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The value of travel

The value of travel

Those who love India will well understand the old saying ‘travel broadens the mind’, as opposed to armchair travel which tends only to broaden the behind.

While many of the great ancient epics are gripping tales of a journey – the Odyssey, the Ramayana, Gilgamesh – modern ‘travel writing’ is by and large a pretty disappointing genre, with but a few notable exceptions in each generation. Peter Fleming, Norman Douglas, Wilfred Thesiger, Robert Byron, Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermour, Colin Thubron are stellar examples in our time. Lawrence Durrell of course, and perhaps also Jan Morris, though they write more about having arrived than the getting there. Some writers - Graham Greene, Andrew Harvey, Vikram Seth - produce a single travel masterpiece before moving on to explore their real concerns, while others produce a brilliant one-off that is nothing to do with their usual preoccupations but an extraordinary excursion, a literary day-trip that lingers long in the memory. One such is Bob Dylan’s surreal evocation of the spirit of New Orleans in ‘Chronicles’, the first volume of his autobiography.  Then there is the related category of travel guides, which can occasionally transcend the genre and rise to greater heights: E. M. Forster’s ‘Alexandria’ is a stellar example.  

Henry Miller 1950s Parisian cool

Many writers who don’t forge a literary career out of their travelling nevertheless have worthwhile things to say about the process. Strangely, some of the most memorable of these come from America, a nation that prides itself on its pioneering origins but is hardly noted nowadays for its adventurous travellers. There have been the odd exceptions, and one or two of them even appreciated India. The most notable was Mark Twain but then he dissented from pretty well everything his fellow Americans subscribed to. As he put it: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”  Anyway, in tribute to him, let us start with some lines from his ever-pleasing pen:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely 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”.

The ‘travelogue’ is no great art form, but its inventor, the American photographer Burton Holmes, commented astutely:

“One great advantage of travel is that you may enjoy all the satisfaction of possession without the responsibilities of ownership”. Ah, sweet music to the ears of itinerant Peter Pans everywhere!

Buddhist holy wanderers

A Frenchman, Anatole France, echoed Twain when he succinctly pinpointed the essence of travel as: “changing your opinions and prejudices”. The transformative potential of voluntary dislocation was well described on many occasions by the sybaritic bohemian Henry Miller, who lived, wrote and painted in his adopted city Paris. As he said: “One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things”. A self-exiled American, Miller was in tune with an earlier, though considerably less Rabelaisian inhabitant of that city, Marcel Proust who despite (or perhaps because of) spending most of his time in bed, made the pertinent observation that we travel not in search of new sights, but of new eyes with which to see everything, old sights included.

The travelling life is socially disruptive and it can unsettle the settled. This conflict was the cause of the first murder, if we believe the biblical story of how the cultivator Cain killed his brother Abel because he was a nomadic hunter and therefore ‘uncivilised’ – a pejorative word meaning literally ‘one who does not live in a town’. Us travellers have been on the run ever since. That perceptive itinerant Bruce Chatwin knew this only too well; in his collection of essays The Anatomy of Restlessness, he explores the human and social necessity to honour the nomadic impulse, lauding it as a precious, wild bloom all too easily stifled by inertia, habit and convention.

Regenerative and transforming, travel has often had a spiritual edge to it. Itinerant friars trod the roads of medieval Christendom proclaiming a new and purer way of life; many centuries before them the ancient Indians had already appreciated the spiritual value of keeping on the move. The Buddha counselled his monks not to spend more than three days in any one place, lest attachments take hold and the pattern was followed by the myriad holy men who still wander the subcontinent. They belong to many different spiritual orders but are generally known as sadhus or ‘the good men’ and they are said to live the life of a honey bee, moving from place to place in the search for spiritual nectar. So they are also madhuvrata: ‘those whose vow is to honey’, which is a common Sanskrit epithet for our apian benefactor.

Whereas householders accumulate itinerants renounce, and the sadhu is one social category that continues to enact the unburdened nomadic impulse as a ritual counterbalance to the static life of the householder. There are others: traders, musicians, poets and performers who travel the length and breadth of the subcontinent, though their numbers are dwindling as the rigid norms of urban life set in. Indeed, nomads the world over are running out of space and up against the law. To such lovers of the open road, nothing symbolises the prison of civilisation better than the traffic jam: all movement ground to a halt. Electronically, we may be able to contact the other side of the world in seconds but traffic in London moves no faster today than it did in 1875.

In the Aitreya Brahmana, a text from 300 BC, Indra, King of the Gods, extols the virtues of the life of the road to a young seeker of truth:

‘There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita!
Thus we have heard. Living in the society of men,
even the best man becomes a sinner
Therefore, wander!

The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul is
growing and reaping the fruit, and all his sins
are destroyed by his fatigues in wandering,
Therefore, wander!

The fortune of him who is sitting, sits;
It rises when he rises; it sleeps when he sleeps;
It moves when he moves.
Therefore, wander!’

And then there was the French-Algerian goalkeeper whose own life-journey encompassed the Nobel prize for literature. He saw travel as an initiation into the depths of the psyche: hauling anchor, disappearing from view and surrendering completely to the unknown. Such a vision will seem truly bizarre to the modern traveller who typifies our risk-averse society when he plots his carefully insured journey via the Tripadvisor experiences of others, clutches close her reassuringly familiar surroundings digitalised down into the latest electronic gadget and sends back a breathless stream of selfies, photos and comments to Facebook ‘friends’ and family.

Camus pre-dated the age of the electronic umbilical cord, and, for sure, his radical perspective would not have won him a job in his local travel agents, but that would have been their loss. On real travel, as this piece from his Notebooks shows Camus is, and will surely remain, the master:

 'When we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in travelling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by ‘culture’ the exercise of our most intimate sense - that of eternity - then we travel for ‘culture’. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal's use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves'. 

Perhaps it is fitting that such an intrepid traveller died in a car crash.

Bon voyage, mon brave!                                        

The value of travel
Wilfred Thesiger en route in Arabia
Hindu happy wanderers

by Alistair Shearer

“A perfect distillation of what so many Westerners from E. M. Forster and Allen Ginsberg to the Beatels, have come to India in an attempt to find: an escape from the pressures and frenzied pace of life"
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