checks and pins

November 2nd, 2014

I stare down at my phone, editing pictures of the day.  I catch myself singing along subconsciously to some american pop music on the radio overhead and realize others in the room can probably hear me but keep singing.  Every once in a while I take a glance around the room.  There are several other white-faced tourists looking down at their phones humming along to familiar tunes or chatting loudly over some beers. 

I’m a white-faced tourist too and I somehow feel I don’t belong here, or least I want to feel that way.  I want to distance myself from them.  To me, they represent something I dislike and yet they are so similar to me that it is almost unbearable to overhear some of the conversation.  My ear defocuses from the music and tunes into an Australian girl talking very loudly and confidently to a small group of guys.

“I did all of Guatemala,; Lake Atitlan, Antigua, Guatemala city… It’s beautiful, the people are great.  Then after that, I did El Salvador and Honduras, but there’s nothing much to see there.  I did Granada… Don’t go to Managua, there’s nothing to do there…”

I get up and walk around the hostel/bar.  Why does this girl sharing her travel advice bother me so much?  She represents a style of travel I try to avoid which is namely hanging out in hostels like this, speaking only in english, getting wasted in one city after another and making confident generalizations about places.  But there are many people who travel in a way not ideal to my personal tastes who don’t bother me…

What bothers me most about her and everyone else at this hostel is that they are so similar to me.  We are just as foreign as each other, we’ve all been in the country around the same amount of time and we’re staying in the same damn hostel.  If I had friends from here and was having a more local experience, overhearing her would not cause such a rejection.  But with every similarity I identify in her my distaste grows.

I look up to a big chalkboard wall in the recreation room adjacent to the bar.  On the very top is written “ what do you want to do before you die?”.  I stand for a few minutes browsing the different answers while a group of english guys chat, drink beer and play pool in the same room. 

“Go to all seven continents” “Travel the world” “Visit 100 countries”…

What are they going to do in those 100 countries I ask myself.  I wonder if their goal is to visit 100 countries and all the experiences such an endeavor would entail, or to have visited 100 countries, to be able to whip out that fact at any bar, dinner party or traveler’s hostel.

In Spanish, to say that one has been to a place, the word “conocer” is used, which means “to know”.  So If you’ve been to Cancún for a few days, you’d say “I know” Cancún.  It doesn’t seem to matter how long one must stay to be able to earn the right to claim knowing a place.  Two nights in a resort hotel will equal one month staying with a family in one of Cancún’s neighborhoods in terms of what verb is to be used.  On top of that, since Cancún is in Mexico, now it is viable to claim that one “knows” Mexico if they’ve been to Cancún and when you fill out an online questionnaire of what countries you’ve been to, Mexico in it’s entirety will be highlighted.

In English, something I often hear from fellow travelers/tourists is the verb “to do” to replace “to visit” when referring to places.  I “did” Cancún for example.  It seems to be undetermined the amount of time one needs to spend in a place or what one necessarily needs “to do” to have “done” a place.  In my experience, of meeting people who use the verb in this manner, one night in a hotel is sufficient and nothing needs to be done other than being physically present for around 24 hours.  Once again, since Cancún is in Mexico, a visit to Cancún earns the right to say Mexico has been “done”.  Check.  Another pin on the map.

It feels good to check off dreams on a list, to put a pin on a map, to add to the collection of experiences.  Its something tangible, it simplifies things and makes it easy to share with others and to keep track in our own heads of what we’ve done with our lives.

About six years ago, I met a fellow traveler on a train to Istanbul who’s story inspired me at the time.  He had worked for ten years building up his own startup internet company and managed to get to a point where his company became a passive source of income for him while he constantly traveled.  He had been on the road for two years when I met him.  While chatting in the kitchen car of the overnight snail train, he showed me a massive tattoo, spanning his stomach, of a map of the world with the countries he had already visited filled in.

Even though I was never into the idea of such a big tattoo on my body, I thought it was so cool.  Although I don’t have a tattoo like that or even a map on a wall with pins, I was doing the same thing as him but mentally.  I knew that in a few hours we would be crossing into Turkey from Greece and that I’d get to add another check to my mental list of countries I’ve visited.

Since that day, I’ve added more checks and pins to my mental list and also have began to see what an incomplete and/or misleading system checking things off is.  The inherent fault of checking things off mentally, or putting pins on a map is that once something is checked off, and a pin is smack dab in the middle of one of those countries, there is an implication of that place being done, finished. 

After saying goodbye to the tattooed traveler, I arrived in Istanbul and walked around the city for four or five hours while I waited for a bus to take me to the south coast of the country.  Now if anybody asks, I’ve been to Istanbul, I did it, I know it, cross it off the to-do list, move on. 

I know deep down that I really don’t know much about Istanbul, but every time I say I’ve been there, or done it, my brain subconsciously tricks me into thinking I know more than I do.  If I had a map with pins in my room, the false impression of knowing more than I do would be even further engrained into my psyche by means of visual saturation.

It can be misleading in the other direction as well.  I would look upon my pinned map and Berlin would have a pin just as big as Istanbul’s, implying that they are equal to me, that one is just as significant as the other.  Berlin holds an important place in my heart, two important years of learning and growing, hating and loving, lots of firsts and a few lasts, dark days of wintry depression and warm evenings of summer bliss, lasting friendships, important life lessons, check, another city off the list, pin it.

What are pins on maps really for?  I don’t think it is to remember, I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I’ve been.  Is it to impress people who visit my room?   Maybe, but anybody that’s already invited over to my house probably would already know me and would have already exchanged stories. 

It’s for me.   So I can look at all the pins and feel accomplished.  To convince myself that I’m cultured, that I’ve been around, that I know things.  In other words, the sharp needles puncturing the paper picture of the world, cut up into funny shapes by political quarrels, are there to serve my ego.

But I am just a being, knowing little, moving through physical space and being exposed to lots of little worlds, entering the worlds with no clue and leaving with even less of a clue.  I love to tell myself that I know how a certain culture is, but the reality is that the more I learn about a culture, the more I realize I don’t know.  There seems to be an infinite amount of subcultures that branch out from every culture, every collection of traditions and customs belonging to a specified group of people.  The breaking down of cultures to subcultures extends to each individual and within each individual, personality is further fragmented so much so that it is difficult to actually know anybody.

All I’m left with is faint, fleeting ideas of how things are.  It’s an insecure feeling to not have the confidence of knowing something for sure.  I pin myself to a wall so as to not fly away.  It tethers my clueless floating self, giving me a sense of stability and structure, converting me from a modest observer to a confident knower of things. 

I need the pins to communicate on a surface level.  When I meet someone on the road and they ask if I’eve ever been to Istanbul, I’ll tell them yes and allow that true but misleading one word answer to build up a false image in the other’s mind that I’m a knower of things, specifically of Istanbul in this case.  I could tell this person that my body was physically present there and that my mind was clouded with the fear of being in an unknown place, alone, with preconceived notions of muslims and deeper insecurities that blocked me from reaching out and communicating with locals in the few hours I timidly and aimlessly walked around the short radius surrounding the bus station.  But that would not make me look that cool and would possibly scare the person away by trying to get too deep too fast.

There are pins in everything, and they are not the nice pins with a colored plastic ball on one end, they’re sharp on both sides.  One side penetrates the world, “conquering” places and experiences while the other end stabs into my own thumb, causing a wound that heals with calloused scab tissue, a layer of false skin I unknowingly wear.  Every time I stick a pin into the map I puncture a truth, I may not feel the damage in the moment but with every penetration, my reality gets fragmented into little boxes, little predefined shapes that previous pinners painted. 

One day I was born into the world a being free of ideas, preconceived notions, boxless, and since that day I’ve been pinning and painting and gerrymandering my reality into all kinds of funny shapes and meaningless meanings to make sense of things.  Not to find the sense of things but to create sense.  To be able to survive, to communicate in a tangible language with others, to tie myself down to whatever, so as to not float away.

The pinned map, the checked list, telling others I’ve done this or that country is my desperate attempt at upholding the image I’ve created of myself.  It’s the cement shoes that weigh my free-floating self down to the labeled earth.  It’s the tattoo I’m stuck with until the day I’m freed again from all these pins.

I tell myself to not be so anti-social and go introduce myself to the guys playing pool in the corner of the room.  I have my checklist of life accomplishments in my back pocket in case I need to whip it out.  I turn away from the chalkboard of dreams and take a step toward the pool table but feel the weight of the cement shoes on my feet and hesitate.  My outer layer is sensitive and I don’t know if I can bear the stabs right now.  I find my heavy feet carrying me outside into the chaotic world of pinners and floaters, checkers and dreamers.  I get lost, and with each step, the heaviness chips away…