Why do we travel? – a dose of new year travel wisdom

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.

We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers and television screens will tell us. We travel for first hand experiences and not for the poor measly second-hand scraps fed to us by others! And we travel to become young fools again – to slow time down and fall in love once more. We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of doing something dangerous (or good), in order to sharpen the edge of life (for our blades become blunt when comfortable), to taste hardship, and to be forced to work desperately for a moment – at anything – even survival!

There is an intimate link between ‘travel’ and ‘travail’, and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship – both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion – of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly – as it really is. For seeing without feeling can be uncaring; while feeling without seeing, can be blind.

Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving behind all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Chile) can be both novelty and revelation: In some countries, people will pay a whole week’s wages to eat with Colonel Sanders.

And then there are wonderful culinary discoveries to be made. Like the many Chinese restaurants here in Puerto Montt – you go into these thinking yourself a ‘hardened’ expert of Chinese cuisine (having had your teeth cut in London’s bustling China Town). Expecting the familiar fare of London’s China town – you instead get something a little different. You are confronted with the unexpected and it wakes you up. And this singular experience serves as the trigger to set off a whole host of other thoughts and emotions related to the history and migration of the Chinese diaspora in Chile. When did the Chinese first arrive in Chile and how and why? Do they still have connections with their ‘homeland’ or have all connections been severed by the tectonic plates of time? Your reaction to the KFC’s and McDonald’s and Chinese restaurants will determine the type of person you are: “tourist” or “traveler”? A tourist is just someone who complains: ‘Nothing here is the way it is at home!’, while a traveler is one who grumbles: ‘Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo, Cuzco or Kathmandu!’ – which one are you? Or, you can be the curious philosopher traveler, for whom the question matters more then the answer.

But for the rest of us, the real freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a practical diploma can be a passport to a journey through the gritty realism of life, a passport can be a diploma for a crash course in cultural relativism. And the first lesson we learn on the road is how provisional and provincial are the things we thought to be universal: democracy, wearing what you want, believing (or disbelieving) as you see fit.

We travel, therefore, to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political fault lines, the life-and-death dilemmas, the economic hard-ships, that we rarely have to face at home. When you drive down the streets of some shitty place, for example, where there is no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a ‘one world order’ and ‘progress’ and a ’21st Century for all’, must necessarily take a battering. From our comfortable cushioned Western armchairs – we are fed false notions. The economic creeds of ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Free-Trade’ are not the ‘good for all’ ideologies that are force fed us. And travel is perhaps the best way we have of lifting the veil – and of rescuing the humanity of places and people.

But travel is not just one way traffic. We also carry values and beliefs and news ‘to’  the places we go to, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places (like Cuba for example or some Muslim states), we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the outside world and the closest they will ever come to Rambo or Lady Ga-Ga. We are the Long-Wave radio set’s. Thus, we carry dreams of another world on our shoulders – so we must be tender lest we break some hearts.

So one of the subtler beauties of travel is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. Thus even as holidays help you appreciate your own home more – by seeing your home through a distant admirer’s eyes – holidays also help you bring newly appreciative – distant – eyes to  the places you visit. You can teach them and tell them the beauties of their land. What they have to celebrate. This, I think, is how tourism, which so easily destroys cultures by importing ‘Americanisms’, can also revive them, how it has created new ‘traditional’ dances in Bali, and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their works. But not only that but ideas also. It is no small coincidence that the seeds of Latin American ideas of nationhood and a continent free from the yolk of Spanish masters, were first sown when travelers and thinkers and geologists from Europe, first went to Latin America on expeditions. There is a connection between the Simón Bolívars of the world and travelers.

On a personal level travel shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit. Take me for example. I am not a particularly gregarious individual by nature and am a happy to retire to bed with a glass of warm milk and a good book (albeit on my Kindle!). But here, with fellow Chileans, I stay up till dawn in the local bars. I will go to the Atacama desert to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine and the noise of the World Wide Web.

We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity – and, of course, in finding the one we find the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing and people cannot put a name or tag on us. And precisely because we are classified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).

The great promise is that by traveling, we are born again, and able to return to a younger and a more open kind of self. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to Latin America, we migrate to Spanish, and since our Spanish is poor we end up childlike, simple and polite – and people treat us this way. Like children who don’t understand and we sit among the ‘adults’ hearing but not listening. Not privy to the subtleties and innuendos and quips of banter. We are Innocent. This quality adheres people to us, attracts people to us like people are attracted to children. People like us. People like me. Because I am innocent.

I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet can “place” me (where am I from?) – no one can fix me – I can remake myself for better or for worse. In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more possessions than we can carry in our back-pack, and surrendering ourselves to chance. This is what Albert Camus meant when he said that ‘what gives value to travel is fear’ – disruption, in other words, (or freedom) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide.

What we often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize. We become objects of speculation (and even desire) who can seem as exotic to the people around us as they do to us. It reminds me of the noble savage shipped to London on Captain Cook’s ship from his home the Pacific island of Tahiti – only to become a minor celebrity in London’s party scene. How the English ladies were bewitched and charmed by this brown-skinned savage! – With his strange scars, his cute inflections, his booming savage voice and rippling muscles! – Here was a man who was innocent of English customs yet so real a man! Maybe he pushed those buttons that make women want to reform a Tabula Rasa

So travel really is just a great way of keeping our minds mobile and awake. There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor. And if travel is like love, it is mostly because of it’s heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.

That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end – and should, never end.

Bon Voyage!

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