"Much what I had expected."
- Herbert Spencer, on seeing Niagara Falls
One day in Delhi, my wife and I were resting on a park bench when a man approached us carrying a satchel and - rather furtively, as though he were pushing heroin, hash, sexy girls - offered for a small fee to clean our ears. Na Young (that'd be the wife) was dumbfounded but I, nonplussed and not wanting to be penetrated by passing strangers, just waved him on and went back to my copy of the Hindustan Times.
Had I been thus propositioned on my first day in India I might - might - have been a bit more puzzled, but as it was, we'd been in India for five weeks by this time and believe me, walking the streets of an Indian city for even a few hours will quickly dissolve the human capacity for surprise. The appearance of a streetside ear-cleaner is a yawn after weeks of infinite poverty, cows with legs growing out of their necks and gangland shootings at the intersection you crossed just two minutes before.
"Such is India," becomes the tint on your glasses. The country very quickly ceases to amaze as the outlandish becomes commonplace.
Even more, though - and even worse - is that my own capacity for surprise had dissipated long before we ever set foot on the Subcontinent. Na Young, taken aback as anyone should be at the collage of India, seemed doubly shocked at how matter-of-fact I remained toward the chaos around us.
"For god's sake, Aaron, the waiter has a cobra around his neck. Don't tell me that doesn't shock the shit out of you."
Okay, granted, that occasioned a doubletake, but I've long since come to grips with the fact that this is an astonishing world, both for the better and the worse. Suffice it to say, then, it's hard to be shocked when you expect it. I don't mean that this enormous world has been exhausted of wonder, but the boundaries of the so-called Human Condition have long since ceased to astound me with their breadth.
While living in Central Europe I made the requisite trek to Poland and to what were, in the tragically-recent past under Nazi Germany, the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. As I was boarding the bus in Krakow I caught someone trying to pick my pocket. It was a young kid, probably about the same age as I was at the time, and I grabbed his wrist without knowing what I was going to do next. What I wanted to do was break his wrist, stomp him into the ground and empty myself of the rage I felt toward him. Instead, I just let go of him and got on the bus. Auschwitz, and even the prelude to it, does that to you: the place is a monument to fury unleashed and its aftermath, and I felt guilty in being angry. The bus also happened to be pulling away without me.
Trouble is, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a hot stop on the tourist circuit, not unlike the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Checkpoint Charlie: to enter, you must first squeeze past the bundle of Korean package tourists making their 'V-is-for-Victory-not-Peace' sign and posing for shit-grin pictures beneath the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate. Get past them and you'll still be forced to queue up to view the display of human hair - intact braids included - that the Nazi barber sheared from incoming prisoners, or to see the pile of shoes collected from the feet of, figuratively at least, millions. This is a place and these are images that every person should see, but waiting in line can't be the best way to come to the whole experience.
I'm reminded, as one often is while recalling visits to Nazi death camps, of an episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart is watching a violent television show. At the height of an especially gruesome scene, his mother walks in and, seeing what her son is watching, turns off the TV.
"Mom," says Bart in exasperation, "if we don't watch the violence how are we supposed to become desensitized to it?"
Auschwitz-Birkenau left me numb, unfeeling. Many other visitors spent their time in line crying at the vicarious horrors through which they were suffering, and truth be told, I tried a few times to choke myself up, to summon a human response to a tragedy so in-human. Nothing doing. Which is not to say that I ambled about cracking one-liners about renewable energy to the other guests, only that I wasn't as shocked as I felt I should be.
I can only chalk this up to our modern society - to growing up in an era stamped by the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, and the wars of Yugoslavia and the Sudan. Simply seeing, reading and hearing the details of such iniquity had, from an early age, shown me that humans are capable of the worst of which a mind can conceive, and that, what's more, it was all still happening. As well, and like any American schoolkid, I'd seen endless reels of documentary footage of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps. I read in stomach-turning detail the books on the subject. Short of actually living through the experience myself - or riding in with the Soviet liberation army - I knew what to expect of the place and had cordoned off my mind and emotions in preparation.
That I had in months previous to my Auschwitz pilgrimage also visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic only made me more jaded. And by the by, in the event that you're planning a trip to Europe, allow me to take this opportunity to warn you against the Continental Death Camp Tour. On the first stop - at say, Dachau - you'll be appalled. At the second - maybe Ravensbrück - you'll feel disgusted. By the last stop, the Anne Frank House, you'll just skip the tour and end up doing lines of low-grade cocaine in the bathroom with a French-Canadian named Dirty Frank. As itineraries go, this one's a fast-track to despair. Fortunately for me, then, I gave it a miss.
Someday, of course, I'll find myself traveling in some distant land, or perhaps my own neighborhood, and I'll be confronted by an image or an event so startling that I'll have to stop and take a moment to be thunderstruck. I hope so, because I still believe that this world is large and bizarre and nothing like home.