In Other Words

Get Lost

A new book explores the roots of deep travel -- as necessary for Manhattan homebodies as for madcap foreign correspondents.

Being found is overrated. I came to this conclusion in the aftermath of 9/11, when, like many reporters, I went looking for Afghanistan.

I had never been to Afghanistan. In fact, I had never set foot anywhere near Central Asia before. I was an Africa correspondent. Dispatched with a few hours' notice to cover the fall of the Taliban, I landed in neighboring Uzbekistan, having gathered everything I knew of that particular country from the in-flight magazine. A binary vocabulary in Russian (da, nyet) got me aboard a taxicab that wheezed toward Tajikistan. Tajikistan, my editors assured me, was the best jumping off point for the war. Sadly, it wasn't a small place; it's about the size of Greece. After clearing a remote border checkpoint, I blinked out, in stunned silence, over a frozen steppe that scrolled vacantly to all horizons. I had no map. I had 15 grand squirreled in my socks and a half-eaten Hershey bar in my pocket.       

"Oxus?" I hollered at the Mongol-faced truck drivers parked along a road.

Nobody, probably, had heard that name used for Afghanistan's frontier river, the Amu Darya, since the end of the British Raj. (My local geography came from Kipling.) I hopped sheep trucks like a hobo. The drivers left me at a series of increasingly desolate crossroads. Thumbing into a conflict I knew almost nothing about, I grimaced down at my mud-swallowed shoes: flimsy street loafers pulled on in subtropical Johannesburg.

Seat-of-the-pants navigation is the norm in parachute journalism. It can be stressful. Yet what I remember most from those days of near-perfect "lost-ness" on the old Silk Road isn't anxiety, but a strange and euphoric clarity. Stymied by the Cyrillic signage, rendered deaf-mute by the wall of language, marooned inside my cultural ignorance, I was engaged in purest travel. I used clues in body language and the contrails of high-flying jets to grope my way forward. I actually took my bearings from the sun. Never before had I felt more en pointe, more focused within a landscape -- exhilaratingly so. It was a mental state at once dreamlike and electrically alert. I simply intuited where I was.

This latent hyper-awareness of the hunter-gatherer -- for that's how I interpret such experiences -- now has its bard in Tony Hiss, the improbably urban and urbane author of a remarkable new book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel.

A former staff writer at the New Yorker, Hiss doesn't appear to have ventured terribly far from his home island of Manhattan. He has written 12 previous books, ranging from an award-winning rumination on the impact of landscapes on the psyche to a chronicle of his family. His father, the diplomat Alger Hiss, was one of the better-known victims of the postwar anti-Communist witch hunts.

But by roaming inquisitively through disciplines as varied as psychology and archeology, literature, and even urban design, Hiss has produced a magisterial safari through what he calls Deep Travel -- "the feeling of waking up further while already awake" -- that comes with being on the move. It is a paean to human wanderlust that rivals the gemlike travelogues of Bruce Chatwin. Unlike Chatwin, however, who could be a snob about exotica, Hiss points out that the rewards of journeying are everywhere, because they're interior -- they can be tapped as easily with a walk down the block as in Patagonia.

And this counterintuitive leap turns In Motion into that rare thing -- a genuinely subversive book. It upends the genre of travel writing.

The author ambles out of his Greenwich Village walkup and notices the usually distracted expressions of fellow New Yorkers drawn into a taut, watchful point: A swooping peregrine falcon has opened their eyes to where they are. Or he sits in an Amtrak train and realizes that, by actually studying the drab "unseen" backs of houses and billboards lining the tracks, he has slipped into a state of pleasant lucidity somewhere between a daydream and intense concentration -- a kind of Zen of travel. It's all about attentiveness.

Hiss has written the first democratic travel guide: for homebodies as much as wannabe National Geographic expeditionaries.

Travel "is a built-in, active, oddly ignored, complex, discriminating, many-dimensioned, and remarkably ancient capacity," he reminds us. "We grow up fully equipped for adventuring."

Roughly 45 million years ago, a "superplume" of magma bulged 1,500 miles up from the Earth's mantle, forging mountains in eastern Africa that chopped rainforest into woodlands and desert -- a mosaic that ultimately drove early apes down from the dwindling trees to forage on foot. Except for the briefest heartbeat of our recent existence -- starting 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture -- we never stopped rambling. Our obsession with suburban lawns, Hiss suggests, citing one ecologist, may even sprout from a wistful collective memory of the African savannas that birthed our footloose bipedalism.  

In Motion bubbles with such nifty scientific insights, including an adroit recapitulation of how the act of standing up, which elevated our eyes high enough to take in wider vistas, expanded our consciousness by igniting an "enduring, novel, distinctive ability to participate in the landscape, a talent that has long since outlived the original, limited aim of walking."

And it is precisely this focus -- probing our abiding nomad brain -- that make Hiss's book relevant to ordinary readers, and not just professional drifters such as foreign correspondents, reindeer herders, diplomats, and errant WikiLeaks founders.   

He ruminates, for example, on how mass movements inside the hard "third skins" of our cars and planes (the "second skin" being our clothing) has suffocated our primordial travel awareness, and how those ancient, life-enriching senses can be revived with simple alterations of landscaping and engineering.

Hiss lauds installation artist Robert Irwin's plan to integrate the Miami International Airport with its marshy native environment, complete with a park-like oasis for jetlagged travelers to regain a sense of place. Like most of us, he also bemoans the Spam-in-a-can soullessness of most public transport, cheering on dreamers like Bill Stumpf, the inventor of the ergonomic chair, who is proposing Plexiglass vista-domes in the noses of passenger jets.

Meanwhile, taking a cue from India's ancient "road beautifying" emperor Ashoka, Hiss has founded a citizen's group, NatureRail, to build parks and short walking trails around the gritty rail lines of the greater New York City area -- a means of giving harried commuters some tangible connection to the blurred way-stations of their daily lives.

Other eloquent wanderers, of course, have explored the booming but shallow nature of our modern, speedy, unfulfilling, and destination-obsessed way of moving around.

Pico Iyer's anthropology of a new, global airport class comes to mind. And in journalism, the great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski carved his distinctive mark by inventing his own version of Deep Travel -- a return to an older, more human pace of reportage, absorbing information with a hunter's patience and alertness, and thus offering perhaps a clearer vision of the white noise we call "news."

"I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal," begins a typical Kapuscinski story in rural Ghana. "Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else -- wider, deeper -- may be considerably more interesting and important."

Hiss would agree emphatically. Best of all, he brings such nomad lessons home.

The most lyrical passages in In Motion describe how the 2003 blackout in New York jarred an entire bustling metropolis -- the apex of sedentary life -- into a state of Deep Travel: Manhattanites gaped at lingering sunsets for the first time in years; and with thousands of air conditioners silenced, neighbors could hear hushed conversations across the street. An old wonder was rediscovered.

"[T]he principal thing that has stayed with me is the sense that I got to touch bedrock more than once during that day," Hiss recalls in his wise re-examination of human restlessness in an age of mass migrations and epic urbanization. "Simple actions -- dealing with traffic and moving through slowly fading daylight -- had given me a chance to see into several unfamiliar corners of myself."

As traveling, gloriously lost, to the unknown banks of the Amu Darya once did for me. I eventually did find the Afghan war. But that's another journey altogether.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In Other Words

Arab Revolutions Through the WikiLeaks Lens

Looking back, what did we really know -- and what did we just think we knew?

In Tehran, there is a small gift shop in the southeast corner of the old U.S. Embassy (the famous "Den of Spies," as it has been known since being converted to a Revolutionary Guards base after the 1979 revolution). Among the many less than enticing items it sells, next to gruesome postcards of "martyrs" from the Iran-Iraq War, is a bound set of reprinted U.S. diplomatic documents. Embassy staff shredded the documents frantically while the building was being overrun, but to no avail. Ayatollah Khomeini's volunteers laboriously pieced together the shredded cables the old-fashioned way, with tape, perhaps crying out "Aha!" every now and then when something incriminating turned up -- say, a memo revealing that the United States was sending the shah even more military equipment. The result, however, is an anthology of turgid, less-than-thrilling bureaucratese. When I visited a year ago, the copies sat dusty on the shelves.

The 2011 wave of Arab revolutions has its own tranche of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, though in the present case, they have come largely as prologue to revolution rather than as epilogue. Their only direct role in the revolutions was to provide further proof of the profligacy and corruption of erstwhile Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and perhaps also some measure of reassurance that the United States, too, knew he was a thief and scoundrel. Even the most cynical critics of the United States haven't found much in the WikiLeaks cables to condemn it. The cables are dutiful, intelligent, and maybe a tad officious. They are not prescient, but then again who was? Of the hundreds of cables leaked from Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, not one predicts imminent collapse, nor anything beyond a slow, eventual (if not untroubled) transition of power.

So the obvious question is: What has the State Department been up to all these years? And have these cables, leaked with such fanfare, been rendered moot by the revolutions? The impression that emerges from reviewing the cables now is not so much that the revolutions have rendered them dull and obsolete, but that they have rendered the United States itself -- and its gradualist approach -- dull and obsolete. U.S. diplomats cared about all the right things, but apparently had no power to make them happen because their perceived clout wasn't enough to persuade anyone to reform. Or, alternately, they understood the fault lines, but diplomatic imperatives forced them to keep relationships intact, instead of proceeding on a course of marginal, linear improvements. In any case, their approach did remarkably little. The authors of the cables don't sound like agents of a superpower. They sound like Canadians, with better access.

The questions the diplomats asked are obvious and hoary: What comes next after the current generation of Arab autocrats? How can we maintain relations between Foggy Bottom and the politicians and military men who might plausibly take power? These concerns are not just realpolitik, either. The diplomats meet with and express dignified concern for members of democracy and civil society groups, and they correctly detect and diagnose outrages like police brutality and brazen corruption that are corroding the authority of their partner governments. But now that we know the fate of Ben Ali and Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, the cables read as a catalog of failed overtures and suggestions, ultimately ineffectual, to get these leaders to reform fast enough to avoid revolution. Cables from places like Libya, Bahrain, and Oman were even less urgent about the need for democratic and popular reforms, though perhaps merely because none of those places ever had much democracy activism in the first place.

The problem was not one of knowledge. Diplomats knew perfectly well that Egypt and Tunisia had huge long-term troubles, and in the former case they repeatedly identify many of the exact grievances of the Tahrir protesters as flashpoints for future dispute. They knew that lack of democratic reform was a major issue, and the cables show a touching concern for "democracy promotion" and progress of human rights groups, including those with Islamist inclinations. In Tunisia, they urged "a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights," but with the caveat that "Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali's departure."

But what did all these worries, insights, and good intentions amount to? In the case of Libya, where cables detailed fascinating palace gossip about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's family politics, the United States didn't have much influence anyway, so one couldn't really expect much more (at the "Secret" level, anyway) than observation. But in the case of Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia), the cables are shocking in how little they reveal 30 years of patronage to have bought. The debate between the U.S. and Egyptian governments comes across as vaguely pathetic on both sides. "The [government of Egypt] remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion," Ambassador Margaret Scobey wrote in December 2008, saying that her Egyptian partners worried that democracy would end up "empowering the Muslim Brotherhood." All true, of course -- and just as true as it was 20 years before.

Part of the erosion of U.S. influence was due, it appears, to Mubarak's impression that the United States couldn't apply its influence in subtle and effective ways or keep its allies safe. Mubarak seems to have spurned U.S. efforts to democratize by invoking the Shah of Iran, who made concessions, was rapidly toppled, and died in exile (in Cairo, of all places). "Wherever [Mubarak] has seen these U.S. efforts," Scobey wrote, "he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued." So instead the United States was reduced to the baby-steps approach of funding democracy groups, which may well have been the only responsible option but was minor and ineffectual nonetheless. The cable authors are Cassandras, capable of calling out warnings but apparently incapable of convincing anyone to change.

Unlike in Tehran, the cables haven't yet settled into the status of historical documents. The notes about the Qaddafi family's infighting are salient at this very minute, and the nuanced portrait of Egypt's Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister who now runs the country, is rich for its impressions of the man as "Mubarak's poodle" with all the denigration that implies. These impressions remain relevant, to say the least, even if the Pentagon, rather than the State Department, is emerging as the most salient partner to Egypt's rulers.

Perhaps there are cables that show the United States to be a regional puppet master, or even a regional player capable of exerting a teeny bit of influence, among the 245,000 cables still undisclosed by WikiLeaks. But for an American to read the cables so far made public is an exercise in humility. The take-away lesson of the leaks and the revolutions may be that once a foreign government becomes so out of touch that the United States can't induce it even to do something that is clearly in its own interest, the point of no return has been reached and the government is doomed.

When I lived in Egypt, I often walked by the U.S. Embassy fortress in Garden City, always one of the most serene strolls in Cairo because security concerns kept it blocked off to almost all pedestrian and motor traffic. Across from the consular entrance, a lone empty shop sold oranges -- to whom was not entirely clear because there was rarely a potential customer in sight. I often wondered what those on the other side of the fortress walls were up to. Now we know: They were watching the world pass them by, just like the rest of us.