Another entry from my friend Peter. Enjoy!
If travel can be said to be a continuum of passages through obscure portals giving onto incomprehensible worlds, then tickets are the keys that open those doors.
Ranging from flimsy scraps of foolscap bleeding indecipherable script to official-looking vouchers replete with authoritative stamps and seals and overflowing with detailed (if erroneous) information, these optimistic documents often presage journeys that haven’t even started (much less ended) yet and perhaps never will.
Among the distinguishing features of the Armpit route is the lack of maps to guide the undecided migrant; a curious corollary of this is the profound uncertainty that commonly arises concerning how to attain that elusive locale whereof, as another notable expatriate tellingly observed, “There is no there there.”
In the “developed” world, of course, no such dilemma presents itself: One simply proceeds to train or bus or metro station, approaches the ticket window (whose barred face may bear an infelicitous resemblance to those other, larger cages with which the veteran roadie may well have had occasion to forge a more intimate connection) and pronounces the mysterious mantra denoting one’s intended target. A simple exchange of one worthless piece of paper for another of less complex design and, presto! the traveler is magically en route to a carefully enumerated, precisely labeled gate or platform.
(It goes without saying that, in the end, neither the stated time nor place nor duration may prove to be accurate. But since natives of these overwrought environs tend to possess an exceptionally low threshold of uncertainty, such elaborate social constructs are painstakingly erected, with considerable trouble and expense, in order to foster a comforting illusion of security.)
In the Armpit dimension, however, causality, if it exists at all, is rarely so straightforward an equation. To begin with, the “station” may turn out to be merely a vacant lot, a hole in the ground or one of any number of seemingly randomly selected stretches of disreputable city street. Then again, there may simply be no such thing. In these cases, the bewildered visitant is reduced to accosting a seemingly endless succession of utter strangers (further distanced by language, culture and innate suspicion) who, if not ignoring their petitioner outright, are likely to respond with some combination of scowls, grunts, evasive maneuvers and, at best, such wildly conflicting answers that they create a sort of sinkhole of verbal ambiguation.
And assuming that you do, in fact, succeed in determining the correct embarkation point, any further information concerning such niggling details as departure time may prove equally centrifugal. Thus, one may opt to board a particular vehicle (chosen, perhaps, solely out of desperation or a desire to escape the rain), in faith or hope that it is headed a) anywhere, and b) in the general direction of one’s imagined or alleged destination.
Meanwhile, even if you’ve somehow managed to secure the requisite bit of pasteboard, the adventure has assuredly only begun. For starters, assiduously safeguarding this precious talisman is essential, as at any moment a ticket man, heavily armed combatant or other civil or uncivil authority may demand that you produce it. (In crowded conveyances — which is to say, all of them — the mere act of snaking one’s hand into the appropriate pocket and retrieving said permit while swaying perilously in the aisle and simultaneously trying to avoid a) having one’s pocket picked, b) a sudden crash landing upon the more sensitive portions of one’s neighbors’ anatomy, and c) the irredeemable loss of one’s backpack-cum-“seat” demands a skill set obtainable only via a multiyear apprenticeship with The Flying Wallendas.) There is also the distinct possibility that the proffered safe-conduct may be rejected out of hand, requiring one to buy a high-priced replacement on the spot or face imminent ejection.
In the industrial world, a major bugbear of wayfarers is simple boredom, stemming from the intertwining facts that the whole business of proceeding from place to place seems so relentlessly predictable (in theory, anyway) and the line dividing terror from ennui so ephemeral.
But while hardened Armpitters will doubtless encounter their full share of interminable waits and complications, theirs is an anomie of an altogether more Sartrean sort. And a multitude of mutually reinforcing factors will typically help ensure that excessive consistency is not a problem.
Consider, for instance, the exciting game of Aryufurille, which begins when a friendly stranger approaches in said vacant lot or pit or city dump peddling “tickets” allegedly good for some future passage while demanding payment up front. Stymied by an apparent inability to make more confidence-inspiring arrangements, perplexed pilgrims may decide to bite the bullet and comply — only to spend the ensuing hours or days wondering whether they’ve just acquired a particularly pricey bit of worthless artifice (aka “learning experience”).
Another engaging pastime, Unfare, involves polling fellow passengers to determine who paid the least. But while one’s neighbors on any Western airline flight might ascribe such discrepancies to some arcane calculus of discount coupons, frequent-flyer miles and clever Web searches, Armpit differentials are more likely attributable to the phases of the moon, the flights of migrant birds, or whether the ticket seller got lucky last night.
At the other end of the spectrum stand those bewildering chains of randomly sequential transits from “I don’t know where I am” to “I never meant to end up here” that often befall the traveler who lacks a through booking. Inevitably, this sensitive condition lays one open to those legions of hawkers whose primary interest lies in cramming the maximum number of willing bodies on board — perhaps at the expense of one’s ability to occupy a seat (or even breathe) during the eternities to come, and irrespective of whether the projected route might represent a Columbian detour (i.e. “sail to the west to get to the east”).
But chin up: Relief from these protracted doldrums-in-motion will doubtless intermittently erupt when, during a pause at some nameless stopping place, an unknown Samaritan or saboteur abruptly takes possession of your luggage and runs off, gesturing enigmatically toward the next interpolation in your personal magical mystery tour.
Alternatively, if these alacritous operatives should somehow fall short in fulfilling their duty, there’s still a decent prospect of winding up beached in some backwater where no comparably astonishing creature has arrived since a deserter from Alexander’s army passed through in 323 B.C.E., enjoying several days of lavish hospitality before basely persuading the head honcho’s daughter to elope with him for points unknown. (The persistent bitter memory bequeathed by these events may impart an unfortunate spin to the present circumstances, though given sufficient emphatic reassurances and free-will offerings, the situation need not necessarily prove fatal.)
And should one manage, against all odds, to successfully navigate these assorted alarums and excursions, a further complication yet impends: determining when and where to disembark. (Here arises a pretty piece of irony: Where there is no station, there’s no need for a sign announcing it; where there are signs, one most likely won’t be able to decipher them in any case.)
Accordingly, whenever some motley cluster of hypothetical habitations heaves into view, the nerve-wracked traveler begins frantically harrying everyone within earshot as to whether this might indeed be, at long last, that mythological objective whose unpronounceable name has, by now, most likely receded into the oblivion whence it inexplicably emerged. And for want of a better option, the resultant uncomprehending stares (perhaps accompanied by an effusive string of strangely musical albeit opaque staccato syllables) must ultimately be considered their own reward…
…stumbling off of train or bus or wagon amid an ethereal haze compounded out of weariness, deprivation and neurological collapse, the somnambulant quasi-paralytic fails to notice the forgotten scrap of once-prized pulp that dislodges itself from an overstuffed pocket and delicately flutters to the muddy earth, there to be immediately trampled by the naked extremities of heedless passing mono-, bi-, tri- and quadrupeds…