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Friday, August 26, 2011

'The Tao Of Travel' - The Existential Dimensions of Traveling Alone

In The Tao of Travel  Paul Theroux writes of the existential dimensions of travel – why we travel; how we react to danger, loneliness, foreign places, uncertain circumstances, and a lack of any familiar context; and most importantly about travel as a means of personal and objective discovery.  

Travel for Theroux never incidental, but central.  Travelling alone, removed from family, friends, and responsibility with no one to turn to, no one to trust, and no one to provide support, confidence, or simple help - jettisoning every piece of personal baggage, cutting all social, cultural, and intimate ties - is the only way in a prescribed and predictable life to allow for discovery if not epiphany. 

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You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.
Individual travel is a personal privilege.  For weeks or months at a time, one can travel on one's own, freed from domestic and professional responsibilities and so unconcerned about them, they cease to exist.  The traveler begins to see things through his own eyes, and reflect on them with a perspective unencumbered by family, home, nation, friends. Returning home, the traveler, having become solitary, independent, unattached, and guilt-free for so long can only seem strange and indifferent to his wife and children. 

At the same time such willing detachment brings home and family into relief, not with regret, but with appreciation.  
A painful part of travel, the most emotional for me in may respects, is the sight of people leading ordinary lives, especially people at work or with their families; or ones in uniform, or laden with equipment, or paying bills.
There are times when what is left behind is very hard to forget or ignore.  Sometimes it is the place that is not welcoming or the circumstance of leaving stressful; but the sight of people going about their normal lives is indeed painful.  What was so pedestrian, routine, and boring - the very reasons for travel - becomes essential and necessary.  The traveler suddenly longs for the routine, the comfortable, and the uneventful life he has left.  Travel is never always exciting or guilt-free, or completely disassociated from the past; and in that persistence it can be remorseful and unhappy. There is no way to be completely free from the tangle of responsibilities, affections, and concerns he supposes were left on the tarmac. 

They intrude on his solitariness, his new, clean personality, and the limitless adventures and romances before him.  They put a brake on his optimism.  Such structural change is only vanity.  It never happens. Travel is only a temporary respite.  No matter how profound the insight, it is bound to be consumed the minute the traveler opens the front door. 

At the same time, the traveler has been changed if only momentarily.  Just as there was no way for him to ignore the past, there is equally no way for him to forget who he was 'there', or to return completely to his familiar life.  

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.  The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  
Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.
Perhaps the most intense travel story of personal discovery is Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, an account of this travels with the biologist George Schaller into the high Himalayas in search of the rare, almost mythical cat, the snow leopard.  Schaller was a scientist who wanted to observe the elusive animal in the wild.  Matthiessen was a writer who initially was only intending to chronicle the trip, but the journey became much more personal as he found something spiritual in the mountains. The book is an account of the real snow leopard and a quest for the mythical and ultimately spiritual one. 

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However one can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible. Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.  

Yet Theroux's 'magical possibility of reinvention' is only that. Changing even the most insignificant habit or attitude is troublesome, difficult, and near impossible.  Anything more elemental is indeed fantasy.  Travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive. 
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)
Life is always a balance between the two; and the distinction and the complementarity between them is no more apparent than when one travels alone. Solitary travel forces introspection and by so doing encourages more social interaction than ever before.  Facing fears, insecurities, and doubts is inescapable and inevitable if one travels alone.  There is no refuge except in the company of others. Waiters, chambermaids, and taxi drivers as well as professional colleagues provide temporary respite from introspection. 

Such moments of respite in turn increase solitary reflection.  If sociability is a resort rather than a satisfaction, what does it say about character? The traveler experiences events in a continuous loop - introversion-extroversion, pleasure-guilt, responsibility-freedom, privacy-engagement.  The disassociation and foreignness of travel enable the wheel to turn. 

George Steiner disagreed and wrote that such presumed introspection via solitariness is a vanity:
Human beings need to learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet. We usually focus on the ethical imperative of hospitality, on the obligation to be a generous host. When we travel, though, we are asking for hospitality. There’s great vulnerability in this. It also requires considerable strength. To be a good guest — like being a good host — one needs to be secure in one’s own premises: where you stand, who you are. This means we tend to romanticize travel as a lonely pursuit. In fact, a much deeper virtue arises from the demands it makes on us as social beings.
 Africa brings out the best and the worst in travellers. 
Africa seemingly incomplete and so empty, is a place for travelers to create personal myths and indulge themselves in fantasies of atonement and redemption, melodramas of suffering, of strength – binding up wounds, feeding the hungry, looking after refugees, making long journeys in expensive Land Rovers, recreating stereotypes, even living out a whole cosmology of creation and destruction.  That’s why many travelers in Africa are determined to see it not as fifty-three countries but rather as a single, troubled, landscape
Africa has always been a source of challenge – fighting undisciplined crowds in dark, mosquito-ridden, corrupt airports, crime, indiscipline, insecurity, disease, and accident.  In his book The Last Train to Zona Verde Theroux writes of a moment when he realizes he has had enough.  The rewards of travel - the romance, adventure, challenges, and personal insights - no longer outweigh the hazards, troubles, and the sheer inconvenience of Africa.  

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Theroux never had a service motive for traveling to Africa; and never wrote about any particular 'fantasy of atonement and redemption'.  He saw himself as a latter day Ibn Battuta, Mungo Park, Richard Burton, and Paul du Chaillu who explored the continent before any other Asian or European; and a 20th century apostle of self-revelation in the best tradition of memorists and autobiographers. 

Yet there are many visitors to Africa who go because of religious commitment, faith, or progressive concern.  They are missionaries, aid workers, development experts, and humanitarians who find the greatest challenges in Africa.  It is the most blighted, poor, corrupt, and pestilential place on earth; and the most deserving of assistance.  It is hard for any of them to disaggregate the continent and to deal with it as a collection of diverse countries.  Personal philosophy and purpose deny this particular reality. 

There are great travel writers like V.S.Naipaul, an erstwhile friend and mentor of Theroux who had nothing but impatience with the Third World. 

V.S. Naipaul wrote about India in 1963: 
So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to poverty; goodbye to cast and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men...It is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.  Probably all this has to change.  Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments; all those saris and lungis; all that squatting on the floor to eat, write, to serve in a shop, to piss.
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There are few travel writers who are as bitterly misanthropic as Naipaul, and most share Theroux's  view that travel is at best epiphanic and even at its most ordinary insightful and revealing.  The accounts of Doughty's travels in Arabia's Empty Quarter, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Moorehouse's stories of Africa, and Chatwin's reflections on Australia, are all in the same vein. 

Travel is indeed a serious enterprise - or at least can be. 

IReclaiming Travel, an article in the New York Times (7.8.12) the authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travellers past:
For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
We should return to travel with a serious purpose, the authors write, force ourselves out of the complacent apathy of convenient travel, and discover what Theroux, Matthiessen, Nabokov, Greene, and so many others have found:
St. Augustine believed that “because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
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