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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 8/15/2016 |



‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’, said Marcel Proust, while Augustine of Hippo said ‘The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page’. The Cambridge dictionary defines travel as ‘to make a journey, usually over a long distance’. So travelling is essentially a journey, be it physical, philosophical or even imaginary. So why do we usually associate the word ‘travel’ with roads and transport, going from one place to another, discovering new places, reading a single line or a few pages the book that is our world? Probably because traveling is totally innate to human nature and the development of human civilization is closely associated with traveling. A quick look at prehistory and history validates this notion. The Homo Erectus were the very first travelers in those prehistoric times – anthropologists now believe that they traveled from Africa over the landmasses of Europe, as did the Homo Sapiens. Why they decided to travel is not evident. What is evident, though, is that their traveling ensured that every major landmass in the world was inhabited by the same species since almost 10,000 years ago.

Since that time, constant movement shaped the history of human civilization. The early hunters and gatherers travelled long distances for food. Later, following the Neolithic revolution and the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, there was no need to travel long distances for mere sustenance. Man settled down, in the rich fertile valleys indispensable for agricultural societies – along the ‘Fertile Crescent’, extending from Egypt up to Iraq, as well as in the Indus Valley. Liberated from the need to merely survive, humans soon concentrated on things that would make their lives easier and more pleasant. Different art forms – painting, music, weaving, sculpting etc. started emerging to satisfy the creative energies. While the dreamers dreamed and created, the doers were busy discovering new techniques and technologies that would make their societies thrive. Living on the shores of mighty rivers, man designed the first raft, the first canoe, the first boat that would allow them to use the great waterways. Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Sumerians sailed the rivers and seas for trade. Meanwhile, the Indus Valley civilization, surrounded more by land than by sea, was working on another means of locomotion which would change the course of history of human civilization. About 5000 years ago, the wheel was presumably discovered there.

I think that it was from this time onwards that travel became central to the development of human civilization. The ancient civilizations – Greece, Carthage and later Rome – embarked on ambitious voyages by land and sea to discover what lay beyond the boundaries of their own domains. Successive Roman Emperors undertook the building of long distance roads on a massive scale in a bid to unite the sprawling Empire – it was the time when ‘all roads (led) to Rome.’ Over time, the Silk Route joined the Orient and the Occident. Wealth flowed in but so did a host of other things more intangible, impacting the different civilizations. As the quest for knowledge grew in different societies, so did the urge to travel. When the fall of the Roman Empire made travelling by land unsafe and difficult, man sailed the oceans and the seas, spurred equally by the search for knowledge, wealth and then inevitably – power. The thirst for economic, political and religious supremacy would drive humans to discover new routes to new territories over centuries. Marco Polo would spend 24 years in the court of Ghenghis Khan and write the first widely read travelogue in history. The intrepid navigators would embark on long perilous voyages commanded and financed by Royalty or Clergy and discover new continents. The World had already started shrinking as distant places became accessible. The voyages remained long and arduous, and would continue to be so till the Industrial Revolution that started in Great Britain in the mid-18th century. The discovery of steam power would then change the established world order for ever – trains and steamships would make traveling much easier for the common man. Great scientific voyages would be organized widening the realm of human knowledge. An enormous emigration would take place over decades to the new world and start a fresh chapter of human history. By the dawn of the 20th century, railroads connected most of the major countries in Europe. The colonies followed the same path. The rail was the preferred form of transport for the masses. Travelling was no longer a luxury that only the wealth could afford like in 17th and 18th century when every nobleman and aristocrat went on ‘The Grand Tour’ and wrote copiously about their experiences, starting a new trend in literature – that of travelogues that would later give birth to a wide range of ‘travel literature’.

Why do we travel? What makes us want to leave the comfort of home and hearth and seek the unknown? Why do we visit places where millions have been before, and there is hardly anything left to ‘discover’? Why do we struggle in foreign lands where we don’t understand the language or the customs or the way of life? Why do we scale mountains or dive deep into the oceans or brave known and unknown dangers in jungles or deserts? Probably because nothing ever compares with the feeling of seeing something for the first time – the heights of Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal on a moonlit light, the ancient temples of Angkor Vat, the Grand Canyon, the pyramids in Egypt, the Iguassu falls… we want to experience it ourselves. No one else would ever be able to describe what we actually feel. When we go to a new country, we absorb it with all our senses – the unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds, the people, the colors… even the sky we look at and the air we breathe seem different and novel. Provided, of course, we open our senses wide and want to embrace it all. ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things’ said Henry Miller, and to me, this is the essence of travelling.

However wonderful it is to travel, we cannot deny that not all of it is pleasurable. Think of the historical sea voyages and the time it took to actually embark on one. The innumerable dangers that waited at every corner, vessels destroyed, lives lost, fortunes ruined. Modern travelers don’t face those dangers anymore, at least not very often. But undertaking a journey still has its pitfalls. Choosing a destination, buying the tickets, reserving a place to stay, packing bags and then finally starting off are often stressful. Add to that the modern day uncertainties related to a host of factors totally beyond the control of the hapless traveler – inclement weather, strikes, terrorist attacks to name but a few – and the traveler is stranded, in a railway station or an airport or in a service station on the motorway. If you have ever witnessed the total chaos in an airport or a big railway station when the security personnel or the ground staff or the pilots or the railway men are on strike – you’ll understand what I am trying to say. Finally arriving at the destination, the traveler often finds that the accommodations he had so carefully chosen are not quite up to the scratch. Leaking taps, broken windows, creaking beds can often spoil an entire holiday, and often do. Even the most seasoned traveler is not wholly prepared to face all the eventual problems, especially in another country: the multiple barriers of language, customs, currencies, food habits etc. cannot totally be apprehended and can lead to stress and sometimes distress.

At this point, I would like to make a distinction between two groups– the travelers and the tourists. Back in 1841, a man named Thomas Cook hit upon a brilliant idea. He figured out that traveling would become a greater pleasure if travelers don’t have to bother with making the necessary arrangements – buying a ticket, reserving a place to stay in, worrying about meals etc. He organized a first trip for the members of a society he belonged to, which was a huge success, and never looked back. World’s first travel agency was born on that day. And on that day ‘tourists’ were born as well, those who would travel for pleasure, either guided by benevolent and genial trip planners and managers, flitting from one place to another or armed with voluminous travel guides or smart appliances plugged into the ears. They hardly ever look up, other than to take pictures that would then be sent instantly to friends and family. At the risk of sounding intolerant, I would say that they are the bane to real travelers who are there to enjoy and savor. ‘The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see’ said G.K.Chesterton, and a truer sentence has not been uttered on this subject. In a mad rush to ‘see’ everything and ‘do’ the places that travel guides prescribe, they pay scant attention to others. This is especially true for those who travel in groups led by a guide. Often loud and uncaring, they can and often do spoil the pleasure of others. Try enjoying the magnificent sunset on the Grand Canyon, or watching the moon climb on a cloudless sky in Angkor Vat or sitting quietly on the bank of Vltava as darkness descends or observing the rain clouds gather on the slopes of the Himalayas in the presence of large chattering groups and ‘your serenity is doomed!’ Yet these are the things a real traveler wants to experience and savor – the quiet moments – moments that would ‘flash upon that inward eye’ or conjured up in an instant ‘in vacant or in pensive mood.’ The true travelers prefer walking down quiet roads, exploring the alleyways in ancient towns, interacting with people, eating in places not prescribed by the guide books. They are conversant with the history, geography, economics and politics of the places they visit. They are careful about the customs and morals of the societies where they are only temporary visitors. By and large they respect the norms and mores of the countries they visit and rarely offend the local population. They take risks as well – wandering off the beaten tracks, wanting to discover the underbelly of different places, they are not always welcome in the place they are in, and can get into serious trouble. A seasoned traveler can always walk the fine line of curiosity and caution.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart” said Confucius and that, I think, is the secret shared by all great travelers across ages. Add to that an open mind, curiosity and the capacity to enjoy, and any place, however common or mundane, can turn into a great experience. We need not travel thousands of miles every time to find beauty or serenity, to be dazzled by the unusual and the novel. But we need to travel if we want to experience first-hand the wonders that the world has to offer us. To draw on the memories and experiences that enriches us know end and help us deal with the ennui and tediousness of our quotidian.

“Happy the man who, like Ulysses, has made a fine voyage, or has won the Golden Fleece, and then returns, experienced and knowledgeable, to spend the rest of his life among his family.” (Joachim du Bellay)


[APARAJITA SEN]

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