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

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Mystery of Travel

Before I retired two years ago, I travelled extensively.  I worked in at least fifty countries in Africa, Asia, Latin, America, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe.  I did not do so because of commitment to the work, a personal or religious mission to serve the poor, or to make money.  I did it for the adventure, the excitement, and most importantly the intellectual and personal challenges of being a stranger in strange lands.  The abrupt change of cultural perspective, the need for adaptation, and cool, quick reflexes to unknown threats forced a continual reassessment of abilities, my strength, my moral and physical courage.  Wandering through foreign landscapes demanded a a scrutiny of my convictions on equality, civics, perseverance, and morality.  The outside world forced a reflection on the inner. 

For three or four months of the year I travelled alone, untethered from the responsibilities of family and home.  Once I got on the plane I was my own person, beholden to no one, responsible only to myself, free to explore on my own, to see only through my own eyes, to make decisions that affected no one but myself.  Each trip was a stripping away of the familiar, the secure, and the friendly.

Paul Theroux is perhaps the best ‘travel’ writer of his generation because he is the most confessional and the most willing to express what he felt and not just describe what he observed.  My Secret History and My Other Life describe the double life of the solitary traveller.  Leaving home and country behind, the traveller becomes another person, or rather the real, original person without the overlays of family, cultural identity, and routine.  His Dark Star Safari is an account of his journey over the same terrain that he covered as a young man, and it was a voyage of rediscovery of the countries he loved and an assessment of who he had become.  Theroux who recently wrote The Tao of Travel a collection of reflections on travel by him and others dating back to Ibn Battuta, and they capture the universal feeling of exhilaration, self-discovery, and obsession with travel:

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 (Theroux)

Perhaps the most intense story of personal discovery is Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, an account of his 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.  Mattheissen 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 a balanced account of Schaller’s hunt for the real snow leopard and Matthiessen’s quest for the mythical and ultimately spiritual one.

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)

I would add a third component to that struggle – the longing for comfort, security, and warmth of family.  It was always hard for me to leave my wife and two small children and head off to a world which would be exciting and challenging but solitary and at times painfully lonely.  The urge to travel always won out, and as soon as I got on the plane my mind left Washington behind and caught up with Africa.

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 travellers in Africa are determined to see it not as fifty-three countries but rather as a single, troubled, landscape (Theroux)

Theroux adds a quote from Albert Camus from his Notebooks (1935-42) which captures this sense of anxiety and fear which produce insights of their own:

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.

In Reclaiming Travel, an article in the New York Times (7.8.12), http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/reclaiming-travel/?ref=opinion 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.

This is no longer easy. “The World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations, reported nearly a billion tourist arrivals in 2011”.  On my first flight to India in the winter of 1968 there were so few people on the Air India flight that I could stretch out on four seats and sleep all the way over.  Now, hundreds of thousands of Americans are packing thousands of planes to get there.  India in the late 60s had been independent only twenty years, the economy was based on the Soviet model, and the rural areas were still medieval, without electricity, radio, or urban contact.  I was travelling not to a contemporary country but to an ancient, unchanged one.  That is not possible now.  Not only has tourism and business flooded India with foreigners, but India is rapidly changing.  It is becoming more like the rest of the world and therefore offers fewer of the perspectives of culture and society.

I worked in countries of the former Soviet bloc right after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and I saw what Western Europe must have looked like fifty years before.  I witnessed the brutal transformations of Romania where one day people lived in a Communist dictatorship where the state ruled all and provided all (as little as that was) and the next they were thrown to the wolves, forced to fend for themselves in an individualistic capitalist economy.  What struck me most was their ability to adapt and adapt quickly.  It wasn’t long before kiosks sprang up on the streets, a barter system helped to provide necessities, the principles of democracy and a market economy took hold.  Most of all I saw how under the most adverse conditions (what could be more adverse when every pillar of your world – the economic, social, political, health, and educational systems – came down and nothing visible was there to replace them?) people survived.  I not only learned about civics, political economy, and civil society, I learned how people coped, managed and survived.

While travel is often a solitary pursuit, it is also a social one.  In my work I had to adapt quickly and well to local culture.  It was easy to offend, hard to establish relationships without seeing overly solicitous and self-serving.  It was not easy to negotiate cultures which were closed and secretive and to have to pay attention to subtle linguistic and physical clues.  Yet this cultural accommodation was another piece of the learning puzzle.  Appreciating the subtleties of others brought out my own very American lack of subtlety and lack of patience; and that appreciation made me question culture itself.  Were cultures really more like each other or more different, I often asked.

George Steiner wrote that “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.

The authors lament the sameness of modern travel, the group tourism, the safe and edgeless views from the bus:

Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

There are still traces of the pilgrimage, even in tourism, though they have become warped and solipsistic. Holy seekers go looking for oracles, tombs, sites of revelation. Tourists like to visit ruins, empty churches, battlefields, memorials. Tourist kitsch depends on a sterilized version of history and a smug assurance that all of our stories of the past are ultimately redemptive — even if it is only the tourists’ false witness that redeems them. There’s no seeking required, and no real challenge, because the emotional voyage is preprogrammed. The world has become a frighteningly small place.

I have been fortunate to be able to travel when the different, the challenging, and the new were more easily accessible.  I visited a post-colonial Africa in the 60s which was still more colonial than independent; an Eastern Europe just coming out of the miasma of decades of Communism, an Asia which was just discovering its muscle while retaining much of its own colonial past.  It was no effort to view the kaleidoscope of India or the combination of Communism-Democracy, Slav-Romance, East-West in Romania. 

The authors close with the best summary of what travel should be – and what Theroux and others have said for years:

This lack of awareness is even more pronounced when it comes to different cultures. The media bombards us with images from far-away places, making distant people seem less foreign, more relatable to us, less threatening. It’s a mirage, obviously. The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.

Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.

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