Feeling More Awake Than You Have Ever Felt

Jay Kirk's good travel essay on Rwanda last year in GQ captured one hard-to-describe benefit of traveling:

…There is no other place on earth where you can visit mountain gorillas one day, discover the true cosmic dimensions of the banana the next, feel haunted and overwhelmed and harrowed to your very brink, and for the same price of admission, feel more awake than you have ever felt.

Maybe it’s the cold bucket of history over the head. Maybe it’s the collective effort of everyone around you to stay conscious, the shocked look of so many people who are still just waking up from the worst nightmare of their lives to realize that, yes, it was all for real. And while it’s true that you may question whether or not you were fully awake before you got here, you will also probably spend an inordinate amount of time trying to lull yourself back to sleep, wherever you can find alcohol, because part of you will realize that being awake, really awake—well, it’s just not in your nature. That is, if you’re like me and you hail from the land of the Xbox, and you’ve become accustomed to—even begun to desire—the substitution of the virtual for the real, you probably prefer the dream to the directly experienced. But no matter how stuck you are in your digital simulator, however “experientially avoidant” you may be (as I was recently diagnosed by a cognitive-behavioral therapist), you will not remain immune to this odd sensation of waking up in Rwanda to discover, however disconcertingly at first, that not only do you have hair growing out of your arms, but your body also appears to possess these extra dimensions you had not taken into account of late. That you have been going around for some time a mere half-awake version of yourself. Just as you now realize that all along you’ve been eating these things that bear only a half-awake resemblance to a banana. And this is because, in Rwanda, a banana possesses at least seven dimensions, whereas in America, like most everything else, you get two at best.

The reason why travel is exhausting is because hyperawareness of surroundings and self is exhausting — and that's the mode you fall into when traversing foreign lands.

I loved the opening of the article:

On our seventh day in Rwanda…on yet another devastated dirt road winding through yet another breathtaking landscape, Darren informed us that the hair on his arms appeared to be growing much more quickly than usual. Not an alarming rate, but still, more growth than he'd ever noticed back in Los Angeles.

He put an arm between the front seats of the Land Rover so we could see for ourselves. Ernest and I agreed: His arms looked ape-y. One expected to be changed by travel; one looked for little symptoms in oneself, signs of alteration, but did this count as a valid transformation?

Ernest had never heard of such a thing. Once, he’d had a client who’d come all the way from Australia just to punch a mountain gorilla in the face, but nothing quite like this.

7 comments on “Feeling More Awake Than You Have Ever Felt
  • I couldn’t agree more.

    This is a big part of why I travel so frequently: the ability to disengage from your everyday, habitual surroundings and exist (at least for a while) in a place where no matter what is going on around you, the colors are brighter, the music more vibrant and the people awash with personality and depth.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Interesting post, travel is key to growth. However, I hope this sentence insn’t true: “you’ve become accustomed to—even begun to desire—the substitution of the virtual for the real, you probably prefer the dream to the directly experienced”. If anything the virtual world makes us desire the real life experiences even more.

  • “Once, he’d had a client who’d come all the way from Australia just to punch a mountain gorilla in the face”

    I’d travel all the way from Absurdistan to castrate that bastard if the chimps didn’t get him first.

    It’s a bloody shame that someone who writes so vividly and pungently about the horrific genocide in Rwanda makes it all sound like a half-remembered dream on the morning after Bwana’s neo-colonialist after-party.

    Sorry, Ben, but having read the entirety of Jay Kirk’s very graphic and disturbing essay, I was left feeling that he and his friends are indeed “soul-sick vampires, in search of souvenirs among the ashes” and “benumbed Westerners looking for something to startle us awake”.

    I would imagine that killing fellow humans is less wearisome than reading Kirk’s more viceral passages so redolent of light-hearted gnostical turpitude, even allowing for the misplaced or unintentional irony:

    “…an image of Gorilla berengei berengei (so named after Captain Robert von Beringe, the first lucky white man to shoot one.”


    “…offering visits to very graphic and disturbing genocide memorials right alongside its ample eco-menu of awe-inspiring biodiversions.”

    Forget the bullshit diagnosis of ‘experientially avoidant’ by his cognitive-behavioral therapist, any person should be able to see through the facile prose that Kirk is a serial exaggerator when he’s not an outright liar:

    “…bikes struggling under great clumsy pyramids of the plastic yellow jerricans, salvaged ten-gallon oil containers, a dozen or more at a time, which are used to transport water…”

    I don’t believe these stalwart bicyclists balance a half-ton on their bikes.

    And worse:

    “…the expulsion of a few pints of bloody grit from my nostrils”…”giant Ankole cattle with eight-foot-long horns”…Rangers had to come in with Kalashnikovs and clear the place, fighting it out with the baboons.”

    My lovely mandrill-red ass.

    But worst of all:

    “And this is because, in Rwanda, a banana possesses at least seven dimensions, whereas in America, like most everything else, you get two at best.”

    Ah, yes, string-theory on the half-shell.

    And now we have Bwana Tourist and his ibo-buddies on the move:

    “…overladen bicycles wobbling out of the way as quickly as possible as we fly through villages.”

    “What was that?” “I bet it was a baboon.” “Dirty savages.

    (Exactly what I thought about Kirk and his asinine friends)”.

    “…you think you might vomit at the mere thought of it, at the unspeakable truth beneath every scenic vista and preternaturally tasty banana.”

    My God, that bit about tasty bananas in this context makes me feel more nauseous than I’ve ever felt:

    “..seeing how long I can go between each moment of remembering. Perhaps it also explains why we are drinking like such fiends.”

    It would seem that the landscape had less of “…an enchanted and hobbity vibe to it” after the great laird Kirk and his raucous crew passed through.

    “…the strangest thing happened. A sense of euphoria came over us. Now, on the streets, everybody seemed so intensely alive.”

    Maybe it’s just more “drumming in church”:

    “…with 50 Cent blasting on the radio-Y’all niggas better lay down / Yeah, I mean stay down…”

    Why, King Leopold of Belgium couldn’t have said it better himself.

  • Being from Rwanda and having experienced all of this, I just have to say how wonderful it feels to know that more than Rwandans appreciate Rwanda.

    And yes, once experience say:

    – leaving your car to climb a mountain because the roads are too narrow
    – seeing daylight at night on top of that moutain (when there’s no electricy around) due to there being so many fireflies in the grass.
    – and the side by side worlds of rwanda at their finest (the hills, then the city)

    you never actually go back to ‘ignoring’ the world. no matter how hard you try.

    Thank you for this.

  • I’m headed to Central America in two days. I’m admittedly nervous. And this post reminded me of what I do these things – why I travel, the amazing, eye-opening, stimulating-in-all-senses experiences.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Kristin @allofusrev

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