“Reclaiming Travel,” ILAN STAVANS and JOSHUA ELLISON
New York Times, July 7, 2012
Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
Travel has no inherent moral character, no necessary outcome. It can be precious or worthless, productive or destructive. It can be ennobling or self-satisfied. The returns can be only as good as what we offer of ourselves in the process. So what distinguishes meaningful, fruitful travel from mere tourism? What turns travel into a quest rather than self-serving escapism?
George Steiner wrote that “human beings need to learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet.” We usually focus on the ethical imperative of hospitality, on the obligation to be a generous host. When we travel, though, we are asking for hospitality. There’s great vulnerability in this. It also requires considerable strength. To be a good guest — like being a good host — one needs to be secure in one’s own premises: where you stand, who you are. This means we tend to romanticize travel as a lonely pursuit. In fact, a much deeper virtue arises from the demands it makes on us as social beings.
Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.
Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.
The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.
Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.