My field methods professor at DU, a “stereotypical” anthropologist who knew Indonesian and had, of course, been to Indonesia and been on multiple boats in Indonesia sometime in the 1970s (like all of the other stereotypical anthropology professors), all of which was recorded on grainy video, was passionate about “traversing” new landscapes, which is basically a fancy field terms way of saying “walking around new places.” (I loved/still love him for his humble creativity. And I almost want to say he called it “transversing,” which seems more appropriate if not more made-up.) So, to traverse a new “landscape,” he told us to capital ‘W’ Walk (at least it’s this way in my mind), think of your walking in a gridlike fashion and be sure to go to A) markets and B) cemeteries.
I know he’s right, since the desk research version of me can get bogged down in googling. As soon as I got to Arlington, I found a list of Episcopal churches, googling their proximities, e-mailing folks, before I realized, on a slight detour (getting lost) on the way back from the metro, that there was one right around the corner. Traversing works!!! Who knows whether that church will end up being a “good fit” for me, but at least I know that it’s there.
Maybe this is one reason I often prefer to go without a car, because walking or biking or even being a passenger on a bus allows you to feel out your environment in a much more active way. You get to push through it, touching everything, and placing it in your mind. I’m hardly a very navigational person, but I value the sense of walking or biking through places to feel them out and get a sense of their textures.
It can be scary though. I remember when I first got to Germany in 2008 and basically the first thing I did at the time was to go straight into the heart of the city-town, where the Beethoven statue was and one of the two lovely and formidable yellow buildings. Courthouse, I think. I walked until I found a Starbucks, had coffee, and then walked along the Rhine and took pictures of the golden leaves and pavement.
It was terrifying. I spent the next few weeks in my room, for the most part, watching The Daily Show, until I had to start classes. I had never watched the Daily Show very much in America, so I don’t know what that was all about, other than trying to effect a closeness with the absurdism of American culture amid the German seriousness.
Because at that time I was hardly ready to do such a naked thing: leave my tall apartment that barely had internet and roommates I hadn’t spoken with and dirty kitchen and pink couch to forge out into the unknown. At that time, I wasn’t ready to leave America. My relationships had been crumbling, and I had been crumbling. It’s the only recent time I can look at, section off, and say that I know I had been “depressed,” and since then I haven’t ever gone back to something quite like that. I don’t think you ever do cycle back to quite the same stuck or irredeemable feelings. At least I know when it’s happening now and I allow it, briefly. (I don’t know how to describe the difference, since it’s not necessarily that redemptive, but it is different.) But the main thing that characterized that time was that most of the things that I felt, things that seemed like they were supposed to feel good or beautiful or satisfying, felt, instead, terrifying.
Now I think I understand better how traversing works, or at least how it works for me. I go to a new place and I settle in slowly. I arrive to the middle-of-nowhere Northern Uganda, it starts raining, and I go take a nap before I meet the hotel manager. I go with Patti to a new neighborhood and drink a latte for a few hours. I take inventory, I make lists, and I watch tv. Then, I open the door: I go here and there, and I explore piece by piece. But I don’t go out on the first day to see the Beethoven statue. Maybe there aren’t rules like that–I mean, I know there aren’t, and it’s totally different when you’re not in a different country and you’re not starkly alone–but being in public can be overwhelming to me, and I like the feeling of unity I get from being inside a room. VW writers in her essay “Street Haunting” about leaving a room for the street: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central pearl of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.”
The idea that walking among others implodes unity of self resonates with me, and it helps me to understand why doing it would be so terrifying when you’re in a period of scathing self-awareness and self-doubt (this is how one of my classmates referred to me once at LSU, a year after all this: “scathingly self-aware.”)
So I’ll keep transversing, but I know that every time I do it, I’ll become a little different, maybe feeling a little less safe, but a little keener, and a little more aware.