Part of the wonder of travel is encountering other people, other customs. But, as Paul Theroux reminds us, total seclusion is sometimes the most thrilling state of all.
Finding solitude in travel—the satisfactions of the desert island, the mountain fastness, the jungle hut—used to be a simple matter. For details, you don’t have to reach back (as some do) to the poster boy for solitude, Henry David Thoreau, who found monastic bliss a few miles from Concord, in a cabin that cost him a little more than $28 to build. He knew the American dream, living within walking distance of his mother’s apple pies while extolling the uses of wilderness.
Attaining solitude was once as straightforward as joining the Peace Corps—and it might still be the case. Nyasaland, in southeast Africa, in the 1960s was my first experience of blissful seclusion. I lived at the end of a dirt road in the bush—no telephone, no TV, and only the weekly mail drop; no car either, but I had a bicycle. In such a situation, you adapt or go mad, conscious of the messy fate of Mister Kurtz. Learning the language is a necessity that becomes a continuing fascination and skill. You become practical without being excessively fatalistic; and while developing a passion for local color, you discover a taste for the fauna and flora, an appreciation of the landscape, and taking nothing for granted you say: I am alone, this is my life, I will make the most of it.
In this sort of confinement, you forgo the big picture for the small one and you discover that the tiniest things are the most telling—knowing the names of people and things, learning what they care about, understanding the subtleties of weather and the turn of the seasons, the look of the landscape at different times of day, its textures and odors. My objection to people who want to save the world through lots of money and grand designs is that they don’t know this experience of articulating what William Blake called “minute particulars.” When you’re alone in an enormous landscape—if you’re alert—you learn that, in the day-to-day, the smallest things matter most, and you follow Blake’s advice in his prophetic book Jerusalem: “Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little-ones…. He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.”
The push in our age to find the last remaining pockets of seclusion is also a suspicion that we have been wickedly tricked by civilization, perhaps an admission that for all its benefits— museums, opera, fine restaurants, easy money—urban life can be nasty. Not just the competition on the roads and sidewalks, the incessant frottage in the subway, but the realization that urban life can impose all the loneliness that one would feel in Patagonia without any of its pleasures.
It is one of the oldest ambitions in travel to find the great undiscovered land, the dream of Columbus and Captain Cook and the true explorers, who traveled alone or led expeditions, developed a taste for solitude and an aversion for cities. There are all sorts of solitude. Nothing to me is more melancholy than the seclusion of a youth in a room tapping out his miseries in text messages or fondling a laptop in finger-strokes in search of virtual fun. The seclusion that matters to me implies the open air, a liberation in the very bosom of the world.
Source: Conde Nast Traveler