The Art of Travelling
‘The man who loves his homeland is still a tender beginner; the man who loves every part of the earth as if it were his native home has come a long way; but only the man for whom the whole world has become a foreign land is truly mature.’ – Hugh of St Victor, Christian theologian (c. 10971141)
Never before have so many people travelled for their own pleasure. There is hardly a patch of earth beyond the reach of post-modern mobility. Not only do we swarm around every accessible sunny spot like a plague of locusts, we also descend to the Titanic, we float above the savannah in hot air balloons, we carve out paths through the eternal ice. No corner of the world is safe from us any more.
Our journeys begin on maps and in brochures. Here the world seems neat and inviting, shrunk to a manageable size. Every square centimetre of paper is crammed with informa-tion so dense that we simply cannot fall through the net; we simply cannot get lost. GPS units and navigation systems go one step further, offering us the ultimate safeguard. Befo-re we set foot outside our front doors we know the name of our foreign destination, where it is located, and which motorway exit will take us to it. Our journey has clear contours and is highlighted in the garish colours of the special offer, the insider tip, and the three-star tourist attraction. Before we submerge ourselves deep in a foreign culture, we put on a neoprene wetsuit and equip ourselves with capacious oxygen tanks. Nowadays, no desti-nation is too foreign for us, because nothing can possibly happen to us there.
The thrill of the exotic feeds on an increasingly arbitrary delineation of what is familiar and what is foreign. For a Bavarian, the Oktoberfest in Munich is a great excuse to let rip; for an Australian, it is a uniquely ecstatic experience. This is strange when one considers that the Oktoberfest is nothing more than a large gathering of people drinking too much, linking arms, and swaying from side to side in time to terrible music – something that can be en-countered almost anywhere in the world. The same can be said of Europeans who attend the Kumbh Mela, the religious festival that takes place once every twelve years in nor-thern India. Despite the fact that about thirty million people descend on the convergence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers for the Kumbh Mela – making the festival the epi-tome of a mass event – these European travellers feel as if they have encountered so-mething adventurously unique.
Upon arrival, we check whether the foreign destination lives up to the television images we have seen. We are frequently disappointed by encountering an inconsiderate group of tourists, irritated by a persistent street seller, and appalled by scaffolding that hides the Gothic architecture. We are bothered by the congestion, our cold feet, or the obligatory dose of diarrhoea. Paradoxically, however, these disappointments generally live up to our expectations. After all, the guide books and Internet portals warned us to expect as much. And so we retreat into the caves that offer us the security of what we know: the air-conditioned coach, the four-star hotel, the refreshingly cool water of the swimming pool.
We travel the world, but what do we actually experience of the world? Almost everyone is on the move, but who is really and truly travelling? Travelling is not a range of products on offer from the national automobile association, and it is more than just a change of locati-on; travelling can be a metaphysical act of recognition and experience. There is an old Moorish saying: ‘Only travellers know the real value of a person.’
In most religions, travel is considered to be the right way of life, a means of catharsis, a path to enlightenment. The Hindu theological text Aitareya Brahmana tells us that ‘there can be no happiness for the person who does not travel. In the company of humans, even the best will become a sinner … so take to the road. The feet of the wanderer are like a flower: his soul grows, bears fruit; his efforts purge his sins. So take to the road! If you rest, so too do your blessings; they rise when you rise, they sleep when you sleep, they move when you move. God is the friend of the traveller. So take to the road.’ Like the Christian itinerant monks of yore, even today Indian ascetics (sadhus) move around the country. The more orthodox among them never spend two nights in the same place. For them, settling down carries the potential for every sin, whether it be in the form of greed, selfishness, materialism, or violence.
Similar traditions and convictions can be found in Islam. Travelling is part of the exemplary lifestyle of scholars (ulema). Al-Ghazali, one of Islam’s most important theologians and the man who integrated Sufism into Islam, left his Persian home to travel not only on the obli-gatory pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, but also to Baghdad, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Ibn Al-Arabi travelled from Córdoba via Seville, Fez, Tlemcen, Tunis, Cairo, Jerusalem, Mecca, Baghdad, Mosul, and Konya to Damascus, where he was put to death as a here-tic. Ibn Khaldun embarked on a similar journey.
But how can we find our way back to true travel in this globalised world? What is the diffe-rence between our unproductive restlessness and a journey where the person who sets out to embrace the unfamiliar returns a different person? The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that three elements are of decisive importance; three pieces of advi-ce that seem utterly banal, but are very rarely taken to heart by travellers: travel alone, travel without luggage, and travel on foot. Only those who take this advice to heart can really set out in search of what is hidden behind the obvious.
V. S. Naipaul once wrote: ‘When your luggage is in danger, that’s your clue that you have arrived in India.’ Quite apart from the fact that this quote is full of the author’s infamous resentment, it also begs the question as to whether it is not the risk of losing one’s lugga-ge that is the most powerful aspect of a traveller’s encounter with a foreign culture. After all, ‘luggage’ in this context also refers not only to the content of the suitcases and bags we take with us, but also in a figurative sense to the contemporary Western prejudices and superiority we carry with us when we travel and which should be put at risk – the greater the risk the better. Even the clothes that a traveller brings on a journey are out of place abroad: they make all kinds of statements – statements against which one cannot defend oneself because one rarely gets the chance to contradict the general, superficial interpretation of the person inside the clothes with something more personal, more speci-fic. So travel light: it will reduce your worries as well as prejudice and expectation.
Travelling in a group is at least as dangerous. I remember once spending hours just wan-dering through the alleyways of Mopti in Niger, absorbing the myriad passing impressions that appealed to my senses and listening to an extraordinary array of unique sounds I had never heard before. Then I turned a corner and suddenly and unexpectedly found myself in the middle of a group of tourists that was so big it was having trouble making its way through the narrow streets. The group generated so much noise – an unavoidable conse-quence of the cameras, the calls of the group leader, and the excited voices of the tourists – that these travellers could not possibly hear the tinkling of the jewellery on the ears and arms of the Pheul women. There and then I felt sorry for the tourists: they were missing out. The incident reminded me of Mungo Park, the young Scot who set out over two hund-red years ago to reveal the secrets of the Niger River. On his first expedition he was alm-ost completely alone, accompanied only by a translator and a servant. It was an eventful and successful trip, and one about which he wrote an exciting report. On his second ex-pedition, he led thirty British soldiers into inland western Africa. He never returned.
My many years of experience have led me to conclude that the most important rule of all is to travel on foot. Walking awakens a sense of awareness that tightens the traveller like a bow-string. You are exposed to a reality that presses itself through the soles of your shoe like tiny, sharp stones, drags heavily on the straps of your backpack, and grabs your attention with every aching muscle, every drop of perspiration, and every clinging grain of dust. Those who travel through the landscape by car, bus, train, or motorcycle see with their eyes – more or less. Those who cover the landscape on foot see it with their entire bodies. Moreover, travellers who move around on foot put themselves on a level with the locals, fall into the category of the weary wanderer, and can be greeted with hospitality by people around the world. When seen from inside a car, on the other hand, a foreign land always looks as if it has been poorly translated into the native language of the traveller.
And one more thing: do not travel abroad and come back again; turn the foreign country into your home. Imagine that roots grow into the future. ‘Travel on a journey, my friend, from I to self,’ said the wonderful Sufi poet Rumi. Journeys like this transform the world into a foreign place that yields as many treasures as a goldmine.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann, September 2008
Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to