In Huysmans’ Against the Grain (1884), the precious hero Des Esseintes has “the idea of turning dream into reality, of traveling [from France] to England in the flesh as well as in the spirit, of checking the accuracy of his visions.” He orders a servant to pack his bags, calls a cab, and stops in a bookshop to glance at Baedeker’s description of modern paintings in London. On the way to the Gare Saint-Lazare, he has a glass of sherry in the Bodega, swarming with beefy English characters right out of Dickens. Contemplating the train ride to the coast and the Channel crossing, he repairs to an English tavern near the station. Soaking up the atmosphere, he asks himself: “Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery, were all about him? What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments?” Finally, convinced that he has already made the long journey in his imagination, “a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience,” he’s content to return home.
In his first travel book, The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (1905), Somerset Maugham also argues that
It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad; and the man who stays at home, preserving his illusions, has certainly the best of it. How delightful is the anticipation as he looks over time-tables and books of photographs, forming delightful images of future pleasure! But the reality is full of disappointment, and the more famous the monument, the bitterer the disillusion.
This neat paradox never prevented Maugham from traveling and has consoled me for all the places that I did not get to see. I missed some places because I was too impatient, tired, or ignorant to know what I was losing. Others seemed exorbitantly expensive at the time; and I did not realize that they would become much more out of reach as I grew older and had more money. Sometimes, there was a lack of transport or an intractable bureaucracy. I now wish that I had been more persistent and grasped the principle of backsheesh. Inevitably, riots, revolutions, and wars have also stopped me in my tracks—bad timing and bad luck.
When I flew from London to Kenya in 1964, the plane stopped at Khartoum on the way down and Addis Ababa on the way back. But, eager to reach my destination, I didn’t stop in these exotic places. Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue and the White Nile, recalled the revolt of the Mahdi, General Gordon’s head on a spike, and Churchill’s description of his cavalry charge at Omdurman as well as fierce sandstorms, unbearable heat, and unspeakable squalor. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Wilfred Thesiger’s autobiography evoked the empty grandeur of Haile Selassie in Addis: of unexplored territory and lawless tribesmen, slaves in cages and barbaric spectacles, lion hunts with spears and Coptic shrines in secret caves.
When I reached East Africa, I tried to see two forbidden places. Lake Rudolf, in northern Kenya, was in the most remote and savage part of the country. Since there were no roads to Samburu and Turkana territory, I spent many hours at Nairobi airport, trying to get a lift on a missionary’s flight. But the shifta wars were inflaming the border with Ethiopia, and the government discouraged planes—which had been shot at with bows and arrows—from going up there. Years later, I met Thesiger in London, and he nostalgically reminisced about his years with “my Samburu.”
I got to Tanganyika soon after the bloody revolution in Zanzibar, in which the Af-ricans had massacred many Arabs and driven the remnant off the island. Things got so dicey that government ministers visiting the place had been pushed out of planes on the way back to Dar-es-Salaam and had a long drop into the Indian Ocean. I still long for the fragrant smell of cloves, the elaborately carved Arab doorways, and the dhows that sail along the coast of Africa.
A round-the-world trip in 1966, following a year in Japan, led to more disappointments. I had an introduction to an Indian army officer in Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan princely state of Sikkim, which was wedged between India and Chinese-controlled Tibet. The tense situation at the border prevented me from getting a visa in New Delhi, but I consoled myself with a visit to Darjeeling, on the southern frontier of Sikkim. Darjeeling had fine tea plantations, Tibet-an refugees spinning their prayer wheels, and, as the clouds suddenly parted one morning, a miraculous view of the 28,170-foot-high Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.
After a horrible Aeroflot journey from Delhi to Moscow, I was told that my glued-on guide would take me anywhere within 50 miles of the capital. She would not go to Tolstoy’s house at Yasnaya Polyana, however, though it was well within that boundary. So I had to imagine the birch forest, wooden house, huge ceramic stoves, peasants in bast shoes, wandering holy men, and the shallow pond where Tolstoy’s wife, in a fit of pique, made a half-hearted attempt to drown herself. Communist bureaucracy also defeated me in Poland. I wanted to extend my three-day visa in order to see Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine in Krakow and the extermination camp in nearby Auschwitz. But I was unhelpfully informed that it would take three days to extend my visa—by which time it would have expired!
My timing was off a few years later as well. When T.E. Lawrence captured Aqaba during the Arab Revolt against the Turks, he longed for the military objective. Aqaba was all very well, but it was “far from Damascus.” Inspired by Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I secured visas for Syria and Lebanon—just before the Six Day War in June 1967. I missed the Street Called Straight and the Grand Bazaar in Damascus, and the formidable 12th-century crusaders’ castle, Krak des Chevaliers. But on a later trip to Israel, I lunched in the Syrian Officers’ Club on the captured Golan Heights. Lebanon, the Arab playground of the Levant, would, I imagined, be dissipated and corrupt—filled with swarthy locals in baggy trousers and curly-toed slippers, smoking water pipes and twirling worry beads. With drugs, gambling, and orgies on yachts, I could have led the life of a spoiled pasha and, absorbed in hedonism, might even have skipped the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek.
On my second round-the-world trip in 1969, I arrived in Nigeria during the civil war in Biafra. The Lagos airport was manned by goons with machine guns, and they would not allow me to call an old friend in Ibadan who had powerful connections in the government. Though the war was in the east, no travel was
permitted to the achingly evocative sultanates in northern Nigeria—Kaduna, Zaria, Kano, and Sokoto—on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Kano, with narrow, winding streets beneath a fortified mud wall, had a royal palace and a colorful open market filled with tattooed Tuareg traders from the far north. I had read about it in Joyce Cary’s novels; a friend who taught there had been given his personal slave; and I desperately wanted to see the emir, shielded by colorful umbrellas and guarded by hyenas lurching on their chains, in full panoply on his way to Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque.
Completely surfeited and exhausted at the end of that three-month trip, I landed in Dakar, Senegal, just before midnight but dreaded the long taxi ride and search for a modest hotel in that dark and sprawl-ing city. Noting, by chance, that there was a Pan Am flight to New York in a couple of hours, I impulsively took it. By curtailing my trip, I missed the island of Gorée, one of the first French settlements on the coast of Africa. Only a short ferry ride from Dakar, it has an old fort, colonial mansions, and slave quarters.
On a cruise to the Amazon in 1985, the chartered plane from Miami to Guade-loupe was 12 hours late, and I missed an evening on that delicious French Carib-bean island. Instead of swaying palm trees and glistening sands, Creole patois and drumbeat dancing, I merely glimpsed, in the bleary dawn, the pastel-washed houses with all their shutters closed. While lecturing on another cruise to South Asia in 1988, I tried to spend a day in the Portuguese colony of Macao. But it was Chinese New Year; huge crowds from Hong Kong, pushing and spitting, were forcing their way onto the ferry to gamble in the casinos, and it was impossible to get a ticket. There were no Lusitanian banquets or painted pottery, no brightly colored churches in sunny, sloping squares.
Huysmans and Maugham were right about the disillusions of reality and the power of the imagination. The great tourist places of the world—St. Peter’s, the Parthenon, and the Kremlin; the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, and Angkor Wat; Pagan, the Shwe Dagon pagoda, and the Great Wall of China; the gardens of Kyo-to and Shalimar; the Alps and the Himalayas; the Amazon and the Nile—all seem more vivid in the mind than in actuality. Only Venice, Jerusalem, and Bali have met and even surpassed my expectations. In “The Tower,” Yeats rhetorically asks: “Does the imagination dwell the most / Upon a woman won or a woman lost?” Once you have seen a place, you know what it is like, and it becomes part of your past. A place you have never seen, fixed in time and exactly as it always was, remains perfect in your imagination.