Loving the imaginary and the real

India was my first encounter with otherness, the discovery of a new world. It was at the same time a great lesson in humility. I returned from that journey embarrassed by my own ignorance. I realized then what seems obvious now: another culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand. One has to prepare oneself thoroughly for such an encounter.

My initial reaction to this lesson was to run home, to return to places I knew, to my own language, to the world of already familiar signs and symbols. I tried to forget India, which signified to me my failure: its enormousness and diversity, its poverty and riches, its incomprehensibility had crushed, stunned, and finally defeated me. Once again, I was glad to travel around Poland, to write about its people, to talk to them, to listen to what they had to say. We understood each other instantly, were united by common experience.

But of course I remembered India. The more bitter the cold of the Polish winter, the more readily I thought of hot Kerala; the quicker darkness fell, the more vividly images of Kashmir’s dazzling sunrises resurfaced. The world was no longer uniformly cold and snowy but had multiplied, become variegated: it was simultaneously cold and hot, snowy white but also green and blooming.

Those are the concluding paragraphs of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s essay, “The Open World“, translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska and published in the February 5, 2007 New Yorker. It’s a fitting elegy for the great writer, who passed away in late January, and a good response to complaints about his alleged looseness with facts. The last paragraph above is true in a way that transcends journalism, true in a way that’s immediately apparent to anyone whose universe has been expanded by travelling to a place that was previously unimagined.

I came back from a year living in Ghana (from 1993-4) to snowy Williamstown and plunged back into the world of technology, working startup hours and trying to make Tripod happen. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the simultaneity of the Accra sunshine and the Berkshire dark until a few years into the project, when I started feeling deeply uneasy, displaced and dislocated, as if my time in Ghana had become a sort of repressed memory.

The only cure for this disease is more travel. And that in turn becomes addictive – if you can layer Kerala on Poland or Ghana on Massachusetts, why not layer on Jordan, Mongolia and Kenya as well? The realization of the reality of the rest of the world can turn into an addiction to experiencing as much of it as possible, an addiction that clearly shaped much of Kapuscinski’s life and work.

Writing the other day about journalistic fascination with imaginary words, my purpose wasn’t to argue that people’s interest in the imaginary is limiting their interest in the real world… though I can understand why some people have read the post that way, as my writing was even muddier than usual. There’s a deep and powerful fascination with virtual worlds that seems to be shared by journalists, readers and the inhabitants of these worlds. While I don’t share that fascination, I am perpetually fascinated with the way the real world can layer upon itself in the way Kapuscinski describes. My ongoing hope is to find a way to make this layering and interconnection as interesting to readers as some people find high media-attention topics like virtual worlds.

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