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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Travel - An Oversold, Overrated Enterprise, So Why Do We Persist?

Travel, particularly foreign travel, has been promoted as a worthwhile if not indispensable experience – a broadening of narrow, homegrown perspectives; an opening of perspective to the surprising, the different, and the unusual.  Travel is a way of leaving prejudice, family, and cultural history aside.  It is an opportunity to appreciate life from a very different perspective.  How much more compassionate and generous we must feel after a tour of Soweto, East Dhaka, and the slums of Port-au-Prince.  How much more worldly and appreciative we must be after witnessing fundamentalism in other religions, a profound, differently expressed, but no less personal existential epiphany.  Insecurity has an entirely different meaning after living in Luanda for a time, a lawless, civilly chaotic city with no semblance of order, propriety, or responsibility.  It loses everything but a conceptual idealistic notion in Somalia, or Kivu. Life, humanity, principles, ethics, and love when seen through a Third World lens can only give particular added salience to a Western love affair.  As Paul Theroux has repeatedly observed, we cannot know ourselves unless we know others.

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Yet at the same time Theroux’s characters are American naïfs – assuming that the givens of their culture are universal. and that an American perspective fits all.  The characters in Dead Hand and The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro completely miss the most obvious cultural signals and see the unfolding of events only through an American lens.  Life in India or Italy, it turns out, has nothing to do whatsoever with American expectations.  Worse, the characters in these books learn nothing and return to their lives as uninformed and ignorant as they were before travel.

In his Tao of Travel, Theroux has collected the reflections of world travelers from Ibn Battuta to Bruce Chatwin and Paul Mathiessen and concluded that solitary travel is akin to Tibetan ascetism.  All writers agree that only by travelling alone in unfamiliar places is one sufficiently challenged to be able to reassess settled convictions and to explore, perhaps for the first time, one’s purely unique and individual character.

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Solitary travel has always been an almost spiritual journey.  Theroux writes:

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.

Vladimir Nabokov, a unique traveler and one who valued the inscription of events on memory and the importance of place and time said:

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

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Theroux agrees, but adds:

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

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)

At the same time travel has become a big business.  Tour companies promise the same unique experiences and epiphanies recounted by historical world travelers without the effort, the danger, and the risk.  Travel has become a be-all and end-all, a worthwhile end in of itself.  An Indian visitation may not be the equivalent of a semester at Benares University, time in a monastery in the high Himalayas, or work in Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute; but it offers an intimation, and a peripheral encounter is better than none at all.

One, however, 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, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another 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”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

Yet this reinvention is at best temporary and at worst illusory.  Travelers may leave everything behind, but always return in hopes of finding it just as it was.

Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again wrote of the natural desire to explore, the natural tendency to question, to ponder, and hopefully to understand why things are the way they are. 
Even at his most elegiac, however, Wolfe senses a great human paradox – the incessant need to explore but the inability to comprehend.  Yet he will die defeated but unapologetic and defiant.

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There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night.

Travel and tourism are clearly two very different things; but expressions of the same enterprise.  Both the sophisticated traveler and the tour bus tourist sense the need for perspective, distance, and the other.   No matter how prosaic or planned, a trip outside of one’s familiarity, can enlighten if only to food, dress, and manners. Yet travel alone is ipse facto no automatic key either to understanding new and foreign cultures or to visiting heretofore shelved personal motives and ambitions.  Crossing cultural divides is more difficult than crossing the Rubicon, the Delaware, or the Zambezi.

So why do we persist? Why do we configure our vacations around monuments, places of interest and historical significance?   Why do we not spend our valuable leave time on more intimate and modest expeditions.  Was a trip up the Eiffel Tower or the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon worth more than a simpler week perhaps closer to home or even at home?  What is the relative value of a random trip to San Francisco, New Orleans, or Vienna?  How relevant is the Golden Gate, the French Quarter, or the Opera House to our lives?

Travelers to Machu Picchu may get a glimpse of pre-Columbian America and the Indian native cultures that anticipated Western culture by centuries; but are likely to forget what they learned  because of the modern imperatives of the tour – likeminded, inquisitive, older Americans who, in their last years, want to make up for lost time.

Although travel writers like Theroux, Chatwin, Nabokov, Naipaul, and Ibn Battuta have been elegiac about foreign solitary travel, they are among the few, the special, and the unique.  While we may all long wish for solitude in the Empty Quarter, on the Gipsy Moth around Cape Horn, or in the African bush looking, as Mungo Park did, for the source of the Niger, we are by circumstance and upbringing unlikely to ever find it.  In fact we may never ever set forth on such voyages or even come close to even contemplating it.  We are unavoidably and perennially tourists.  We visit old churches, historical parks, native places and homesteads without either a sense of real cultural context or especially a sense of universality – what the lives and experiences of our forefathers and cultural ancestors meant.

Nevertheless we continue to travel and to tour.  A brush with history is better than no brush at all.  A glimpse into the past is better than ignorance.  Yet these brushes never satisfy.  Either they are recorded and stored in personal travel folders or related in exaggerated reminiscences; but they remain peripheral.  They offer no insights into human society, culture, or purpose.   Billions are spent, but the rate of return is insignificant.

Better to stay at home, explore the tried, true, and familiar; and try, before it is too late, to get some handle on existential questions the answers to which are not to be found in Vanuatu, Cuzco, or Maputo.

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