You Can't Get There From Here (excerpt)

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Twelve weeks before my husband, Nick, and I were due to leave for our long-planned, round-the-world adventure, hijackers sent a trio of airplanes careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and might have smashed a fourth plane into the Capitol were it not for a handful of brave passengers. As we all know, three thousand people were killed that day. This is a travel book, by the way, and a funny one at that, so I don’t mean to bum anyone out with this defining moment of darkness, except that it illustrates a point that I didn’t fully comprehend myself until I got a gig acting in a Bollywood movie several months later: The world is shrinking.

You only need step out into it to see the signs of this condensing, this converging. The obvious examples are the familiar ones: the McDonald’s at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps; the Starbucks in downtown Doha, Qatar; the malls of Bangkok, indistinguishable from their counterparts in Los Angeles. These, along with the oft-decried economic acronym forces—NAFTA, WTO, IMF, ASEAN, etc.—are globalization’s harbingers. And, depending on your worldview, they either herald the dawn of a beautiful age of international cooperation or foretell some grim world populated by prepubescent sweatshop workers and a monoculture of Gap-wearing, latte-drinking droids.

Whatever. That globalization is about stuff, product; it’s economic, defined solely in terms of dollars and yen and euros. It misses the bigger and far more interesting picture. Globalization is really about people, about what happens when your culture shows up in my living room or when my way of life is tossed into your lap. It’s about the marriages—some arranged, some chosen, some forced—that result when everything gets mixed up. And this is no early twenty-first-century phenomenon. Globalization is a messy, incremental, and evolutionary process, going as far back as—who knows?—Neolithic times, when rival tribes ceased fighting and started trading. Globalization is Genghis Khan consolidating Asia, from the coast of China to the skirts of Europe, and introducing a postal system to keep the empire connected. It is Arab traders sailing the oceans, ferrying not only silk and saffron to new markets, but also mathematics and, later, Islam. It is Christian missionaries descending upon South Pacific nations, delivering the Gospel of Christ and Victorian fashions to naked natives. It is Ghanaian slaves making their middle-passage to a life of bondage. It is Central European Jews emigrating en masse from the Old World to the New World. It’s the Somali restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Globalization is what happens when the melting pot explodes.

What makes the world’s shrinkage so significant now is that travel, trade, and technology have sped up the process exponentially and, in doing so, altered all the rules. Thirty years ago, it was of little consequence to a Manhattan banker that some guys in a cave in Afghanistan hated everything he and his country stood for. Now, it matters; it matters a lot.

In January of 2002, my husband and I boarded a plane for our trip anyway. First stop: the South Pacific island nation of Tonga. Then onward to the disparate corners of the planet. The terrorist attacks gave us pause, made us reconsider our trip, and ultimately reminded us why we should go: To forget the humanity in others is to risk forgetting your own. Besides, whatever fear we may have nursed soon subsided; the world is so much scarier on a TV screen than it is in a spice bazaar or a tropical jungle. Once I got my toes wet, I started noticing the commonalities as much as the differences. Those freaky Kazak kids who were so obsessed with Tolkien that they spent weekends in the mountains acting out Middle-Earth fantasy games were really just trying to get in touch with their European heritage. I understood that. And the Tongan transvestites were not the beauty-contest-obsessed flits they appeared to be, but a group of men looking for love. I understood that, too.

It’s no accident that my global education came not from economists, politicians, or professional opinion makers but from Tolkienists and transvestites. You see, I am a member of the tribe of the odd. Have been since, as a little girl, I came to realize that I was not like an Amy or a Jenny. I was a Weird Girl. As such, I spent a lot of time by myself, daydreaming, bug-hunting, thrift-shopping for Snoopy skirts, dyeing my hair unnatural colors, and doing interpretive dances to the Velvet Underground at my elementary school’s talent shows. All of this might make me cool by today’s standards, but in 1980s suburban Los Angeles, it was social suicide. Naturally, I became the picked-on person, which was just as well because the alternative was to be a picker-onner and I didn’t have the stomach for that.

Mine is not a novel story. The teen-alienation motif has been well-covered in the John Hughes oeuvre. And my tale had a happy enough ending. I was miserable, but eventually the world broadened out enough for me to realize that legions of other outsiders existed. And then I started finding them: the actors, the painters, the punkers, the computer geeks, the black kid at my mostly white school, the queer boys, the antisocial girls who didn’t shave their armpits. I understood early on that these people were my tribe and that somehow I would always find them.

They would find me, too. The first time I went abroad was to be an exchange student in England where, by chance, I ended up studying not in a typical parochial school but in an experimental academy without classes and classrooms. My teachers were socialists, and Chumbawamba played at school events. If you weren’t a hippie, a punk, a vegetarian, or a sworn enemy of capitalism, you were the misfit at this school. A year later, high school diploma in hand, I traveled through Europe. In Florence, I missed the Duomo because I’d taken up with a troupe of street performers. In Paris, it was a clique of gay Moroccan florists who adopted me. In Copenhagen, I got friendly with a klatch of drag queens. This was how it always went, and how it continues to go. When I became a journalist I wasn’t drawn to stories about politicians or business leaders or movie moguls. It was the child soldiers, the tree-hugging ecoterrorists, the food cultists who captured my attention. And when it came time to fall in love, I found Nick, a shy punk-rock librarian, who wasn’t too cool to sing goofy songs to our cats and who seemed to love me not in spite of my weirdness but because of it.

When Nick began agitating to take a trip around the world for a year, I decided to use the occasion to put my weirdness to the test. This time I would venture to the fringe of the fringes, to seek out the guerilla Chinese linguists and the lost tribe of African Jews. I planned to experience these exotic countries through the eyes of those on the margins. I wanted to see if our otherness would bind us, if our understanding of one another’s differences would bridge the cultural chasms that separated us.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fringe. I started to notice that my freaky friends were in flux. The tentacles of globalization, whether they be in the guise of international DNA tests or the music of Vanilla Ice, were changing everything, and not only for the people in the mainstream but for those on the edges, too. Globalization is remaking India’s film industry—and in doing so, creating a new class of starlets. It is remaking Amsterdam’s sex trade—and putting more than a few hookers out of work. It is remaking Cambodian society—leaving a generation of street children in a strange limbo.

It is challenging identities, creating new art forms, igniting new obsessions, and uniting long-lost families.

Creation, destruction, reinvention. Things are getting very interesting.

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