Reflections of William Connors, American Expat and Translator Living in Germany

Translator and Explorer, Bill Connors, has lived a hell of a life. In this personal essay, he reflects on what travel means to him, the trials that he’s undergone and insights had, while living a life of adventure. His work can be found at siftingthroughlifeandtheworld.com

Bill’s shirt translates, “foreign devil”

It would be nice to know what you want in life. Is travel a way to find that out? I don’t think so, although perhaps that is why I always felt the need to go somewhere new, somewhere foreign or supposedly exotic.

Sometimes I think it was just due to a lack of imagination of what else to do, or a lack of ability to focus on something and really exceed in it, e.g., some scientific or medical discovery that would benefit the world, some artistic endeavor that would win acclaim, or maybe even raising a big family of kids, my own or adopted.

My original urge to travel perhaps came from the miserable environment where I grew up and the desire to flee it, but it become a habit or maybe even an addiction over time. A couple of cross-country trips in the USA and a summer exploring parts of Europe whetted my appetite. After my B.A., I first went to Germany to study the language with the plan of then going to graduate school. It was easy to make friends, and only a few months later I spoke the language and had a girlfriend who was later to become my wife. Her dream was to travel, and for years she planned one trip after another for us. She had two destinations that she wanted to travel too above all: South America and Tibet. A few years later, we traveled through South and Central America for 10 months living on the cheap, and many years later we finally made it to Tibet after China finally allowed it (before closing it to individual travelers again). She passed away in Tibet, and I decided that I would never travel again. Of course, the pain receded somewhere back into my consciousness with the passing of the years and a new girlfriend plus renewed optimism, I started traveling again, though not as much and more in Europe where I lived most of life instead of to Asia, Africa and Latin America as previously.

So many people travel these days that it is nothing special. You cannot go anywhere without encountering other people traveling, many of them a lot longer than I. I have met people claiming to have traveled for 5–10 years and in pursuit of the most-traveled traveler award, although it turned out that most of them had stayed put somewhere for a couple of years in-between working and earning some money to continue, i.e., modern day hobos. There are who pride themselves on how many countries they have visited, treating traveling as some kind of contest: the most countries visited, the worst bus ride, the cheapest place, the least money spent, the most disgusting toilet or food, etc. And there is also someone who can top your story.

These days I hesitate to travel, since going to remote destinations has become a mass phenomenon and places I once considered to be paradise have become the realm of package tourists. I long for Khao San Road of years ago when there were only a couple of plasterboard hovels for a couple of dozen backpackers, and I know that I can never go back there again. So many formerly interesting sites now inundated with tourists dragging wheeled suitcases behind them as well as young people only interested in partying. The day I trade my backpack in for a suitcase with wheels is the day I will stop traveling all together: no more walking along beaches searches for a good bungalow or hiking a stunning mountain trail, no, not possible with such baggage.

Staying in luxury hotels or resorts is something that I would not even call traveling. In her very insightful book, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen writes about the origin of Hilton Hotels, founded by the arch-conservative US American Conrad Hilton: “The Hilton was there to discourage American customers from spending too much time in a foreign culture, from considering other ways of life.” That reminds me of a TV commercial that I saw many years ago in the States, where they proudly proclaimed that staying in their hotels (forget which hotel chain) you would get “no surprises,” i.e., exactly the same conditions as at home without any “nasty” foreign influences or contact. What sense does it make to travel great distances to “exotic” countries only to experience the same as at home? Might as well just go to Disneyland and visit the foreign pavilions there without having to fear that you might not be able to get a hamburger (apparently the only food that is now available in all countries of the world).

Is working in a foreign country considered part of traveling? Do my language courses in foreign countries qualify as travel? No idea nor does it really matter to me; I find staying in a place for a certain length of time while learning the language gives me a lot more insight into a country, its culture and people than just going some place and visiting the sights. I traveled through Bulgaria twice on my way to India and back, each time taking approx. 24 hours to cross the country. So, can I count Bulgaria as a country I have been to? Have visited? Does it matter?

Some people just seem to like being in another country, but without much interest in it. I recently met a Canadian/Italian in China who had lived and traveled there for 14 years, but the only words of Chinese that he spoke were “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Good-bye”. Is there a desire to feel that you are someone special, different from most people? The feeling of being an outsider can perhaps increase your self-esteem as being someone out-of-the-ordinary, someone special when at home you are just a nobody.

When I taught at a university in Korea, I thought the other foreigners would be interesting people, only to discover that many of them were misfits in their own countries and continued to be that in Korea. They left their countries because they did not fit in there, and it was no different in Korea.

Why travel? There were lots of reasons in the past: simply to get away from a suffocating environment, to experience something new, get to know the world and other cultures, relax, learn something new, make new friends, and even save money by going to places where prices were ridiculously low. We once calculated (unfortunately for me, this is no longer true) that if we drove to Italy for three weeks, stayed in a tent at campgrounds and cooked our own meals, we would spend the same amount of money if we flew to Thailand, stayed in guest houses and bungalows and ate great food in restaurants three times a day. My income was below the poverty level for the first half of my life, but I traveled anyway even if it meant hitchhiking and sleeping by the side of a road (which I actually enjoyed long ago).

Travel as a way of “coming of age”? Breaking away from your familiar surroundings and confronting the outside world: I would recommend it to every young person, but it need not involve travel. Study or volunteer work in another country can be just as intellectually stimulating, if not more so.

See the sights? Why of course: I fondly remember looking at the Eiffel Tower from my room in Paris, visiting the Taj Mahal at full moon, bicycling through Angkor Wat, riding through Pagan in Burma, Borobudur, hiking to Machu Pichu, seeing the Tripiṭaka Koreana woodblocks at Hainsa Temple in Korea, the pyramids in Egypt, hiking on the Great Wall, etc., etc. You could of course just look at pictures of them, but authenticity would be lacking, or “aura” as Walter Benjamin once wrote about the difference between a live concert and a recording of it. And then there are the experiences of nature: trekking in the Himalaya or the Rocky Mountains, snorkeling along the coast of Flores Island, seeing the animal world of Galapagos first hand, lemurs and whales in Madagascar, the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines,Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon, sunsets on deserted beaches, a boat ride through the Mekong Delta, and safaris in Africa.

A nice beach without McDonald’s in the vicinity or a mountain trail that is not overcrowded? Yes, of course, but I have seen more than my share of cathedrals, temples, ruins, etc., so count me out on the sightseeing side unless there is something really spectacular. These days I often prefer going to one place and staying there longer, attempting to learn the language and getting to know some local people, e.g., Granada, Spain, where I have good friends whom I meet in Zanzibar years ago and where I take Spanish and flamenco guitar lessons. There are lots of beautiful places that I have not seen in Spain yet, but I prefer delving deeper into the culture in one place: quality instead of quantity. 

I first traveled to Europe to learn foreign languages, i.e., French and German. That became a desire to travel, but then my desire to travel switched back to a desire to learn languages in order to get to know other ways of thought, because each language expresses a world view and culture that can only be approximated in translation. Now I have good friends in France, Germany, Spain and China where I have studied (I failed at learning Korean), and perhaps my desire to learn languages has switched to a desire to get to know new friends. Hence, I began learning Italian a few months ago.

Bill Connors. Siftingthrouglifeandtheworld.com

On the roof of the world in Tibet

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