Copyright The New York Times
278 pages. $24. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Tourism is the world’s biggest business. Lawrence Osborne, a dyspeptic professional traveler, finds this perverse. The word “travel” itself, he points out, derives from the French for “labor,” and ultimately from a Latin word for a three-pronged stake used as an instrument of torture.
Travel is painful. Also boring and pointless, since the efficient machinery of mass tourism has produced an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all, synthetic destination he calls “wherever.”
It does not matter where you go, Osborne argues in “The Naked Tourist,” a biting, highly amusing and occasionally profound inquiry into travel and its discontents. All places these days are the same place, yet the traveler presses on, driven by an ill-defined hunger.
Sometimes the point of a journey is self-discovery. At other times the traveler wants to leave the world, to reach “a mythic place beyond known time and history.” And sometimes travel simply satisfies a primitive need to roam, perhaps a legacy of our hunter- gatherer origins.
Osborne experiences all this and more as he makes his way to what could be the remotest destination on the planet, the sago swamps and rain forests of southern Papua. Not for him the prepackaged “wonderland Stone Age sensations” promised by an Indonesian travel company. Research leads him to a Grizzly Adams from Missouri who promises to take him deep into the heart of a land beyond wherever, a place where maps based on global positioning systems simply read “no data.”
Fortunately, it takes him a long time to get there. There’s a lot of wherever to be dealt with first, in Dubai, Calcutta, Bangkok and Bali.
Like many English travel writers, Osborne has a kind of death wish. By upbringing, he is acutely sensitive to embarrassment, yet he seeks it out. Browsing the cheap-treatment medical clinics in Bangkok, he undergoes a disastrous high-colonic irrigation that recalls the most harrowing moments of “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Travel depresses Osborne. And misfortune stalks him everywhere he goes. Touring the Andaman Islands, he listens as his guide rhapsodizes over their vast tourist potential. “All this talk of the Andamans being the next Maldives or Seychelles had only reminded me how much I loathe the Maldives and Seychelles,” he writes. An ant crawls out of a biscuit he is eating and bites him on the eye, leaving an infected lump that grows to the size of a golf ball.
Misery and boredom inspire some of Osborne’s finer insights. Stumbling on a copy of “Robinson Crusoe,” he finds his own double, with “all the traits I see in myself: the longing to get naked, the fastidious disdain bordering on arrogance, the need to ‘get organized,’ the utopian desire to transcend the real world.”
Osborne’s transforming moments come in Papua, where he feels himself “an unreal man in an unreal place.” At an abandoned missionary house in Wanggemalo, members of the local tribe, the Kombai, gather to stare. A boy is led in by a village policeman.
The boy is suspected of being a sorcerer. The Kombai deal with witches by cutting them into four parts, then cooking their brains and viscera on hot stones and eating them.
Wanggemalo is the sophisticated urban center on Osborne’s ambitious itinerary. He pushes deep into the jungle, where he eats fat grubs wrapped in floury balls made from the pulp of the sago tree. The jungle Kombai do not know whether Osborne and his fellow whites are human or not. They have never heard of Papua or Indonesia. When Osborne explains that he comes from a country beyond the forest, he is met with blank stares. How can there be anything beyond the forest, since that is the entire world?
White skin inspires fear. It looks cold. A Kombai explains, after some discussion, that he and his fellow tribesmen were shocked at the sight. White? Who would have guessed? “They groaned softly for a while, as if this was truly an appalling idea, as no doubt it is,” Osborne writes. Finally, he gets his wish. He is outside time, off the map: “We were nowhere, anywhere – wherever we happened to be.”
Back home, Osborne descends from his transcendent heights, and in New York (“a moralistic and corporate city”) finds himself on the same boring plain: “Throughout this journey I had had the same feeling that I had not been ‘abroad’ anywhere, that I had simply moved through different dimensions of a single human contemporaneity.”
That’s the thing about travel. It never takes you anywhere, no matter how far you go. But Osborne has his bag packed. Next year: wherever.