"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Travelling Alone–Courage And Discovery

Doing anything alone today is out of fashion.  It is social connection that counts, and aloneness means loneliness.  We will do anything to avoid time alone, it seems, and yet solitude has always been the first step on the path to enlightenment or spiritual evolution. Jesus fasted alone for forty days and forty nights in the Judean desert led there by the Holy Spirit to do battle with the Devil.  Alone Jesus faced the temptations of Satan not only showing his own moral conviction but defying and defeating the forces of evil.

The strictest Catholic monasteries of today practice rituals of prayer, meditation, and fasting which simulate Christ’s resolve. Their prayer is not a simple incantation or praise, but a recognition of their humanity, sin, failings, and temptations; and an attempt to reconcile these with divine purity.

                                                                         From movie ‘Into Great Silence’

Indian sadhus, after passing through the first two of the four phases of Hindu life – student and householder – become hermits, recluses who remove themselves from daily life and meditate.  Their meditation, unlike Christians, is not characterized by epic struggles between good and evil, but by a struggle for self-awareness, self-abnegation, and becoming part of a universal and eternal God.

The fourth and final phase of Hindu life is sannyasa, a stage in which the recluse emerges from his isolation and wanders the earth.  He has developed vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life, renouncing worldly thoughts and desires in order to spend the remainder of his life in spiritual contemplation.

Native Americans have had a tradition of meditation, one which relies on animal spirits as guides, allowing the individual to contemplate the sacred connection between man, animal, and all life.

Many if not most cultures have some tradition of solitary meditation and withdrawal from the world.  There is a common understanding that only by freeing oneself from life’s banalities, temptations, and repetitious activities, and spiritual enlightenment be attained.

The greatest of the world’s adventurers have gone into uncharted lands alone, less from a desire for spiritual evolution than to test themselves against the harshest forces of nature.  Out of this struggle – no different from that of Christ engaged with the Devil, the monk grappling with his own spiritual infirmity, or the Indian sadhu fighting his way out of confusion to mental purity – comes self-awareness and supreme self-confidence.  Corporate or social success mean nothing.  Only through the solitary fight to master fear, insecurity, and doubt can a person be truly realized.

Nietzsche’s concept of Will reflects this indomitable desire to achieve full human potential, to rise above the herd and to achieve perfect, independent, supremacy.  For Nietzsche the individual was the only agent of personal evolution.  The Superman may have been born special and unique, but it was his resolve, discipline, and will which were the forces which enabled the attainment of uniqueness.

I have always been in awe of solo adventurers, and have read the accounts of the greatest – Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world; Francis Chichester who did it in the frail Gypsy Moth a century later; Mungo Park and Rene du Chaillu who explored Africa in the 18th century; C.M. Doughty and Wilfred Theisiger who explored the Empty Quarter of Arabia; René-Auguste Caillié, the first European to visit Timbuktu; Heinrich Barth who explored the Sahara alone after his fellow-explorer died; Henry Morton Stanley who searched for and found Livingstone; Sir Richard Francis Burton who travelled alone to Mecca and explored uncharted areas of Africa.

              Sir Richard Francis Burton

Other explorers who did not travel alone but who faced the most overwhelming physical odds showed the same resolve, courage, and self-confidence of the solo voyagers. Peary and Amundsen trekked to the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton survived a winter in the Antarctic, leading his crew to safety after his ship was crushed in ice, and then sailing with only one other crewman across hundreds of miles of ocean and then crossing the frozen wastes of South Georgia island.

These early explorers had no modern technology to guide them, no backup, support, or medical teams standing ready.  They were on their own, and each one of them endured unimaginable hardships.  Mungo Park in his explorations of West Africa to determine the direction of flow of the Niger River, was constantly robbed, enslaved, traded, abused, and threatened.  He never faltered, and through wits, intelligence, and sheer doggedness arrived at his destination.  Burton was blinded and deafened, wracked with malaria and infested by parasites, but he hacked his way through the bush to find the source of the Nile. Early traders sailing around Cape Horn faced the worst weather on earth – howling hurricane-force winds, 60 foot waves, sub-freezing temperatures, and a savage Southern Ocean. On some trips around the Horn, sailors waited weeks to make westing.

Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel writes that all solo adventurers have seen a personal or spiritual dimension to their travels. Theroux provides a quote from Albert Camus from his Notebooks (1935-42):

What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that, a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel.  At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.  We come across a cascade of light and there is eternity.  This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in travelling.

Theroux goes on to describe the travels of the adventurer Geoffrey Moorehouse (The Fearful Void, 1974).

No one had ever crossed the Sahara from west to east, an almost 4000 mile journey from the Atlantic to the Nile.  Moorhouse decided to do it, less to be the first person to achieve it than to examine “the bases of fear, to explore the extremity of human experience”

“I was a man who had lived with fear for nearly forty years.”  Fear of the unknown, of emptiness, of death. And he wants to conquer it.  “The Sahara fulfilled the required conditions perfectly.  Not only did the hazards of the desert represent ultimate forms of my fears, but I was almost a stranger to it.”

He makes 2000 miles, then abandons the trip in Mali because he ran out of water.  Dying of thirst, he luckily finds a group of nomads.  He was given a pot of liquid to drink. “There was all manner of filth floating on top of the water…strands of hair from the waterbag, fragments of dung from the bottom of some well; but the water itself was clear…..It was the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in my life”

Theroux himself is a great travel adventurer. When he was sixty years old he retraced his steps taken first as a young man down the east coast of Africa (Dark Star Safari). It is one thing to go by land through Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia to Cape Town in the 60s, another altogether in the 2000s.  Yet Theroux did it – in the back of pickup trucks, in cars, buses, trains, and on foot.  He concluded his retracing of his African steps in his latest book, Last Train to Zona Verde, in which he describes his solo trips up the west coast of the continent from South Africa to Angola and the Congo.

I have spent much time in Africa, most of it alone; but staying in three-star hotels, surrounded by American and African colleagues and office staff, and traveling upcountry in air-conditioned Land Cruisers doesn’t count as solo voyaging.  I was alone enough to sense some of fear and apprehension of Theroux and earlier travelers, but these feelings quickly passed.  No sooner was I lost in a dangerous part of Nairobi then I was back by the pool at the Norfolk.  When two of our three Mercedes 4x4 broke down in the Mauritanian Sahara, we simply piled in the third, returned to Nouakchott, and radioed ahead for help.

The world is paying some attention to Laura Dekker, the 14-year old girl who is attempting to circumnavigate the world solo.  After all, she is a very young teenager, and no matter how much support she has, the trip will certainly be arduous and uncertain.  Nevertheless, this is 2014 and no one is ever alone.  Her craft is built to withstand anything the ocean can dish out, she has three GPS systems, five backups of every other critical operating system.  When she travels she will be tracked every mile.  Still, she is doing it, and I can’t even imagine being on a bottomless, tossing ocean alone.

A lot has been made recently about the intrusion of social media, smartphones, tablets, and mediated experience. We have never been less alone, but our social relationships are flimsy, electronic, and come and go in a nanosecond. We are always plugged in – ear buds and personalized music even on walks in the woods; texting and emails at dinners, school, and church.  Aircraft, once the sanctuary I looked forward to and where I spent my first hours of untroubled, uninterrupted solitude after preparing for a long trip, are now becoming just as cluttered as what I left behind.  Of course one can simply ignore the I-Phone, turn off the streaming news, and meditate; but we are not the independent creatures we think we are.  The tug of correspondents is powerful.

I am skeptical about this supposed ‘intrusion’.  I have always found plenty of time to be by myself, and I assume that most people can disconnect if they really want to.   I still take long trips on my own, often to unfamiliar territory, although in the United States and not in Timbuktu.  I can spend hours without talking to anyone, walking by myself, reading, and just sitting. I have written a blog post on my experience of solitude (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/11/solitude.html), and here is one excerpt:

I not only became accustomed to being alone but found that I enjoyed it. While travelling I was nobody’s father, husband, brother, or son. I left responsibility and duty behind.  I was accountable to no one, free to come and go as I pleased, happy to spend hours or days alone wandering the streets of a new city, reading, sitting on the beach, having a civilized lunch by the lake.  For me solitude was liberating. Since I was no longer defined by anyone and was an unaccountable foreigner in a foreign land, I was free. I was a privileged observer.  I absorbed everything without judgment.  I was a sadhu free from reflection.  I was an eye-camera, a recorder.

However, I am a neophyte both as a meditative solitary and as a solo adventurer.  I tend not to take risks, and have spent far more time by hotel pools than I have in the interior.  I am very self-sufficient on long trips, but after a long weekend alone, I am quite happy to get back with colleagues.  In other words, I know enough about solitude and adventurous risk to appreciate the sadhus and Mungo Parks of the world, but do not have their courage or discipline.  More than anything else I do not have their goals.  I don’t need to either prove myself or probe my inner nature.  This is perhaps more do to age – it is a bit late for all that – but more likely because of indifference or worse, a lifelong attachment to a predictable, comfortable life.

Nevertheless, Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and Ernest Shackleton are my heroes and always will be.

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