November 2012

Hello & goodbye

By David Feela

If Rene Descartes traveled extensively during the 17th century like tourists of today, he might never have written, “I think, therefore I am,” but instead chosen the axiom, “I see, therefore I be.”

As a philosopher whose explorations were confined to the hemispheres of his brain, Descartes understood little about the tourism industry, and it’s likely he never would have approved of this syllogism that explains a souvenir t-shirt:

All tourists pack clothing;

Some packed clothing includes t-shirts;

Therefore, all tourists buy t-shirts.

I own a favorite t-shirt from a trip I took along Route 66 that says, “Standin On the Corner, Winslow, Arizona.” I also bought one with a ukulele picture that proclaims “Hawaii Lifestyle.” I’m not sure what that means, but I loved the shade of green and I’ve visited on the island of Kauai for one full rainy week. I earned it, whatever it means. It stands for my 100 percent cotton declaration that “I was there.”

When a person travels, the urge to preserve the exotic and serendipitous experience supersedes the mind’s natural tendency to classify the day as, say, another Friday. Tourists eat, drink, take pictures, read travel brochures and maps, and they find places to sleep. Sure, these activities can be done at home cheaper, but traveling excites the “what the hell” gene and a tourist accepts absurdity as if it were an omen.

A $25 t-shirt? Sure, that’s a bargain.

Books like “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” only highlight my fear of ever being able to travel sufficiently, especially if I take the book’s premise seriously, that my ultimate self-awareness and fulfillment lies in a bucket list of recommended vacation destinations. I fear I’d end up with a drawer stuffed with t-shirts, more than I could possibly wear in the rest-of-a-lifetime.

Then again, my homebody suspects something must be wrong with the people who travel. I’ve backed myself into the Four Corners, brew my own coffee and memorize the television schedule. T-shirts are less expensive than round-trip plane tickets.

You see, I’m caught between these deep blue seas. One of me wants to explore – to see the Eiffel Tower, the ruins of Pompeii, to float in a Venetian gondola – while the other is so grateful to finally get home, he can’t imagine what drove him away in the first place. Then from the bottom of my suitcase the twisted remains of a souvenir t-shirt resurfaces. I unfold it and drape it like a flag over my chest, this pledge to be a tourist.

Descartes believed that thought – not our senses – turns us into human beings. We hear, smell, taste, touch, even see the world, like any other creature, but only by being aware of our perceptions do we become (and here I take a liberty) tourists. I know, the money collected from travelers by the local economy is appreciated, but like philosophers, tourists don’t get respect.

Descartes also postulated the untrustworthiness of the senses can be illustrated by his Wax Argument. It goes like this: One’s senses perceive the wax’s chunkiness, though set it over a flame and a transformation renders the senses senseless. Like a paramedic arriving on the scene of an accident, thought rescues us and returns us to our – dare I say it again? – senses. Stay at home too long and my life begins to feel like wax, but leave home and I notice how travel alters me, and in the fire of the world’s strangeness I glimpse the alchemy of a moment, pure gold.

Okay, that’s probably enough philosophy. Born with a feelasopher’s moniker, I can’t help going mental once-in-awhile, which is why I value the souvenir t-shirt, because it weaves the fleeting nature of my travel experiences into the physicality of my daily life. It’s that simple. It allows me to carry each transformation close to my skin, to wash it and fold it and tell an occasional story about my latest trip whenever an unsuspecting stranger asks me about my t-shirt.

I’ve thought about going to Prague for my next metamorphosis, visiting the Kafka museum, but I’ve always wanted to visit Gibraltar too, a British dependency at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. It usually take me a full year to muster the courage for another major assault on my sedentary senses, but it helps to imagine myself coming home with a souvenir t-shirt, something with the picture of a cockroach, or better yet: Gibraltar Rocks!