Wednesday, November 18, 2009

sublimity on the road.

Here’s what I remembered as I stood on the verge of a massive precipice and peered down into the churning whiteness of Iguazu Falls: I will happily shell out fistfuls of pesos, trek obediently along well-worn trails with other travelers, stand and wait for trains and busses and shuttles and my turn to come, if the end result is having the massive good fortune to be able to see a wonder of the world.

I have now experienced 4 overnight busses in my life, and each one delivered me to the doorstep of something jaw-dropping: 12 hours spent hugging the Croatian coast and fearing for our lives meant that my Mom and I got to spend days in Dubrovnik, one of the most beautiful cities we had ever seen. 10 hours from Tikal, Guatemala to Antigua meant that I got to hike a volcano with two of my best friends that actually looked like Middle Earth. And two days ago, an overnighter from Buenos Aires whisked us out of the smog and bustle of the city and dropped us directly in the middle of a sweltering and gorgeous jungle, in the middle of which crashes the world’s second largest waterfall, evenly splitting the border between Argentina and Brasil. (But of course, it’s never that simple. Due to a late-arriving bus and an overbooked hostel, we stayed with Miguelina, an older lady with a monkey in her front yard and a washboard on the back patio. She insisted on making us salt pastes for our bug bites and scolded us for not leaving more time for the falls. We were only following advice! We didn’t know we’d need 8 whole hours to experience it! Tired, stressed that we had cut ourselves short, we rushed to the national park 4 hours before closing.)

Half of travelling is enjoying the current moment for what it is, despite the fact that it doesn’t look quite like you’d expected it to—you’re more tired or hungover or distracted or hungry than you wanted to be, and the photos of these places don’t take that into account. As the first Spaniard I ever met would say, “PERO VALIÓ LA PENA, NO?!” Yes, it’s worth the exhaustion and time and money and work—it was completely worth it and always will be, because places like Iguazu Falls (or the Grand Canyon, or the Himalayas, or the Sinai Desert) are more than just places; they are states of humble recognition of our own size (very, very small), and our relativity to everything else, and the grandeur of the Creator.

Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, talks about the sweet pleasure there is in being made to feel small by the great wonders of nature. In fact, the word sublime was originally intended and used exclusively for the purpose of explaining the feeling one gets in the presence of something so vast and awe-inspiring in nature that ordinary lexicon couldn’t encompass it. For all their beauty, in no way can the cathedrals and pyramids and statues that dot the surface of our shared tierra strike the deep internal chord that a natural wonder of such size and gravity can. Man-made structures are our attempts to create some kind of immortality for ourselves, to remind our children’s children that we existed—here we worshipped, lived, here we meant something. But all the construction and strivings of mankind give way in light of the simplicity and grandeur of things like the wide, meandering river that suddenly gives way to a thundering mass of foam and mist. Monday afternoon, next to two Austrians with painful bedbug bites and a troop of American senior citizens, we stood in the presence of the sublime.

It feels silly, taking photos of something like this. Like shots of a particularly gorgeous sunset (which we were also blessed with on the way home), you have to include a disclaimer when showing shots to people who weren’t there: “It was really more massive than this 3x5 shows. You had to hear the thunder to really understand it. It’s not exactly what this looks like.” But, in minute attempts to capture pieces of existence, photographs stand as small reminders of big things. I won’t even be mad if you don’t think these are that impressive.
So, now it’s Wednesday night, and by 10 o’clock this morning, we had already put in a 40 hour week of riding on busses. We are now tucked away in Salta, having watched the scenery change from suburbs of Buenos Aires to the thick foliage of almost-Brasil to flat, green fields hosting peaceful horses and then to the drier, Eastern-Washingtonesque hills of the northwest territory. Bus rides, when it comes down to it, are still better than flying. How else would we appreciate the effort it takes to reach the sublime?


Alex said...

So I'm all about enjoying where I'm at and making the most of it, but as I sit here with what is probably the swine flu in the making and standard rainy and 40s W. Washington weather, I'd much rather be there at the falls. Thanks for at least assissting my imagination in creating an escape through your travels.

Aimee Jo said...

posts like these make me want to fall in love with you. I miss you both dearly.

huysmantrophy said...

schloss, if we aren't already in love, i don't know what i've been doing with the past 6 years of my life.
and alex, thanks for reminding me that swine flu exists :( sending you good luck for the winter...

Aimee Jo said...

ah you're right. I'm madly in love with you but these posts make me fall in love with you all over again. see?!