mad in pursuit
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mad in pursuit travel

"An adventure is never an adventure while it’s happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquillity." Tim Cahill (Outside, Nov 98)

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So-called adventure travel: Just do it...yourself.

Getting stale? Stuck in your groove? Freaking out if the line is too long at Starbuck's? Need something to challenge the body and jolt the spirit? Forget Everest. Forget the luxury rafting trip where they serve cappuccino with dinner.

Go to Pakistan (or Costa Rica or Thailand or Mexico or China) without a room reservation.

This'll scour the hell out of your rusty spirit.

Here's what you do:

Stage 1. The Big Ugly Base City: disorientation and inner conflict

  • Sleep off jet lag or pre-trip work exhaustion.
  • Feel like an oversized American ass when you’re dressed for a safari and the slender locals are all dressed for Wall Street.
  • Observe that the base city is unbelievably and intolerably (a) dirty, (b) crowded, (c) chaotic or (usually) all of the above.
  • Panic about the hastily acquired hotel room, which is darker and more dismal than you'd had any right to hope for. (What was that flitting just beyond your vision?)
  • Reflect bitterly on how many precious vacation days are about to go down the drain.
  • Start reminding yourself, "You wanted different, you got it. Now get organized and start exploring."
  • Notice how friendly the people are (at least the ones who aren't snickering about your clothes).
  • Explore: gather maps and brochures. Reconnoiter around the hotel, with one or more near-fatal attempts to cross a roaring boulevard.
  • Assure yourself that you know where the nearest liquor store is OR how to acquire liquor in an Islamic state.

Stage 2. Panic over your lack of plans

  • Establish a place or two where you know you can get a decent meal and visit the big museum.
  • Suddenly realize you have nothing else planned and your vacation clock is ticking. (The guidebooks imply getting from point A to B is a snap, but it's not at all obvious once you're there).
  • Discover the tour agencies are closed, not locatable, or can’t get past trying to sell you a beach package.

Stage 3. On the road jubilation.

  • Agree over breakfast, finally, on exactly what you want to do so you can explain it to someone.
  • Stumble, finally, upon that someone who smiles and says, "Sure, no problem."
  • Fork over some hard currency.
  • Go! You actually figured it out. You’re moving.

Stage 4. Trial and revelation.

  • Move through various destinations, headed for the most remote.
  • Realize (unless you are stupid enough to be driving yourself) that you have no control over the vehicle, so you might as well look over the edge of the precipice and enjoy the view.
  • Balance the "this isn’t what I bargained for" moments with moments of elation at how lucky you are. (There is usually a direct correlation between the two.)
  • Keep believing anyone who says there "won't be any problem" finding a room in the next town.
  • Learn how to keep insisting when the next innkeeper says there is no room. (There is always a room. Keep smiling and saying "VIP!")
  • Have a couple of sobbing breakdowns.
  • Endure moments of despair: one more plate of rice and beans. Refuse to eat at McDonalds (assuming there is one within a thousand miles).
  • Discover that the humblest of places will wash your moldering clothes for a few worthwhile bucks; that you don't have to carry damp underwear from place to place.

Stage 5. Return to base city

  • Be pleasantly surprised that the city is not so incomprehensible. The air not so unbreathable. The streets not so filthy.
  • Pop down to the liquor store and bustle over to those shops you wanted to visit again.
  • Take pride in feeling like an old hand. Give advice to the new arrivals.

Stage 6. Re-entry passage

  • Prepare for the fact that you have probably purchased something illegal or lost an important paper that will freak out the officials at one or both ends of your endless flight home.
  • Discover that the tidy mown verges of the highways between the airport and your house are numbingly sterile.
  • Call your parents to say you're home and start the story-telling.
  • Realize the best stories are emerging from your worst misery. (Everyone thinks you're so cool.)
  • Put away the chunky little wads of toilet paper you've been carrying till the next trip.


If there’s a fly in my house I race around with the swatter till I’ve smashed it. I prefer eating indoors. But gradually, on one of these trips, I can eat at a roadside stall and bat away the hungry flies while I enjoy the rich flavors and colorful sights.

I have to trick my comfort-addicted ass into these situations. I have to box myself into the experiences I most resist.

I'm sure my innate fussiness over physical comfort (hygiene, critters, pillow softness) mirrors the rigid confines of my mental and emotional landscape. Seeing the world through new eyes, seeing beyond my orthodoxies requires deliberate breaking down of what’s comfortable.

The benefit is a kind of freedom: the ability to emerge from the comfortable "U.S.A. zone" to walk (more or less) in the shoes of people who see the world through different eyes. I’m here. I can do this. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my own life, my own world view, my own hard-earned opinions. I can shut up and listen. I don’t want to preach or enlighten. I want to listen and understand. I’m free to do that here. No one demands to know my "vision". I'm free to let it dangle somewhere in the back of my mind, undefended, open to challenges. What I absorb doesn’t have to be earth-moving or paradigm-shattering. It doesn’t have to send me home being a crusader for this or that. It simply expands my mental playing field.