Tuesday, June 3, 2014

People Vs. Nature Vs. Dancing About Architecture: Which One Does It More for Me

Here's something from the "I can't believe I actually wrote that!" file:
"Part of me wants to see as much of the world as possible. A bigger part of me wants to experience as many people and cultures from around the world as possible, which is why I prefer travelling to cities as opposed to being surrounded by nature in the middle of nowhere....

"Although I have done most of my travelling alone, my most memorable moments have involved other people. An interesting person is always more memorable than a sunset, or a tree, or the clouds. The Egyptian pyramids and the lost city of the Incas aside, culture is in the city, in the people, not in a waterfall, or in a cow."
That was from a blog post I wrote on January 6, 2010 that was inspired by the George Clooney film Up in the Air and the Greek god Dimitris, a traveler I had met on the evening of Boxing Day in Cordoba, Argentina, who had the opposite point of view. My now-outdated thoughts left me questioning my past sanity when I stumbled across them this morning because I've had that same debate with my friend Sam several times in the last couple of years (most recently on March 16), with Sam taking my January 2010 side and me more or less siding with Dimitris (minus his underappreciation of buildings).

Sam: "Great cities and great places are made by the people who live there."
Me: "It just depends on what you're looking for. I can enjoy a city without ever talking to a single person in it."

That I felt the way I did then, feel the way I do now and am admitting to having done a complete 180 proves three things:

  1. I didn't know a thing at the beginning of 2010.
  2. I've seen a lifetime's worth of beautiful views in the last four and a half years.
  3. I can admit when I'm wrong.

So wrong. I'm not sure when the turnaround began. Probably not in Australia, a beautiful continent whose best features for me remain the charm of its local populace, its cultural and linguistic quirks and the hunkiness of its men. If I had to pinpoint a moment of change, I'd say it was in September of 2011 when I was waking up (alone) to the sight of monkeys on my porch on the Thai island of Koh Chang. I've always appreciated natural beauty, but Koh Chang might have been the first time I actually marveled at it. That I was completely on my own in such a remote part of the island (save for a few other low-season guests at Nirvana Resort on Bang Bao Bay) and the staff, added to the luster of it all.

I've had so many similar experiences since then, sometimes in places packed with people who were sometimes almost incidental to the breathtaking landscape (Welcome to Jerusalem!) or the fascinating architecture (Hello, Rome!) enveloping us all. To be completely honest, I can't remember when I wasn't obsessed with architecture, a condition that's intensified over time.

I certainly didn't connect with Dubai for the people or because I enjoy spending my daylight hours famished. (I arrived in the city last July in the middle of Ramadan.) Dubai was all about the Burj Khalifa, the skyscrapers surrounding it that looked like they were inspired by abstract '80s patterns, and my five-star suite for one at the Melia Dubai Hotel. (There was also the safari in the Arabian Desert, but that was well outside the city limits.) The only human memory that remains embedded in my memory from my three days in Dubai is Juan, an expat from Argentina.

But getting back to nature, it's the only reason why I'm still in Cape Town after six months. If it weren't for all of the glorious geological wonders, the ones that continue to catch my eye like a lover who refuses to halt the release of proverbial butterflies in my stomach, God knows I would be somewhere else by now. Diverse and intriguing as the Cape Town populace is, it's not enough of either to account for the city's holding my interest as long as it has.

That's not to say that people can't contribute to my loving a place, but it's rarely all about them. I can't think of one instance in the last five years where it has been. The perfect place is a perfect storm of interesting people, stunning nature and cool buildings. I've yet to go there, but two out of three ain't bad, which is why New York City, London and Buenos Aires (back when I loved it), are probably the closest I've come.

One month from now, on July 5, I'll be heading into another great unknown when I embark on a 10-day excursion into Tanzania and Kenya. I will be spending three of those days camping in the Serengeti bush, sleeping under the stars with nothing separating me from the world outside (and the mosquitoes -- I must remember to get malaria pills!) but a sleeping bag and a tent. Anyone who knows me knows how completely out of character this will be for me. Up to now, my idea of camping was spending the weekend with my best friend Lori at Moby's old country house in Upstate New York without WiFi.

I'm assuming there'll be no Internet in the Serengeti, so I won't be able to fall back on people who need people on Facebook. And although I've never been one to turn away a potential human bond, I'm certainly not expecting to form lifelong friendships with my fellow campers while I'm there. I'm doing it all for the natural experience, the wide open spaces, the big sky, the wild wildlife and, in the words of Coldplay, a sky full of stars.

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