Let's see how far I can get on this leg of my journey. Iyer begins:
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....See? This is mostly psychology. What motivates us to go. (And I really don't believe people travel in order to spread their wealth to places that are relatively poor. Just give to charity. Or does he mean that we benefit the less fortunate by inflicting our physical presence upon them?)
Next Iyer cites an essay by George Santayana called, “The Philosophy of Travel” that stresses the work of travel.
Few of us ever forget the connection between “travel” and “travail,” and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship — both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see.I'd rather avoid hardship, but I'm sure I could find it somewhere in my own town — I could sit in on criminal trials or volunteer at the respite center — but I'd be ashamed to be satiating a personal need of mine.
Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion — of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.Do you really see more clearly because you've traveled to faraway places? Have you spent much time in the worst neighborhoods of your own town? In order to travel to foreign countries, you might endure hardships of your own and you must spend a fair amount of money. These personal sacrifices of yours don't do anything for other people, and they incline you toward pleasures that will compensate, which seems to be the opposite direction from compassion. But some people do go to places where things really will be uncomfortable:
When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, 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.How many of us travel to gawk at poor people? How many of those of us who might consider traveling to gawk at poor people have difficulty understanding poverty from merely reading about it? If you do travel to Port-au-Prince to see women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, and they question why you are watching them, be sure to say, I have come here to witness this to shake myself out of my complacent abstractions and to gain wisdom. Look at that scene in your mind. It's not too abstract, is it? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?
But admit it: That's not the vacation you'd take! You might do that if it was your job — as a writer or photographer — but you're not going to spend your money to heighten your wisdom and compassion that way, are you? You're going somewhere else, somewhere you think will be amusing or uplifting, aren't you? Pico Iyer goes on to talk about less hardship-ridden trips, and he emphasizes getting outside of oneself:
On the most basic level, when I'm in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9 p.m., I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and 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.Are not these all things you could achieve near home? You have lunar spaces within you, yet you need to go to Iceland to visit them? Why not sit in your room for an hour with your eyes closed, listening to classical music? Or walk to the nearest vantage point for the next sunset and gaze upon it? How much money would you save? $5,000? $10,000? Give it to charity! Now, was my prescription for your soul better or worse than Iyer's recommendation that you go to Iceland and Tibet? As for his Thailand recommendation, there's always a bar down the street. Pick a spot in the dangerous side of town.
Iyer quotes Albert Camus saying "what gives value to travel is fear." Iyer paraphrases "fear" as "disruption... (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide." Do you accept that paraphrase? If that's the value of travel, are you really a traveler (or must you concede you're only a tourist)? Maybe you'll say you travel for disruption but not for actual fear, other than tiny first-world fears, like fear of flying, fear of having to navigate in an environment where not everything is in English, and fear of unfamiliar foods and faces. If you really are traveling for fear, are there no better ways to pursue fear, ways closer to home? In the old days people traveled for fear — fear of starving if they didn't go looking for food, fear of murderous enemies who were moving in on their home territory. That's old-school travel, and you know damned well you are not traveling like that. You're spending your extra money to take on circumscribed fear-stimulating circumstances. Why not go for a walk late at night in the bad part of your own town? Too dangerous?
And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions.And I'm blogging this essay in search of even better questions.
I, like many people, tend to ask questions of the places I visit, and relish most the ones that ask the most searching questions back of me: In Paraguay, for example, where one car in every two is stolen, and two-thirds of the goods on sale are smuggled, I have to rethink my every Californian assumption.Like the Californian assumption that there are parts of California that you should avoid? Forbes's list of cities with the most stolen cars is dominated, year after year, by Californian cities. Why did Iyer have these assumptions in the first place? Why does his California have such an inane meaning? If you have to go to Paraguay to disrupt that, I wonder about the quality of your mind. And yet somehow you have enough money to pay for a trip to Paraguay, to learn — what? — that life is gritty? That there is crime and poverty?
And in Thailand, where many young women give up their bodies in order to protect their families -- to become better Buddhists -- I have to question my own too-ready judgments.You found that out by traveling to Thailand? How? That's something you learn from reading about it, not by going there, unless you yourself are a sex tourist. One answer to the Why Travel? question is: You travel to take advantage of poorer people. No one writes that in an essay. But Iyer is almost saying: Travel to see other travelers taking advantage of poorer people... because it will make you a better, wiser, more compassionate person. Why not read about problems like this and give your money to charities that try to help unfortunate people? His answer seems to be because it's about developing his mind. But shouldn't his mind already be developed past that point?
Iyer says that on return from some places — he mentions Southeast Asia — he's felt that he "was in love." Travel is a love affair. That's his metaphor. If so, staying home is monogamy, it's where the depth is, and where the thrill is too, if you have the depth yourself.
For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can't quite speak the language, and you don't know where you're going, and you're pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in love with....Or is it more like being a stalker boyfriend of someone who does not and will never love you? Iyer makes light of what the tourist is to the people of the visited country:
We are the comic props in Japanese home-movies, the oddities in Maliese anecdotes and the fall-guys in Chinese jokes; we are the moving postcards or bizarre objets trouves that villagers in Peru will later tell their friends about. If travel is about the meeting of realities, it is no less about the mating of illusions: You give me my dreamed-of vision of Tibet, and I'll give you your wished-for California. And in truth, many of us, even (or especially) the ones who are fleeing America abroad, will get taken, willy-nilly, as symbols of the American Dream.What happened to the love affair metaphor? That is not love. And why are you wheeling out the cheerful examples? What about the Luxor massacre (which took place 3 years before Iyer wrote this essay)? That's the most extreme exemplification of the hostility of the traveled-upon, but think of everything between that and some imagined affable Japanese person who thinks you're just a bit silly. Where's the love? A real love affair has love on both sides. The love Iyer talks about is like the love a teenager feels for a pop idol after the concert. You cannot enter that idol's life. It's an illusion. Find someone real to love. Once you get that far, Iyer's love metaphor makes the argument for staying home.
Iyer writes about many travel writers, and that's what he is too, a travel writer. That means he's not making money doing one thing, then spending some of those earnings on travel. He travels as part of making money, and the insight he gains is not merely for developing his mind — as he argues in his essay — it's for writing about the development of the mind (and festooning the inward reflection with colorful pictures of things the readers have not seen). But what about the rest of us? We could sit home reading these travel writers, who've taken on the expense and the hardship of travel, and we could develop our mind through reading and thinking and sojourning around home.
Iyer gets around to the Thoreau quote — "I have travelled a good deal in Concord" — which we were just talking about on this blog last month (on the topic of the distinction between a tourist and a traveler). Iyer throws in Emerson too: "traveling is a fool's paradise." Iyer argues by paraphrase. What Thoreau and Emerson really do is "insist on the fact 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." Now, the sleight of hand:
So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also -- Emerson and Thoreau remind us -- 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 we cross 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....Home really is superior, but somehow you need to leave home to understand that. But what if you already understand that? Then, why should you travel? And I mean why should you travel if you are not a travel writer, gathering new material?
And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's 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.The trip that never ends is home.