Friday, April 21, 2006

The future of elsewhere

Endless Conversation by Tony Evans

Tony Evans


Last week I got an e-mail from the deck of a cruise ship after it rounded Cape Horn. The sender was describing a windswept coast once thought to be inhabited by giants. Cocktails were being served on deck near the piano, while a lone sailboat struggled upwind in the distance.

For fun, I accessed the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Web site to see what kind of artifacts had been collected in the region of Tierra del Fuego. I couldn't help checking real estate prices in Santiago, Chile, on the way, then remembered to check my penny stocks, and for nostalgic reasons had a look at the University of Colorado webcam.

Ah, the good old Cold War days, when the vast gray planet of communism existed side by side with our own. I then Google-Earth'd an unnamed and treacherous glacial fjord along the coast beside my mom's cruise ship for good measure before taking a walk to the café on River Street to hear the local scuttlebutt.

After an hour of globetrotting to various continents and surfing across the centuries, it took a while to come to my senses; birds chirped, dogs barked, and the drone of traffic filled the air. or just the weather as it is? Sometimes it's a difficult choice around here. I was glad to be away from the little all-knowing screen, the crystal ball that fits under my arm. If ideas and news have become a new drug of choice, I sometimes fear I might overdose.

I used to dream only of exploring dirt roads on my bike when I was a kid. Every turn in the river was new territory to be explored. Every tree with low limbs was a tower to climb. Seeing the world was a tactile experience. I couldn't wait to get home and tell someone about my adventures. Show off my cuts and bruises. Then came the world of ideas.

I wandered the Indian subcontinent during my college years trusting to providence and the kindness of strangers in a search for what anthropologists called the "ethnographic present." The idea of distinct cultures provoked an exoticism that fueled more wanderlust.

I found traditions of dubious provenance, and ruins where I expected dancers. One afternoon Italy's Po River Valley began to look like the Florida coast. A native islander in the Kingdom of Tonga tried to convert me to Mormonism. Never Never Land had brought me back home.

Today the path to elsewhere seems paved with electronic data.

Far-flung cultures are watching satellite TV and sharing notes with one another. Suburban housewives are drinking shaman's brew down the street. The Star Trek Final Frontier may be closer than we suppose.

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