly into one the larger swells, as it makes a tremendous thud against the bow and the whole ship sort of shudders.

Down on Deck 4 where we are, now we can sometimes see the water rolling past our window, not just the spray. While it is mesmerizing to watch, it is too dark to photograph it right now. (Maybe tomorrow.)

This is so cool. I just hope my patches keep working!

Next post: No Access to Deck 5


Previous pot:

Until Lane mentioned it when we were still off the coast of Ecuador, it never occurred to me that the tiny-seeming Caribbean could be rougher than open Pacific. But here we are, plowing through large swells that literally bang against the ship as we lurch forward through them. I guess it all depends on the weather and the direction we are traveling versus the direction of the wind and swells. Of course, I knew that, but I really hadn’t thought about what it means.

Lane, of course, is enjoying watching the water splash past our window as we bounce through the water.

Meanwhile, I’ve put on a new sea sickness patch and am hoping for the best.

Next post: The View from Deck 5

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Sunny Day in the Rain Forest

Previous post: Costa Rica Through the Bus Window

I knew when we signed up for this tour that we would arrive too late in the morning (and in too large of a group) to see much in the way of wildlife and that proves to be the case.

Still, it is a lovely day to be out in the trees.

We begin with a walk through the understory where we learn about various plants, observe a large leaf cutter ant colony (the colony is underground, so what we actually see is a lot of sandy-looking soil), uncover a snake, peer through binoculars at the one bird we see (we hear a few others, but even the guide can’t spot them), and check for bats (we don’t find any) sleeping under leaves that they have bitten to form neat triangular tent in which to while away the daylight hours.

It is a pleasant walk and, at the very end I even see a toucan fly by high above. I don’t get a good look at it, but now I have seen one!

The draw here (in a country filled with healthy rain forests) is the aerial tram that takes tourists up into the forest canopy.

However, the tram starts off on not far above the forest floor, giving us another angle from which to view more of the understory before climbing higher in the trees.

A sloth hangs in a tree near the spot where the tram turns to send us back through the canopy to our starting point.

Ok, that’s not a great picture, but the sloth really looks quite similar to a simple mess of ratty vegetation hanging from a tree limb – of which there is a fair amount around here. Now I am thinking I saw a sloth when we were walking earlier, but I didn’t realize it was more than the rainforest equivalent of a squirrel’s nest. . .

Then, finally, we are gliding high up in trees through the narrow opening in the canopy.

Next time we come to this part of the world we will stay at an eco lodge where we can spend a few days hiking, exploring, and bird watching. Then I will see lots of toucans!

Next post:

Costa Rica Through the Bus Window

Previous post:

Except for our rain forest tour, we will have no opportunity to get out and explore Costa Rica at all, so I have to content myself with what I can see from the bus window.

Luckily, it isn’t all road signs.

So, what do I learn about this part of Costa Rica by looking out the window?

It is a richly green place with cloud shrouded mountains.

It is a warm place, with buildings that perfectly match my expectation of “tropical” structures.

It is a well-watered place, where wide stream beds show signs of frequent expansion.

It is a place where things grow quickly and living fence posts (to keep the termites and decay at bay?) are trimmed regularly.

It is a place where agricultural is labor intensive, with acres upon acres of pineapple (a harrowing crop to harvest) and banana (with each bunch of bananas neatly tucked into a blue bag to protect the fruit from hungry insects).

It is a place of enough wealth and stability that the main gas line through the country travels – apparently unmolested – along the earth’s surface. (This is to avoid earthquake damage.) It is carried through the air above small streams and buried only where needed to allow a road or driveway to pass through.

It isn’t very wealthy, though, and while there are many lovely vistas, there are too many billboards of all vintages and condition.

It is a democratic place, where campaign posters are plastered everywhere and where our guide expects that a strong, gorgeous woman (Laura Chinchilla) will win the presidency.

This might be a country I where I would like to spend more time, but, at least for now, these things are all I know.