Why do we travel?

Sometimes the answers to small, personal questions lie somewhere deep in the traditions and the customs of the land we come from. Yes, those traditions that bear the brunt of our modern-age thinking and conscientious atheism. But when we look back at the origins of these customs, we are sure to find the original philosophy behind the paths that were laid out way back.

Take for instance the Hindu tradition of traveling to the “Char Dham” in India. Ever wondered why such a thing came to be scripted in the vernaculars? Or consider the living style of the Jain acharyas who are instructed by the “shastras” or their holy books to never overstay at any one place and depart right about the time when they sense a feeling of belonging to a place.

Sometime in the middle ages, Catholics were encouraged to travel to distant lands and touch parts of the bodies of long-past living saints if they so desired to rid them of their ailments. Our brothers who follow Islam are mandated to travel to the Mecca in order to attain purity. Basically, all of the religions are affixed by the idea of departing for distant lands in search for salvation, sainthood, kevalgyan, health and peace of mind.

I have often found that looking at the origins of these religions, their customs and guiding philosophies posits a great resource at understanding the human condition. I do discount for the fact that a lot of what I perceive is being handed down by generations of appendage and editing and therefore may not reflect the most original of their forms. And yet, some of the customs trace such great uniformity across the great religions of mankind that it is impossible to miss the common thread in them.

Which brings me to the question that the missus posed a few days back on the massive pensive called Twitter.

As a background, the missus and yours truly are about to embark on an epic 15-day journey to the land of the Incas and that of the eponymous Pablo Escobar. In a couple of days, we’d be bracing ourselves for the travel/travail, the tragicomic malodors of complete cacophony, the agony of the thousands-of-feet-in-the-air, the check-ins and the boring check-outs. And yet, the “hardships” are matched in their intensity with the definite “optimism” of accomplishment. Yes, that is it. This idea of having scaled another frontier on what is an already shrinking world.

15 days, 12 cities, 8 flights, 4 buses, 2 trains and those gentle strolls in the middle of somewhere/nowhere. The laughter of an anticipation met, the frustration of the hype unmet. All inbuilt, these varying emotions in a capsule that seals in memories for two individuals.

The idea of travel as a philosophical reprieve isn’t obviously new. Much has been said via renowned modern scholars (here, here, here & here) and itinerant travelers – none more so than the travelers of yore whose travel stories made for sumptuous plundering and empire-building. If I were to recommend a book, it has to be Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. ‘Nuff said – let me dive in deeper into some bulleted points on the idea of traveling.

Travel in Our History

In history, we read about mythical beings undertaking epic quests to determine their destiny, to rescue dames, to save the world. All of these undertakings were in pursuit of something bigger than the individual. It was a duel between the vastness of the world and the willpower of man, and in that alone, the myths and the legends were made.

Travel of the Living Species

world_migration_map2000

The summer and the winter migrations of species big and small, from snails and snakes to birds, feral cats, tusked giants and hairy beasts. Theirs were and are journeys in search for life. Theirs are of the primal kind and many are inbuilt into their mechanisms, much like the idea of waking up is inbuilt in ours.

Travel versus Tourism

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Is the real joy of travel really seeing new places? Some argue that its actually about seeing the same place with a new eye. So the real destination isn’t the place we choose to visit, but our natural abode where we put to action that which we have acquired through our journey.

I happened to watch the Dead Poets Society again yesterday. The effervescent Robbie Williams stands on the desk in his class and proclaims that seeing things from a new angle, an angle that’s naturally your own is what art and poetry is all about. You project your ideas and your understanding into those verses and make them your own. To understand poetry is not so much understanding what the poet meant it be, but what it means to you.

I suppose when it comes to travel, more of the same applies. We come back from these quests, having acquired a new lens, a new angle, a new approach with which to view the more mundane things around us.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett

Which brings me to the more contemporary question of the distinction between tourism and travel. Tourism is fixed, determined, planned and postured as travel. To travel is to experience the disorientation of vulnerability. To travel is to seek humility in begging for hospitality in an alien land. Tourists demand hospitality. In their short, determined excursions, travel becomes a business of being constantly on the move rather than an undertaking of making oneself more grounded.

I prefer not to travel in groups because for me it is an intensely personal exercise. Your approach to visiting a distant land will be unique. And fitting in another’s in your diary is bound to flame intrusions. When you don’t have an opinion on how you like to travel though, it is easy and you blend in.

The world has shrunk so much that the whole idea of travel isn’t deemed courageous any longer. In fact, the force we overcome when we undertake it isn’t our fears but our inertias. Does that redefine what travel signifies? In the middle and early ages, the idea of pilgrimage was intertwined with the idea of suffrage. Men departed for voyages they had little belief they would return safely from. This is no longer true today. The “epicness” in the whole exercise is shunted. Today, our travels are safely ensconced in tight procedures. We are tourists more than we are travelers.

The Migrant, The Explorer and The Tourist

Undoubtedly, the hardest of travels are those of the emigrants in search for a land that can accept them the way they are. These are the nomadic lots whose search for a destination shifts with the tide.

The explorer is the most noble of their kin. They travel to explore and to visit new vistas. The idea of visiting places to capture picture postcards of hilltops and mountain panoramas isn’t as appealing to them as is the idea of wandering deeper into barren territories and letting the forces of nature dictate their journeys.

The tourists are the escapists whose primary aim is to relinquish control for that infinitesimal amount of time and let the enormity of nature bring them to their humble position in the planet. For them, the idea of travel is intrinsically linked with experience and memories.

The Monoculture

Ever wondered what the likes of Starbucks, McDonalds, Duane Reades etc are projecting on your neighborhood? One walk down a busy intersection of an emerging economy will let you a sneak peek of what it was before these giant faceless corporations rolled in with their one-size-fits-all approach to human consumption. Small mom-and-pop stores dominate emerging economies today. What they lend to the neighborhood is an option away from the certain, anticipated and known monoculture of design, of service, of products and of people.

We travel to let not these monocultures become default in our understanding of the world around us. Much as I appreciate the ease and the efficiency of getting a coffee from Starbucks as compared to your friendly neighborhood barista, I am pained by what it does to the life I lead. But this is for another time. Coming back to why we travel – we travel to escape these monocultures that our corporations, governments, religions, societies, artists throw on us. We go out to acquire a new angle, via new corporations, new governments, new societies, new religions and new artists of everyday life.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

The Malady of Restlessness

What makes us restless? Deny it if you must, we exhibit it more often than not. In an earlier, simpler time, men were restless because they felt like they had not seen what they eyes were capable of seeing – the unexplored hinterlands and prairies. They were restless because they were intent on seeing what world their Gods had made for them.

In more contemporary times, we are restless because we have too much information of the world around us. We are restless because sometimes we seek anonymity in the face of such massive influx of information about the world we live in. Anonymity is equivalent to escapism in that we are restless to escape from it all, even if for a brief blip in our lifetime. We depart for these vaunted journeys to seal for us these memories when we knew no-one and no one knew us.

Consider Ved’s opening lines in the movie Tamasha. He desires to be James Bond in Seville because, well, he can be. Imaginations soar more when we are isolated and blocked out from what the world throws at us.

Traveling Inwards

I once undertook an 18-day train journey across India with 250 other young dreamers. An exercise in understanding the social construct of India, this was a journey that has stayed in my psyche. Make no mistake, it was a group exercise. But at an impressionable age when I undertook this, the exposure was relentless and massive. Years later, as I find myself closing out any further elementary impressions, I shirk away from performing such a journey again.

We do travel inwards when we leave for distant shores. The amount of time and space you get for yourself when you are in a land you know nothing of is disproportionate. The levels of emotion, thought, state of mind and mood we get to visit in our own mind when we travel is a facet that’s as personal as it can get. This ennobling exercise opens up doors to those hidden passages in our own minds. And we flow from thereon to newer and newer hidden caves still.

“An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.”

Mr. Einstein may have been explaining the theory of relativity to his assistant, but he did also hit the nail on why we travel. Those extracted moments of exploration does feel enormous when we take them back and put them in our memory-box where they twist, mutate and grow into wild creatures that delight us in the most inopportune of times.

Empathy

It is easy for us to believe we are at the center of the universe. Much as for most of the history of mankind, we thought our promised land was at the center of the whole universe. When we visit though, for those cherished moments, the denialists in us recede to the background. To think of the unique stories each of us carry with us, to think of multiplying it to the number of people and societies we know nothing about, to think of the infinite stories and emotions and dynamics that these people exhibit. We are the pale blue dot, and we realize this most when we travel. When our egos are packed away in the hotel’s safe.

The Last Frontier

What comes after these travels? The inevitability of death, I suppose. But before we depart for the greatest of all journeys, one we know absolutely nothing about even now, we let our smaller travels define our imaginations. It is in those imaginations and dreams that we let our experiences fester. I suppose the next and the last frontier, at least in my lifetime, would be to travel outside the first known boundary of earth. Inter-space travel is a real thing now. It is to our generation, what inter-continent travel was to our forefathers. What inter-valley travel was to our distant forefathers. We are scaling spaces in generations.

We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.

Cooper’s dialogue is portentous and yet indicative of where we are. We will continue to wonder about the big question. What it means, what’s the purpose of it all. This bigger restlessness defines our existence. And we take balms of exploration to relieve ourselves of our place under the stars. It is the ultimate human exercise. Another quote from this stellar of a movie by Dr. Brand:

Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Rage, against the dying light. Maybe that’s why we travel. We suffer the uncertainties of travel to provide an antidote to the rage that’s inbuilt in each one us – the rage of saying goodnight, the rage of being humbled by that last, most common of all travels.

 

 

 

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