other voices on travel
end of june, 2001
"What, after all, was a travel book? That young Italian had started it all in the thirteenth century, and had given the telling of tall tales from foreign parts its subsequent respectability. On the whole it had not changed much since Polo's time: a man or a woman sets off for foreign parts ignorant of both language and geography of the place, with an out-of-date map and borrowed phrase book, preys shamelessly for as long as the family trust fund will allow on the hopsitality of the native people, and returns home to to hastily record his or her first impressions in a semi-fictional collection of descriptions that affirm the prejudices of the day. Then, reminded of the medicrity of the experiences described and to ease the risk of any intellectual burden on the microscopic attention span of the reader, he or she retrosepctively invents a fashionable 'quest' around which the narrative can be twisted in every direction except towards the truth, fits it tidily with invented dialogues, speculative history, sweeping inaccuracies, mistranslations, verbose accounts of having braved hazards endured daily by ordinary local people without complaint, protrays as revelation long lists of trivial facts known to every local schoolchild, and bludgeons the original spirit of the endeavor in an attempt to appear erdudite with the academic verbiage of out-of-print encyclopedias, disguising all the while the discomfort of being at sea in an alien culture by resorting to the quirky, condescending humor that its couch bound audience will think funny. The result? Only a confirmation of what everybody already knows: better to stay at home."
-from "An Unexpected Light, Travels in Afghanistan" by Jason Elliot
"Who are the great travelers? A large number have been depressives, bipolar types capable of serious gloom. Their passion is visiting the unknown. ...travel, which is nearly always regarded as an attempt to escape the ego, is in my opinion, the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture... It is a way of reinvigorating myself with a peek at innocence, of having trespassed into eden. It hardly matters - so much of travel is self-delusion. The profoundest satisfaction in travel is a sense of discovery, the private thrill of seeing something new or seeing it in a new way. This is unquestionably egotistical, but such discoveries do not come easily. Nothing is harder than that uncertain, martian-on-earth feeling of being alone in the middle of nowhere. The payoff is a conceited feeling of having gone to a distant place and unlocked a secret. As far as i'm concerned, everything else in travel is a vacation - the view from the chaise lounge - horizontal.”
--- Paul Theroux, "Collected Essays"
an ancient chichewa saying:
"to travel is to dance."