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Anne Arundel 100
How to Become an American Vandal
Written by Anna Von Gohren ’10, English major
Mark Twain was already famous in the United States when he went on his first excursion abroad on the pleasure ship Quaker City, a trip chronicled in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad. This first of what would be five major travel narratives launched him into international recognition as he became an opinionated authority on where to travel and how to travel. He critiqued foreign nations as well as his own, ultimately holding countries to
high moral standards concerning the equality of man, and he warned of the pitfalls of modern civilization.
He advocated the importance of all people to travel, saying they should embody what he called the “American Vandal,” “the roving, independent, free-and-easy character of that class of traveling Americans (who) are not elaborately educated, cultivated, and refined.” He states explicitly in The Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime,” adding that the American Vandal “go on traveling, and let no man discourage him.”
I took him at his word. While at St. Mary’s College, I spent a semester in Costa Rica. I was able to find the American Vandal in myself, and now have broken down Twain’s lessons into three basic themes to share with you:
Lesson One: Appreciation
Twain had a unique appreciation for the natural world and was able to throw himself into wherever he was. He rarely got hung up on culture shock when there was new and interesting scenery around.
I, on the other hand, had a lot of trouble at first overcoming the differences between America and Costa Rica. What helped was finally starting to understand and enjoy the beautiful place I was lucky enough to live in.
My internship in the town of Ostional focused on sea turtles who used the beach as a nesting site. Their journey is completely astounding and their survival rate low. Each nest holds up to 200 eggs and is buried at least a meter below the surface of the sand. If the eggs survive the hot, bacteriainfested sand and the babies actually hatch, they use each other as a ladder to reach the surface, which takes three to five days. They must make it past vultures, crabs, people, and dogs to the water, then past the reef and large fish, and then in 10 years come back to the same beach to mate and lay their own eggs. I was helping with a hatching when I realized that the turtles do what they do without knowing why. They just know what they need to do and they do it. When I really started to appreciate the phenomenon, I began to understand the importance of where I was and began to really enjoy my stay.
One of the most beautiful lines of Twain’s was in Roughing It. While heading west through the mountains, he finds a spring that is sending water in two opposite directions, one west, one east. Twain realizes the one heading east will grow larger and larger and enter into the Yellowstone, and then the Missouri, and then his own Mississippi River. “I freighted a leaf with a mental message for the friends at home, and dropped it in the stream. But I put no stamp on it and it was held for postage somewhere.”
Lesson Two: Individuality
One of my biggest hurdles upon returning to the States was accepting my experience for what it was, and not trying to compare it to anyone else’s. I had to embrace all of my own personal failures and embarrassments as well as my accomplishments without allowing myself to feel like my experience was in any way inferior to another person’s. Each traveler has her own adventure.
This is evident in A Tramp Abroad. Many of the encounters Twain has are told through his agent, Harris. He says at one point, “I ordered Harris to make the ascent, so I could put the thrill and horror of it in my book.” Twain is in a fantastic tourist destination and not experiencing anything, but rather purchasing the rights to a story. So, read what you can about where you are going so that you feel prepared, but experience it for yourself, not through a proxy.
Lesson Three: Leaps of Faith
If you have done all of the above and still do not feel as if your true inner vandal has been awakened, there is one final thing you can do. Take a chance. Twain tells a story about how on his first trip west he has a fearsome encounter with Native Americans. He writes, “I have always been glad we were not killed that night. I do not know any particular reason, but I have always been glad.” (Roughing It)
There was one weekend in Costa Rica when my friends and I decided to leave San Jose and spend some time at a beach in Jaco. It was storming by the time we got there and the streets were, of course, overflowing with rain. We stepped up on a curb that seemed particularly deep with a heavy current running through it. The next day − when the rain had stopped and the streets were clear − we realized that what we thought was a curb was actually the edge of a bridge. Had we slipped, or put one foot too far to the right, we would have fallen into the torrent of water and been pulled under the bridge. I have always been glad I was not killed that night. I will always be glad that I had the opportunity to almost die, and therefore be glad that I am still alive now.
In the end, the most important thing is to keep traveling. No matter how much reading you do, you have to get out there yourself, because nothing liberalizes the American Vandal more. Twain, of course, says it best. When we move outside our comfort zones and spend a certain amount of time away from our normal routines, “We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.” (Innocents)