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Traveling through time

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, travel was heroic. Stepping outside your home meant drifting with Huck and Jim down the Mississippi south of Cairo. It meant burning and bopping and struggling along with Dean Moriarty in the old car south of Abilene, or dreaming with Paul Theroux out the window of the Khyber Mail en route to Lahore. Once upon a time, travel was adventure, opportunity, nothing less than revelation.

Revelation was in short supply the day I took to the road. I had flown for six hours and arrived at my Shangri-La, a place billed as paradise where the sun shines, the trade winds blow and every whim foreseen. Perhaps I should have seen it coming as I drove into a compound as big as Disneyland, walked through a lobby as grand as Versailles and was shown a room no wider than a broom closet.

Then the toilet overflowed. The screen door jammed on its glides, and my dreams of sweet indolence started to slip away. Irritation blossomed into rage at 3 a.m. as I lay awake listening to the pinging of a video game in the room next door. Paradise at $500 a night had never seemed so tawdry.

Right then, right there, I became one of them: the angry travelers, the legions stranded in airports, stuck on runways, bereft of their luggage (routed to Bangkok and back again) and late to whatever meeting, reunion, funeral or wedding they needed to attend. Our numbers are many.

Edward Gibbon, bewigged historian of the 18th century best known for his account of dysfunction in the Roman Empire, described one journey in simple terms: " ... bad roads and indifferent inns, the continual converse one is obliged to have with the vilest part of mankind — innkeepers, post-masters and custom house officers."

Born of mild exaggeration and heavy sighs, anger toward the travelers' lot has evolved over the ages from peevishness to irritation, from melancholy to rage. Books, letters and diaries are filled with such bile, but anger today is different. It isn't laced with irony or wit. It doesn't sit back and seethe. It is focused, direct and purposeful.

When the now-deposed JetBlue Chief Executive David Neeleman called a news conference to apologize for his airlines' February debacle, he performed a rare act of contrition that was strangely effective in soothing his customer's wounds. Perhaps it was his tearful delivery, but it was also what everyone demanded.

Never mind that one month earlier on a United Airlines flight, passenger Erin Callahan Lambert had to be handcuffed and forced back into her seat after talking on a cellphone, taking another passenger's seat, locking herself in the restroom, making statements about hijacking and spitting at flight attendants. Or last summer, when David Howell caused an unscheduled landing on a flight from Chicago to Portland for cursing and threatening flight attendants after nearly downing an entire water bottle of vodka.

Of course it's enough to make you drink. The anxiety of travel is a powder keg — what with the rush to get to the airport, the long lines, the security checks, the stranger standing next to you and the thousands of others standing next to him. But it's not as if any of this is a surprise. Only travel today is more complicated than mere logistics. Travel today has been conflated with necessity, and necessity with certain expectations. We deserve our vacations. We need our trips. God help anyone who gets in our way.

Yet on that day of my arrival, that afternoon of my discontent, sitting on the terrace, staring out at the waves, I wondered whether something more was broken than just how airlines treated their fares. I wondered whether we were to blame. I wondered whether in our dramatic and self-important ways, we had abandoned Huck and Jim and Dean and Paul and traded in the possibility of revelation for some bought and paid-for happiness.

Having it our way

Psychologists might attribute the rising levels of our anger to a convergence of powerlessness and entitledness that have pervaded modern life. We witness rage on a daily basis whether it's in traffic, in politics or our daily entertainments, and we live with the illusion that we can avoid or even master moments of such intemperance.

"I think it's more than possible that we are growing more angry these days as we grow more spoiled, more used to having our own way, more masters of our own tiny domain," says traveler and writer Pico Iyer. "Cyberspace, in fact, tempts us to live ever farther from the world at large and ever more within our own ideas and niche interests and selected friends. In that regard, going out into the world, where things can't be controlled, may be a greater shock than ever."

Travel has always been about pitfalls, risks and broken carriages. The word alone derives from the word travail. At one time, we knew this. Armed with our Baedekers, we would begin a trip prepared for the worst. We might even learn a few choice phrases. Forget ordering the foie gras, s'il vous plaît. In the 1870s, "Murray's Handbook of Travel Talk" began with the basics: Der Wagen ist ganz nah dem Abgrund. Eir Rad ist losgegangen. O weh! (The carriage is near the precipice. One of the wheels is off. Oh dear!)

Nowadays journeys begin with different assumptions. We have actually bought into the promises of individualized service, "sushi at 10:17 p.m.," the prospect of being treated like royalty, "All you want. Plus all you can eat," empty beaches, the blurring of fantasy and reality. To make matters worse, we cruise the Internet, read recommendations from fellow travelers and view videos of places and accommodations. Between one star and five, there's no reason to doubt that these postcards of perfection are just within our reach.

Under such conditions, taking a trip is like going to the market to buy a quart of milk. Shoehorned into a finite number of vacation days, quantified by deals and bargains, travel has become a transaction that requires a pattern of performance, a certain return on investment. Technology and marketing have lured us into a state of false hope. So where's the adventure when we need it the most?

"The glory of travel is that one always — always — gets lost," Iyer says. "A trip is measured, really, only by how far we step off the expected path, stumble into things we never wanted to see, fall between the cracks and the words on the schedule-sheet, in effect, and tumble into mystery. The beauty of guide-books and experts and travel writers like myself is that, at heart, we're always wrong."

Sources of blame

Perhaps then we should blame Thomas Cook who, in 1841, inaugurated the age of pre-packaged tourism with excursions to Scotland, Paris and even the battlefields of the American Civil War. Perhaps we should blame the class divisions that airlines still enforce, reminding us each time we board of the difference between legroom and no legroom, real service and lip service. Or perhaps we should blame whatever fleeting memories we have of a time when travelers, even under the worst of circumstances, knew when and where to vent their spleen.

Sitting on that sun-drenched terrace, angry beyond reason at this hotel for spoiling my needed vacation, I realized I had become everything I loathe. I was not happy. I was not proud. I was acting entitled — not that I didn't have good reason. Some expectations must be met — especially if you're paying $500 a night for hotel room or sitting in a plane that's been grounded for more than three hours.

But I was playing the bad tourist. I was sadly conspicuous, having forgotten that fear, homesickness, guilt and discomfort are really the foundation of any good trip, and yet part of me knew I had joined a grand tradition.

When Capt. James Cook was preparing to circle the globe aboard the Endeavour nearly 250 years ago, he stumbled upon the diaries of his crew and discovered that indignation and exaggeration go hand in hand.

" ... they are seldom content with the hardships and danger which will naturally occur, but they must add others which hardly ever had existence but in their imaginations, by magnifying the most trifling accidents and circumstances to the greatest hardships, and insurmountable dangers ...."

At the very least, anger is the patina of a good travel story. The greatest inconvenience, the greatest pique, elevates the adventure (especially back home), and once we understand that, we can see that humility is the most important lesson any trip can impart. In this ever-democratized world of travel, where low fares, frequent flights and no other options bring us together in a single cabin, we should stop whining and realize, as historian Paul Fussell suggests, when travel becomes "hellish enough, it may come full circle and turn into something like travel again."

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