The Art of Travel (revisitado) – Part 1

If we accept that our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then nothing better exemplifies this search than our travels. By looking at the way we travel; the dynamics and pitfalls we fall into, the fallacies we imbibe, we can reveal much about that eternal quest for bliss and happiness. Hence, the art of travel is as much about travelling as it is about the human condition and our search for heaven on earth. We are given much advice on where to travel to but none whatsoever on why and more importantly how we should go about it.

We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate. As I sit here writing this, in a cafe in Islington, I have a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide open on my left. On the first few pages there are a series of glossy colour photographs of the verdant Hunza Valley with emerald streams studded with diamonds and a backdrop of the majestic Karakoram; their blanched-platinum peaks touching the gates of the firmament. The scenery is perfect. The guidebook goes onto describe this in purple lilting prose interspersed with sound practical advice on how to get there, where to stay and how much you should expect to pay.

So you imagine….you imagine getting on a fulminating rickety bus at Rawalpindi bus stand, and after a few hours pleasant journey northwards, checking into a hotel that has been described by the guidebook as ‘pleasant’ and ‘with hot running water’– but none of this tells you of the reality of your journey.

The guidebook it seems fails to mention that you’ll have to jostle with fellow passengers to secure your seat, that you’ll be sitting on the left-hand side where the scorching sun blazes through the windows, that the bus will stop regularly to pick up itinerant passengers, that they’ll be a musky smelling old woman sitting next to you; her jaundiced teeth splitting pine nuts (and depositing their shells all over you), and that once you alight you’ll have difficulty finding the hotel, and that on the way there you’ll spy a series of modern and new looking hotels not mentioned in the guide at all. And finally when you check into your room your vision of ‘pleasant rooms’ it seems is different to the vision of the guide writers.

You imagined a room with a view and what did you get? A view of someone’s stewing rubbish heap (with a lingering smell of rotting cabbages). But never mind – at least the window can be closed.

The Guide recommends certain attractions in the surrounding area and so you imagine feverishly booking yourself on a tour of these. And as you sit in the front next to the driver you imagine (as the guidebook promises) that you’ll be treated to jaw dropping vertical cliff overhangs thousands of metres deep and you imagine being thrilled by the danger and the steely chutzpah of the engineers who carved this rutted path through the mountainside – inch by inch. blast by blast. life by life. And you imagine yourself marvelling at the genius of the human species. And your heart is filled with a heady and stout proudness; an imperious human-centred chauvinism.

This is what you imagine from what the guidebook tells you. But what of the reality? You may indeed be wowed and throttled into submission by the eye boggling vistas and views but that is not the most prominent thing on your mind. What is more prominent is a nagging thought (that won’t go away) that you have been over-charged for your room, that perhaps you should have asked for a better view. You also worry about how much to tip the tour guide and whether your passport and valuables are safe with the hotel manager; he did have a shifty look about him didn’t he? And then you worry about using the toilet – well there is none and you don’t particularly fancy jumping behind a boulder, dropping your pants and squatting. And to make things worse you’re beginning to suffer the onset of traveller’s diarrhoea. It seems all these things conspire to ruin the postcard perfect picture the guidebook so earnestly promised you. So what is the problem? Well ‘you’ are the problem! It seems that reality and more to the point ‘you’ (you being your physical and emotional self) have decided to turn up to the trip as well! And this was something you had not anticipated. You thought that you would not be taking ‘yourself’ with you on this trip – that you would be experiencing this trip behind a set of eyes attached to nothing! What sillyness!

It seems that for all it’s useful information, for all it’s jam packed tidbits, the guidebook neglected to mention one important fact: that on this trip you’ll be taking ‘yourself’ along with you. As you sit writing this, in the comfortable environs of a café in Islington, you never for once thought that the eyes that would see all the wonderful sights mentioned in the guidebook are in fact attached to a body. Yes a body. A body with a stomach (that is prone to upsets), a mind (that scorns at being overcharged and wanders fitfully), a covering of skin (whose pores snap open in hot climes), legs (that are not trained for carrying a backpack) and haunches not yet accustomed to squatting for the bathroom.

And so here lies the central paradox:

It seems that the guidebook and your imagination offer you a distilled view, a concentrated broth or impression that consists of nothing but individual disconnected visual images; a valley here, a mountain pass there, a shepherd with mountain goats here, and dusty faced blue-eyed blond children over there. And this disjointed impression, this series of visual stanzas is what we take with us, only for the pieces in-between to be filled up once we get there. And despite our rational brains and smart intellects, despite the fact that in our professional every day lives (as accountants, teachers, doctors) we would never be led like this (by such displays of make believe), we somehow allow ourselves to be seduced by these childish offerings, we hardly resist them! We allow the tendrils of these fanciful imaginings to take us and wrap themselves around us and feed us on a contrived diet of wishful thinking and wishful places.

To be continued…

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