I’ve just finished Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and I was struck by how of its time it is. Published in 1994 (written in ’93), it’s about Wurlitzer and his wife traveling to sacred sites in Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia as they grieve the sudden death of their son. They’re American Buddhists looking for some measure of peace at various temples and shrines, and the book is full of quotes from various Buddhist texts and religious thinkers.
The jacket copy on the book mentions the word “classic” more than once, and certainly Wurlitzer’s meditations on grief and loss are moving and timeless. How do we cope with the death of a child? How do we hold that unspeakably personal sadness and also hold the tragedies of deaths on a massive scale in various parts of the world? How does the death of a loved one force us to face our own mortality? Wurlitzer’s prose is simple and swift as he grapples with these questions, and I appreciated his insight even while I, as someone who doesn’t practice a religion, couldn’t quite grasp the religious framework he’s working with.
So that part was, despite the personal nature of his grief, universal and timeless. But the rest of it was so specific to 1993! He’s horrified by the commercialization of Thailand, specifically the Coke-drinking, sex trade-working, neon-lit city of Bangkok. Now, of course, the seediness and Westernization of Bangkok is well-known and few travelers are surprised by it when they visit.
In Burma–wait, he visits Burma (Myanmar). That, right there, is different from now. According to Wikipedia, about 800,000 people visited the country in 2010, compared to 1.13 million overseas tourists visiting Chicago alone in 2009. When Wurlitzer visited, Aung San Suu Kyi had only been under house arrest for a few years, after the 1990 elections that saw her party overwhelmingly elected were disregarded and the military junta decided to stop having them for awhile. Wurlitzer talks about an antiquated country, one with very little new industry or commerce since the outside world isn’t dealing with the junta (his descriptions sound like descriptions I’ve read of Cuba), and while he wonders at the brutality of the junta, he sounds relieved to be in a calm, quiet country after the electric buzz of Thailand. Nowadays, some groups advocate tourism to Burma to bring money to the local people and help them keep in contact with the outside world, but most activist groups discourage it, since the junta has forced labor in tourist destinations and the industry mostly supports the junta and not the people. A far cry from the sleepy country Wurlitzer visited almost 20 years ago.
In Cambodia in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were still a major threat; Wurlitzer heard gunfire and saw holy sculptures vandalized by people taking parts of them over the border into Thailand to sell on the black market. He describes a country in chaos, with elections right around the corner, but no one sure of who will win or who ought to win. Today, Cambodia has finally prosecuted some Khmer Rouge as war criminals, and humanitarian groups have sprung up all over the place, but its prime minister, Hun Sen, has kept in power through some very shady means, and the country is still one of the poorest in the world. The biggest change on the ground is the lack of Khmer Rouge with guns around every corner, although the mines from the civil war that could blow up at any time in 1993 can still blow up on any unlucky pedestrian today.
I enjoyed reading Hard Travel to Sacred Places both for Wurlitzer’s thoughts on death and grieving, and also for the time warp experience. It’s fascinating to read a contemporary travelogue alongside a history textbook and see how personal experience intersects with facts.
Image from here.