words & images elisabeth debourse| translated from french by anna weber & elisabeth debourse
Over one billion of us traveled abroad in 2014, according to the Courrier international. Whether you're serenely settled in a plastic red chair at a Catalan cerveceria; a rattan chaise lounge on a Thai beach; or a cushy armchair in a stylish cafe in Vancouver, the declaration is striking: You’re not unique. Your grandparents, if they traveled to far-away lands, were living something nearly unparalleled because there were only twenty-two million travelers in 1950. But you, no.
My parents never had the means to pay for vacations to unknown lands. Like a good number of my fellow Belgian citizens, we’d go camping in France and, later, in Spain. Those trips were great, but soon enough, what had been great was no longer sufficient. I started to save money to explore my continent, one city at a time.
This year, I treated myself to an escape to Kyrgyzstan, a small country in central Asia with imposing mountains and infinite plains, studded with wild horses still relying on their natural instincts. One could say that it resembles Mongolia, but is less expensive.
You have never read about it in a travel glossy, have never visited, and have never had a friend who visited it? So much the better—that’s probably, in part, what led me here. Because if traveling means investing my money, my energy, and my three weeks of annual vacation, I might as well discover a distant corner of the globe where I can still feel unique. Searching for difference, for individuality, is a way of preserving a space for expression for myself, some semblance of articulating who I am and what I’m doing with my life. Like many others, like everyone else.
Inside the bus, it is suffocating. The newspaper flaps between my fingers, pushed by the gusts of wind that rush through my sleeping neighbor’s window. While I’m reading these statistics, I pause to contemplate my reflection in the smudged window of the marchroutka (a kind of Kyrgyz minibus). For the past few hours, sitting in the last row of the vehicle in transit between Kochkor and Bishkek, my thighs have been scraping unpleasantly against the worn velvet of the seat.
Of course, I could have paid around ten additional dollars—one thousand soms in local currency—and done the voyage by taxi. But I place value on traveling the local way, authentically. I want to be surrounded by people who live here, who make the exhausting trip to visit their family or buy a fan they can’t find in their small town, or to obtain a couple of necessary automobile parts. I want to mingle with them, to dissolve into the population—and most importantly, to avoid resembling the typical mass of tourists: swarming, crude, out of place.
Tourist. What a dreadful word—and yet, I’m its very embodiment here, where we are few and far between. Through this perspective, how far am I prepared to go? Distanced from my comforts, what am I prepared to sacrifice? And you, when traveling—what compromises are you prepared to make in order to live a unique experience, different from that of millions of other tourists? Is that even something you want?
First of all, know that in Kyrgyzstan, like in many other countries, it can be difficult to find refuge in food. The cooking isn’t always a journey of the senses or a thrilling moment. Maybe you’ll have to endure the sight of your evening meal’s head, streaked with blood, disposed flippantly on the ground of your yurt. Maybe you’ll have to swallow a large bowl of mare’s milk in one gulp to honor your hosts, fermented in the sun and carrying a bitter, smoky taste. Maybe you’ll have to put aside your own dietary convictions and concerns because they don’t make any sense to the locals. Maybe you’ll be sick, enduring the feeling of your stomach imploding, all alone in your tent. Maybe you won’t find any store, restaurant, or what-have-you on your route in order to get a meal—and you’ll be obliged to backpedal.
What will seem so enjoyable at home (drinking after a long day), or logical (only eating what you like), or dangerous (eating non-refrigerated meat), isn’t at all important in certain parts of the world. And you’ll have to, very rapidly, adapt yourself. Afterwards, don’t forget that hygienic standards aren’t the same everywhere you go. In Kyrgyzstan, it’s rare to be comfortably seated on a toilet—your intimate moments will occur above a hole in the company of flies. If you decide to go out into the great wide open of nature, get used to the idea of doing so without a shower and tell yourself that bathing at the foot of a glacial mountain stream is a luxury that you can’t refuse.
Isolating yourself in this way isn’t without some danger either. Suffering from altitude sickness, feverish and ill, at an elevation of over nine thousand feet, you’ll have to re-descend, at any price, with the same gear and equipment on your back that you had while climbing the mountain. By trusting the locals for your journeys, you might find that you don’t know the rules of the road. When you catch a glimpse of death in the rearview mirror while your driver flies at a brisk pace on a narrow mountain road, your only solution will be to close your eyes and try to sleep.
For those among you who don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz—and that was also my case—you risk finding yourselves destitute, everywhere, all the time. How to make it known, the fact that you need to get to such-and-such a place, or need to find somewhere to sleep, or want a specific kind of dish—or what’s even on the menu because the letters of the language aren’t the same as your own—and what if you need a doctor? And how to overcome the barrier of culture and language in order to protest when you know you’re being ripped off by the impenetrable vendor or sullen taxi driver, precisely because you’re a tourist, precisely because you don’t speak the language? You give up. And you pay.
Of course, with some rudimentary phrases and gestures, you’ll almost always manage to express yourself. But over time, it can get frustrating, especially as this is a serious obstacle to obtaining the very objectives of your trip: discovering a new culture and mingling with the locals. But you might also feel misunderstood for reasons that don’t have anything to do with the language barrier.
This new culture that you aspire so much to explore can turn against you and your differences. If your skin is a different color from that of the population or if you carry particularly distinctive physical elements (whether or not they’re accepted at home)—expect to be stared at, even rejected. One can only stand it for a few days. For me, my tattoos were the target of many looks, sometimes excessively charged. Though most are easy to hide, it’s difficult to wear long sleeves when it’s over ninety degrees outside.
If you can endure these challenges and many others, tolerating the cons and accommodating some irritating, painful, disgusting, and backbreaking details—charge forth. The adventure will be unique—in your eyes, in any event, and that’s what counts—but especially enriching and beautiful.
For every wearisome trip, you’ll gain a friend that you meet on the bus; for every gag, another meal warmly prepared and presented to share with a family; for every pain or injury, a travel companion who will support you; for every jet of icy water, a wild fit of laughter and the genuine pleasure of taking a hot shower; for every misunderstood word, an understanding smile; for every hurtful glare, a grin and a kind gesture. You will be recompensed by altruistic hospitality and selfless curiosity, breathtaking landscapes, and memories that are tender (an endearing child), hilarious (trying dressage on a donkey or a turkey-throwing competition), and intense (the sensation of feeling alive, so alive, perched on the peak of a mountain).
All will be unforgettable.
But if these concessions seem a little too burdensome, just don’t do it. Choose whatever is worth living—it is, after all, your body, your vacation, your money, your comfort, and your choice. Don’t simply obey the dictatorship of extravagance or of unconventionality, especially if you don’t know what to expect once you’ve arrived—because you’ve jumped into a plan without thinking about it, because the destination seemed fun, because you haven’t prepared anything in advance to ensure the success of your trip. Nothing’s actually pressuring or compelling you.
When you travel for pleasure, your experience should stay synonymous with pleasure. Let’s stop trying to convince ourselves that traveling far away is a need. It is, above all, a luxury, the possibility of fulfilling a desire and an enjoyable moment because if it weren’t, it would ruin all of your original reasons for leaving. You can find adventure, encounters, authenticity, relaxation, and new experiences closer to home, assuming that home is a wealthier, industrialized country, while sparing yourself the possibility of malaria and paralyzing diarrhea as a bonus.
Is this sentimental? A poor meditation on self-development? Or even complete hypocrisy? Maybe you’re right. Concerning the act of traveling, we often tell lies. We tell them to others, and to ourselves. Traveling will never make you feel unique—and going to Kyrgyzstan or the most “random” place on earth will not change the facts.
What is unique, however, is your way of understanding the journey, the way it can be a blessing or an experience, if not totally unpleasant, not really fulfilling, either. Basically, if you are compelled to travel in this way, you are probably trying to fill a gap, whatever it is. So, while traveling, maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want—and what you’re able to live with. To see, to try, to touch, to taste, to experiment, and possibly to suffer, in new ways.
Traveling will not give you any answers to your questions, your self-interrogations, or your expectations if you drown them under false emotions, embellished memories and painful moments. Stay connected to yourself, and maybe, at one moment, something unique will happen. And maybe not.
After Kyrgyzstan, I’m dreaming of visiting the Philippines, Guatemala, Japan, and Iceland. But maybe for my next vacation, I’ll explore a country much closer, way less dangerous and exhausting to visit, and probably just as beautiful—like Italy.
Simply because I’m obsessed with pizza.