Why we travel


Photo courtesy Bloomberg News
Paul Theroux, New York Times

In the bungling and bellicosity that constitute the back and forth of history, worsened by natural disasters and unprovoked cruelty,  humble citizens pay the highest price. To be a traveler in such circumstances can be inconvenient at best, fatal at worst. But if the traveler manages to breeze past such unpleasantness on tiny feet, he or she is able to return home to report: “I was there. I saw it all.” The traveler’s boast, sometimes couched as a complaint, is that of having been an eyewitness, and invariably this experience — shocking though it may seem at the time — is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the life-altering trophies of the road.

“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling. I am not saying they are fun. For undiluted jollification you bake in the sun at Waikiki with a mai tai in your fist, or eat lotuses on the Côte d’Azur. As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched. At the time, of course, the experience of being a bystander to sudden political or social change can be alarming.

Throughout history the traveler has been forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.” Or as Othello reported, “Cannibals that each other eat, /The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

The earth is often perceived as a foolproof Google map — not very large, easily accessible and knowable by any finger-drumming geek with a computer. In some respects this is true. Distance is no longer a problem. You can nip over to Hong Kong or spend a weekend in Dubai, or Rio. But as some countries open up, others shut down. And some countries have yet to earn their place on the traveler’s map, such as Turkmenistan and Sudan. But I’ve been to both not long ago — one of very few sightseers. And along with oppression and human rights violations, I found hospitality, marvels and a sense of discovery.

In my own “Tao of Travel,” the fact that a place is out of fashion, forgotten or not yet on the map doesn’t make it less interesting, just more itself, and any visit perhaps more of a challenge. But travel maps have always been provisional and penciled in, continually updated. The map of the possible world being redrawn right now — parts of it in tragic and unsettling ways — might soon mean new opportunities for the traveler who dares to try it. Travel, especially of the old laborious kind, has never seemed to me of greater importance, more essential, more enlightening.

Read the full essay by Paul Theroux at the New York Times …