Can we really go home?
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- Colonel Kurtz of Khorgos fame came to visit me in Prague. He said that he was doing business in Berlin, four hours by train away, but I like to think he came all the way from Belgium just to have a beer with me …
I may have drank more beer with this guy over the years than another other individual over the past decade. We just talk and drink until they kick us out and there is nowhere else to go — two obsessive compulsives going at it.
We talk about the New Silk Road. He built one of its preeminent stations. I built one of its most dominant narratives.
“We’ve both done well,” he said.
I liked interviewing him because he got the big picture of what he was doing. Many other port operators, shippers, etc were seeing the project from the perspective of their own little stations; he saw it from high up above. He understood the impact that interconnectivity and Asian billions could have, and he told the story of something much bigger than himself and his project. This story flowed smoothly into my own and helped lay a few bricks of my narrative.
“In the beginning there were three people who saw it: myself, you, and Ronald,” he said.
Suddenly, he asked me how I would describe what I write about. I thought about it for a moment.
“I write about paradigm shifts,” I replied.
I thought about it again. It actually sounded kind of right. I guess that is what I do.
Inevitably, he asked me about my Silk Road book. I’ve been working on it for three years now. It was supposed to be a one year project. But while I accomplished by objectives in the travel portion of the project — I got to where I needed to go and got the stories I was after — I didn’t set the processing side very well. To write a book you need certain parameters: space, time, and quiet. I’ve been financially supporting my wife and two kids for the past three years, I’ve been on the road constantly — I haven’t had any of this and it’s starting to really take a toll. I need something different, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do starting at the end of July.
Kurtz just laughed, and told me about this psychological condition where highly motivated people get in the trap of only taking their projects to 80%.
After you accomplish 80% of a big objective you’ve probably already overcome many of the big challenges and the rest just seems like work. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you know that you can just walk out into it, but you don’t because that’s a little boring — it means the project is done, that you can no longer extract stimulation from it, that you can no longer fill your head with it, and you fear that you may miss it when it’s gone. When you do these long projects you tend to fall in love with them, and the thought of finishing them is like lobbing their heads off. And you know that you will miss them when they’re gone.
So instead of finishing and leaving yourself cerebrally unoccupied you start something new. It’s kind of like moving on to new girlfriend when you still have the old girlfriend rather than breaking up and starting dating from scratch.
Ouch. Kurtz hit on something there.
But he does the same thing.
He has a fantasy about going home to his village and working in his home port. He speaks nostalgically of his village. I tell him he’s fantasizing. This guy is a traveler and travelers can never go home. It just doesn’t happen. You burn your membership card on your way out and they will never let you back in again.
You travel, you change. You are no longer the same person you were before you left and you can never go back and fit into the same notch. Travel re-shapes you, turns you into something that is no longer compatible with the society that you left behind. You glimpse your culture from the outside — you taste the blue lotus — and you’re done. You can’t go back inside.
There is something about living on the road for so long that breaks you, it makes you unable to be a part of your own tribe — a social invalid. Travel makes you an outlier and as much as we try to glorify it there is nothing redemable to it. It’s actually a very sad thing.
It’s sad because it’s kind of a lonely way to live. You talk to everybody but relate to nobody. Who understands you?
LBH: Losers Back Home. That’s a term that’s often used by expats in China, as though the lives that they are living are somehow better. But after nearly 20 years of traveling, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s perhaps better to stay in your village and be a dumb and ignorant, standard issue little local than a wise and worldly, unique and custom built traveler. At least you have a place — you’re on the inside of the warm home with the fireplace and the songs and laughs rather than out in the cold with your face pushed up against the windows peering inside.
That’s the punishment for biting into the blue lotus, for wanting it all. For those so arrogant and bold as to flip the script, to not live by the codes you were taught, you made your choice: you closed the door on your way out and now you can never go back.
Kurtz has been on the road since his twenties. He once told me the lyrics to some Russian song that he liked that went something like:
“Everywhere I roam, the road is my home.”
But what do I know? Maybe he goes home, lives in his house, and runs his port happily.
What I do know is that there is something special about meeting up with others who had made their lives on the road. It almost feels like talking to an old friend from your little village.