Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Destination: The Open Road

Afghanistan may not be on the top of many of our lists of Places to See Before We Die. The country is not exactly promising to flourish into a tourist destination in any near future. Even if you wanted to travel there, you might find your road difficult, perhaps dangerous. Unfortunately, not all roads in life are open to us. That's why we have books. Others have gone to the places we've always wanted to see before us, paving the way for our own travels--if not by car, train, or airplane--by armchair.

In 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart made the journey from Geneva to Afghanistan by car, becoming the first women to travel Afghanistan's Northern Road. Both women were writers and preserved their experience for those of us who can only dream of making such a venture into unknown territory. Maillart published her account in The Cruel Way, and now, for the first time, Schwarzenbach's record of the journey has been translated and published as All the Roads Are Open.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Schwarzenbach describes her awe at finally seeing the place names she had only read about as a child. "In the classroom, I stubbornly refused to believe the names I learnt and read on my map could take form before I'd seen them with my eyes, touched them with my breath, held them as it were in my hands," she writes, reminding me of something I learned about child development by watching my co-worker Paul's children grow.

As infants, we do not have faith in object permanence, believing that what cannot be seen does not exist. If a person leaves the room, they are gone forever; their reappearance is a shock and a thrill. Paul's two-year-old still gets a kick out of peek-a-boo: now I'm here, now I'm not, wait--now I'm here again! "The simultaneity of near and far confused me;" Schwarzenbach remembers, "I had grave doubts that at any given moment life might reign both here and there, on this side and that side of the seas and mountains."

As I read Schwarzenbach, I began to think that perhaps we do not grow out of our infant skeptism quite as quickly as we suppose. In the least, remanants remain, in the form of longing for the things we cannot see, the people who have left the room indefinetly, and for the places we have only read about. "Such doubts," Schwarzenbach speculates, "demanding resolution, may have inspired my earliest journeys: I went forth not to learn what fear was but to test what the names held and feel their magic in the flesh, just as, at the open window, you feel the miraculous power of the sun you'd long seen reflected on distant hills and spread on dewy meadows."

Lucky for us, Schwarzenbach's "going forth" led her into lands so foreign in their language, so breathtakingly beautiful in their epic landscapes, so full of fantastical characters and cultures, we have trouble understanding their reality. Even as adults with a firm grasp on the permanency of objects not seen, it can be difficult to remember that such places exist, far from here, in an everyday as we do here. By reading travel narratives such as Schwarzenbach's we can remind ourselves of that immense reality, and, more than that, participate in something of the magic of the journey itself. Come in to Booksmith and browse our Destination Literature section, where an open book is equivalent to an open road.

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