The Idea of Travel as a Search

At the summit of Mt. Nyiragongo, a volcano outside Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo

That is what Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison posit in the their essay, “Reclaiming Travel,” featured on the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone. The literary professor from Amherst and editor of a literary journal lament the packaging of travel and its reduction to a commodity, rather than a unique experience marked by uncertainty.  A cruise ship, like a guided tour through a historical site or an all-inclusive stay at a resort, is a known entity where the only action required is putting down a credit card and showing up.  Not having to seek out an experience makes people complacent and prevents them from actually understanding the place they are visiting.

On top of Treble Cone in Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

The result, according to the authors, is a dramatic shrinking of the world, where accessibility leads us to think we understand people and places, when, in reality, we are just consuming specific perceptions of the world.  In their conclusion, Stavan and Ellison explain what they feel are the implications of this effect:

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.

For the most part, I agree with the authors in their distaste for pre-packaged travel experiences, but I also recognize that this isn’t for everyone.  Most people travel to get away from the daily grind and relax, see the sights, and enjoy themselves.  Most people don’t want to deal with the struggle that is really only enjoyable in retrospect and causes unnecessary stress, which the very types of travel experiences the authors dislike prevents from happening.  So, while I enjoy the discomforts of travel as much as the next person, I understand why people would not want the same experience in the three weeks of vacation they get every year.

At a soup restaurant in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand

The authors get this point, and address it in the article:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

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.

Riding back from Ngong Hills in Kiserian outside Nairobi, Kenya

They are right about why most people travel, but wrong in their judgment of the merits of modern tourism.  The kind of travel experiences the authors advocate are difficult to condense into a week or two.  It is possible in places where the comforts and conveniences of modern travel don’t exist, but, in more trafficked places, it requires a lot of effort to remove yourself from the grid and connect with the people in the places you are visiting, particularly when you don’t already know people who live there.  It has been much easier for me to have more authentic experiences, since I usually have friends or friends of friends who can show me around.  I am lucky in that respect.

I like the idea of travel as a journey.  But sometimes people just want to relax take it easy.  And who can blame them?


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