From the time I was seven I thought that going on an expedition was a great idea and an eventuality. Now I’m trying to figure what is NOT an expedition.
I viewed heading to China in 1982 to work as a Foreign Expert in English as an expedition. I remember standing at the counter at the San Francisco airport with my trans-Pacific fardles — a little trunk that held a year’s supply of tampons, a wide array of prescription drugs, books for school, electricity converters, and a toaster oven. I also had a large convertible backpack (because I was going on an expedition) that held my clothes. That wasn’t all, though. I had my skis. One of the really wonderful (should’ve) men in my life, who happened to have been the person who took us to the airport in the VW that I had sold him, asked, “Are you sure you want to take them? Why are you taking skis, anyway? I can take them back for you.”
I’m pretty sure I answered him, but the answer’s almost too embarrassing to write here… Oh, ok. I thought we were going to Tibet and we would ski. They were back-country skis, after all… And hey; this was an EXPEDITION.
Thinking about it now, that’s no more absurd than those elegant, expensive British expeditions with the silver tea service. Or maybe it is. Skis are a lot harder to pack.
I had the idea that the difference between an expedition and a simple trip was the degree of exoticism and the degree of difficulty. With that as my operative theory, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 really began when we were stuck at the tiny airport in Guangzhou with our fardels and no one to meet us. It was instant total immersion. I had to figure out what to do next.
I did and we ended up at the Bai Yun Hotel in a spartan, clean room with pale green walls and white linens. A sink hung on the wall and in a small closet was a squat toilet, beautifully tiled. We ate our first meal in the People’s Republic of China in the hotel restaurant. There wasn’t much left in the kitchen and all there was to eat was “Joak” which is a kind of rice porridge with chicken or fish, thousand year old eggs, scallions and a kind of fried bread on top. That qualified as an expedition, too, as did the rat my X saw scurrying along the floorboards.
I would like to have gone on more expeditions like this. Compared to other expeditions in life, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 was pretty simple and straight-forward. Find a job, pack your stuff, go to the country. The real Chinese expedition was a lot like other life expeditions — coping successfully with quotidian frustrations like a washer that agitates in one direction and didn’t spin the clothes, or an infinite number of giant cockroaches or nothing but cold showers or recurring GI blues all combined with the inability to understand most of what’s going on around you.
Thinking about it now, an expedition seems like a very easy way to simplify one’s life. For a while, a person just surrenders to the imperatives of the road. As Kerouac said, “99% of Americans attempt to solve their problems by going on the road.” I’m not sure that’s limited to Americans.
My expedition today involves a journey to the Big City of Alamosa to pick up groceries. This will be followed by painting more of the deck, a task that has to be done in pieces and at a certain time of day because I need to accommodate my friends, Bear and Teddy. Sometimes I get advertising from Globus for an “expedition” to one of the world’s nether regions (nether from here). I look, sometimes, and imagine the expedition.