2016-06-30

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 will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again--to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

For me, the first great joy of traveling is the luxury of leaving 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 Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of Wild Orchids (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: in China, after all, people will pay a whole week's wages to eat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis.

The sovereign 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. Indeed, the first lesson we learn on the road is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.

We travel, then, in part to shake up our complacencies; to see all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom face at home. When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, when you stumble through the back-streets of Manila, your notions of the Internet and a "one world order" grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

And, of course, in the process, we get saved from abstraction ourselves. We see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and become a kind of carrier pigeon, transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I know that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California. But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go. 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.

Travel unveils to us, in short, all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. In a truly foreign place, we travel to moods and states of mind, hidden inward passages that we seldom have cause to visit in the normal run of things. Though a teetotaler, who usually goes to bed at 9:00 p.m., when in Thailand I stay up till dawn in the local bars; in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland 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.

 

We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the "gentleman in the parlor." Freed of unessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we feel most alive when far from home). We even may become mysterious--to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves. As Oliver Cromwell once noted, "A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going."

Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year--or at least 45 hours. It is a way of surrounding ourselves, as in childhood, with what we cannot understand. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to France, we often migrate to French, and to the more child-like self, simple and polite, that speaking a foreign language educes. But even when I'm speaking pidgin English in Hanoi, I'm simplified in a useful way, and concerned not with expressing myself, but simply making sense.

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I still remember how, after my first trips to Southeast Asia, 20 years ago, I would come back to my apartment in New York City and lie in my bed, kept up by something more than jet-lag, playing back in my memory, over and over, all that I had experienced, and reading and re-reading my diaries, as if to extract some mystery from them. Anyone witnessing this strange scene would have drawn the right conclusion: I was in love.

For if every true love affair can feel like a trip to a foreign country, where you don't speak the language and you're pulled ever deeper into an inviting darkness, every journey can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in with. All the great travel books are love stories, by some reckoning--from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy and the New Testament--and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.

This metaphor also brings home that travel is a two-way transaction. When we go abroad, we become objects of scrutiny as much as those we scrutinize. We are the comic props in Japanese home movies, the oddities in Malian anecdotes, the fall guys in Chinese jokes; we are the bizarre objects trouves that villagers in Peru will tell their friends about. We are consumed, in fact, by the cultures we consume.

And nowadays, even those who don't move around the world find the world moving around them, and experience this process close to home. Walk just six blocks, in Queens or Berkeley, and you travel through several cultures in as many minutes; get into a cab outside the White House, and you're often in a piece of Addis Ababa.

Technology compounds this sense of global availability, of course, as people feel they can travel around the world without leaving the room, through cyberspace or CD-ROMs, videos and virtual travel. There are many challenges in this, of course, in what it says about essential notions of family and community and loyalty, and in the worry that air-conditioned, purely synthetic versions of places may replace the real thing.

Yet it all reminds us that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same thing. We travel when we see a movie, strike up a new friendship, get held up. Travel is a voyage into that famously subjective zone, the imagination, and what the traveler brings back is an ineffable compound of himself and the place, what's really there and what's only in him.

Indeed, the two great travel writers to whom I constantly return are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that "Traveling is a fool's paradise," and the other who "traveled a good deal in Concord"). Both remind us that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us."

Emerson and Thoreau recall to us that we have to carry with us our sense of destination. The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center. The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.

At its heart, then, travel is just a quick way of keeping our minds mobile and awake. Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, because it admits us to a 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.


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