Welcome to Global Positioning
Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture
12.22.08 | 10:47 AM ET
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Does the world really need another blog? Well, frankly, yes, it does. At least it needs this one. My intention with Global Positioning is to fill a gaping chasm that currently exists. Those curious about the world typically have a choice of two types of stories. On the one hand, “serious” missives about weighty matters of foreign policy and international terrorism and nuclear disarmament; on the other hand, “soft” travel stories about the sites and the food and the beaches. Al-Qaeda or Al-Hambra. Nothing in between. Yet it is precisely this middle ground that most of us occupy, and it is precisely this middle ground that I’ve staked out in this blog.
When I was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, I’d return from a two week assignment in, say, Afghanistan only to have friends ask me: “What was it really like there?” I had just filed several stories, yet they failed to convey the essence of the place. The failing, I’d like to think, said less about my abilities as a reporter and more about the constraints of journalism. I’ve hung up my correspondent’s vest now and, frankly, it’s liberating. I can breathe again. So do not look for conventional journalism here. Look for opinions and observations and, of course, a commitment to conveying what it is really like there.
You Should Have Been Here 15 Years Ago
DELHI: I’ve noticed that when you first visit a place, flush with anticipation, soaking up the newness of it all, invariably some wizened expatriate will deflate your enthusiasm by grousing that, “You should have been here 15 years ago.” Yes, 15 years ago [fill in destination here] was better/cheaper/more authentic/less discovered. A shame, really, that you weren’t here 15 years ago because then you would have experienced the real [fill in destination here] and not the tepid, commercialized version it is now. But, hey, that’s progress, I guess. Enjoy your visit.
For some reason, it’s never 30 years ago or 5 years ago. Always 15. I suspect that’s because 15 years is a long enough time for a place to change significantly but not so long that memories start to blur.
With this phenomenon in mind, I stepped off the plane at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. It had been, yes, 15 years since I first stepped foot on Indian soil. At the time, I was a young (and green) correspondent. I was instantly smitten. Here was a nation with real cultural throw weight! An alternative modernity. India differed from the West in big ways, but I reveled in the small differences: the local cola, a sickly sweet concoction called Thumbs Up; the turtle-like Ambassador cars; the peculiar English. My favorite: “Entry from Backside Only,” a sign found on loading docks, in case you were wondering.
Fifteen years later those differences have faded. Coca-Cola now outsells Thumbs Up. There are fewer Ambassadors on the road. My favorites market in Delhi now features a McDonald’s and Subway sandwich shop. As a traveler, I bristle at the sight (and smell) of these Western intrusions. At the same time, I realize this is a selfish reaction. India is not here for my benefit or, to put it another way: Why shouldn’t Indians enjoy a six-inch-vegetarian-deluxe-on-wheat-with-everything like the rest of us?
There are two philosophies when it comes to travel. One is the Law of Perpetual Motion. This law states clearly: Keep moving; never return to a place once visited. It will only disappoint. Then there is the Law of Many Returns. This law states that, rather than seeking out new destinations, return often to places once visited, once loved. Yes, there will be pangs of disappointment, this law acknowledges, but they’re bound to be overshadowed by the sublime joy that adheres to familiarity.
I used to subscribe to the Law of Perpetual Motion but I’m fast coming around to the Law of Many Returns. There’s a particular pleasure in re-visiting a city you know well, and that is how I feel about Delhi. I know the city yet I don’t. The familiar and the new dance together—awkwardly, to be sure, but still they dance.
I realize that some places are simply changing too rapidly for this law to hold. Shanghai, for instance, is remade every 15 days, never mind 15 years. India’s economy, though, is growing more slowly than China’s, and while I know that is a source of frustration for many people here, I think they should be grateful. Indians have time to absorb the shock of the new. Whether Delhi will retain its frumpy charm or not, I can’t say. Check back with me in 15 years.