“Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Travel. An entire industry worth 7 trillion dollars globally is based on travel. Millions of gallons of ink have been spilled over the subject. Can anyone even estimate the number of websites dedicated to the practicalities of traveling the world. Planes, trains, car rental, hotels, resorts, beaches, nation parks, entire economies based on tourism, and on and on. Retirees travel by cruise ship or RV. Twentysomethings rediscover the old hippie trail. Extreme skiers travel thousands of miles to bolt straight down vertical mountain ranges. People travel to across the seas to see churches, shrines, cities, museums, rivers, deserts, and even to visit family. Travel is for many a substitute religion. But travel is also a practical effect of living in world that is more enclosed than it ever has been before. What seems truly at the back of beyond anymore? I live in a small town in Alaska. It takes at least two days to get here from most places in the U.S. What takes that long anymore? And even this isn’t off anyone’s beaten track. Massive cruise ships dock here at least once a week in the summer. There are travel books describing everything… or so it seems. So why on this increasingly shrinking earth would I want to add one more syllable to what can be readily discovered on Lonely Planet’s site or Wolters World on YouTube?
Well it turns out there is something that can’t be found. And that is advice on how to graduate from tourist to traveler and to finally what I would call a visitor. The tourist to traveler part is easily discovered through someone like Rick Steves, who encourages his readers and audiences to get beneath the facades of tourism, (all the while promoting his tours). You can find lot’s of good suggestions about traveling out there. Yet I’ve noticed something over the years. All of the suggestions are essentially about the introductory stages of travel, few if any of these remarks are about the actual reason for travel. If traveling is supposed to ‘broaden your mind’ by exposing you to other cultures and all you do is take vacations and journeys on well worn trails what can you learn? What will challenge your perspectives? Genuinely. Most people go away for a couple of weeks. Even Rick Steves for all of his backdoor philosophy really doesn’t suggest staying any longer. Mark Wolters is a bit better having actually lived abroad in various countries. But still his advice is still always for the initial stages of travel. So if you’ve been a traveler as I have been these folks really have little more to give you after exposing you to the practicalities and idiosyncrasies of countries you may not have been to before.
But, as any regular reader of my Gravity From Above project has probably surmised, my journeys are on quite a different order of experience. And occasionally people have asked how I managed to get so far inside the culture. Not just meeting a few locals, but really starting to see out from the perspective of those cultures. Of course I do have an ace in the hole here, puppetry. But while that’s a clue, it’s not the answer to the question. So I thought I would share my own personal philosophy on travel with you..
First: Real travel isn’t about movement. Ever since I took my European journey back in 1978 I discovered quickly that simply passing through a place was not as satisfying as staying there. I was going to L’Abri in Switzerland. I had many questions about my life. It proved to be a zone where some answers could be found. But like many younger people I also planned to travel both before and after my experience there. I started traveling through England, which I enjoyed. But soon I saw that simply traveling, staying on the move going from youth hostel to youth hostel was quite a pain. I wanted to absorb what I was experiencing. And so I went straight to Switzerland and stayed in the Lake Geneva area for nearly ten months. I sold back my Eurail Pass at a loss because I realized quickly that endless movement was NOT the way to find what I had come to find. My life was completely altered not by travel but by becoming a sojourner. It was eleven months in one place that was life changing. And when I returned to America I was no longer the same person.
Second: Travel with a Reason. As in my first major travel experience I learned later that if you want to be affected by what you experience travel with a good reason. Vacations. Rest. Relaxation all have a point. But that is not what true travel is about. You need to go somewhere for a reason. It can be a personal reason. Or it can be an intellectual or creative reason. But there must be a purpose to what you are doing. So I thought about returning to Europe again in 2005. But why should I go? I had a couple of ideas. I knew I could take a 3 month leave of absence. I had two major interests that I could pursue: World War II and Puppetry. I’ll give you one guess which one won. I did travel from place to place, but always with an aim to learning about puppetry. And that journey, as in my earlier one completely reoriented me. And obviously you can substitute anything for puppetry: Cooking, genealogical research, Baroque art, following a favorite author’s life.
Third: Meet people who know something you don’t. Now this could be done simply by meeting anyone who knows their country better than you do. But I’m actually suggesting something more radical. On my trips to Europe to explore puppetry and interview puppeteers I am granted access into the country which is never given to the tourists and travelers walking the streets. This is especially true in a place like Prague. My knowledge of history and culture has expanded far greater than it normally would have. So much so that when I meet Czech folks in America they are always surprised by how much Czech history I know.
Fourth: Study the culture in different ways before you go. I have met many twenty and thirty somethings who travel to Asia or South America in the last 20 years. And oddly they rarely talk about the culture they have visited. I suspect they are meeting folks like themselves wherever they go: Drifting semi-nomadic travelers, who know the cheapest countries to spend a season. Great beaches. Loads of recreational opportunities. But do these places have histories? Languages? Customs? You’d never know. I met a friend once who told me that she was going to Japan. Have you read much about Japan? I asked. Oh no! She said she just wants to be surprised. Absurd. How can a people travel without having some sense of where they are going? And yet it happens all the time. The world opens up the more you prepare to meet it.
Without some knowledge of the culture the things we see as we travel can easily become senseless amusing random objects.
Fifth: And maybe the most important principle. Go back to visit the same places. There is a strange idea that you shouldn’t repeat yourself. Truthfully you don’t see anything the first time you visit a place. I’ve been to Paris seven times since 1987. I have friends there now. I am just beginning to feel comfortable there. I’ve started to get some idea of how the city is arranged. Though there are still places that I’ve visited that would be hard to find again. To think that you know anything valuable about a country, a city, a people after a cursory visit is frankly ridiculous. But people act this way all of the time. Many years ago it was clear that the way people consumed reality was changing. But now? People don’t even leave home when they travel. They take their devices with them. They stay ‘connected’ to their social media at all times. They stay in their bubble of unreality. I’ve watched people stepping off the gangway here in Haines Alaska, one of the less frequented ports of call in Alaska. And as they do their gaze is firmly fixed on their palms and the devices in them. Why even travel?
Sixth: Leave your bubble. The real goal of travel is to challenge one’s perceptions of the world. And I don’t mean what people do when they speak in condescending admonishments about the need for diversity. That kind of person rarely makes a good visitor to another country. Because they take their notions with them to insulate themselves against the actual otherness of the real world. Traveling with a group of likeminded folks from your own country is a perfect recipe for never seeing a country and remaining in your own cultural bubble. One or two folks is ideal. One person obviously escapes the bubble most easily. Two can as well if they give themselves time apart.Whether it’s black humor in what we are now calling Czechia. Or the crossing the street through swirling traffic in Tbilisi. Or witnessing Guignol shows in Paris or Lyon. None of these fall under the category of obvious tourism. And yet by comprehending these things my world is enlarged. And my life back in Alaska is enriched and appreciated for being unique in it’s own way.
Entering into the life of people on the streets in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The goal is to graduate from tourist to traveler and then again to visitor, which assumes much more familiarity with what you are seeing. It’s a commitment to another place and people that takes time and effort. But the rewards for doing so, as I have discovered, are far richer than any other form of travel. To end up inside another culture looking back at your own world, that is where the depth is.