I’ve quickly settled into my temporary home for the next couple weeks here in Lima. I wake up early in the mornings and walk to a hill overlooking the ocean to sit and meditate, and watch the sky brighten and the fog pull away from shore. I come back, make tea, journal, read a little and then get breakfast: a freshly blended juice and a pastry with an inner lining of manjar blanco. Total cost: ~7 soles ($2.50). I come back, work on the novel – the most consistent writing I’ve done in a month – then lunch, then either freelance work or exploring the city. More or less the same things I was doing in New York but in a warmer climate. Even some of the cultural, societal shocks, like the occasional absence of running water (the water companies will shut off the water for a few hours in certain neighborhoods from time to time) are quickly adapted to. Language is a factor too, but my understanding of Spanish is enough to get by, and a lot of people speak basic English here, and there are always hand gestures to fall back on. After a week here, the magnitude of the change is not much larger, it seems, than changing apartments in New York.
One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that I have reliable internet. A relevant quote, from Travels With Charley:
There was a time not too long ago when a man put out to sea and ceased to exist for two or three years or forever … Three times a week from some bar, supermarket, or tired-and-tool-cluttered service station, I put calls through to New York and reestablished my identity in time and space.
Steinbeck was writing about the telephone and a road trip around the United States in 1960, but in my case, in the case of the internet and an extended stay in Peru in 2014, it feels no longer like a periodic reestablishment of identity, but rather, an infrequent interruption of pre-established identity. Peru is in the same time zone as New York, so I still see the same tweets and such from the same friends. It’s not like being in Asia, when the time difference exposes you to whole swaths of your social networks that are usually asleep. I don’t watch much TV, here or at home, and I still have access to the same books via my Kindle and am not limited to the selection in a hostel or lone english language shelf in a bookstore. The media and online relationships in my life, both of which perpetuate a large part of my self-identity are generally persistent. And I’m still writing these updates to you, dear reader!
Which is why Steinbeck’s words are so interesting to me. It seems that in the past, there were large parts of your identity you were forced to leave behind when you traveled, and in the absence of those things, not only did other people forget you, but you forgot yourself. And rather than being a entirely negative thing, maybe this had the effect of softening that identity, of making you define yourself less from the books you’d read or the connections you’d had with others. Maybe one of the side effects of travel, and for some the main objective, was and still is to peel back some of those layers of identity, so that you can see that the whole notion isn’t built on anything solid or fixed to begin with. And maybe if you see your identity as less fixed, then you’re more open to change, to reinvention, more open to the world as it crashes down on the shore at your feet.