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.

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