Jake Chapman, Online Columns Editor, questions the common desire to travel and see the world.
Photography: Rory Bradford
‘Travel’: same word as ‘travail’ – ‘bodily or mental labour’, ‘toil, especially painful or oppressive nature’, ‘exertion’, ‘hardship’, ‘suffering’. A ‘journey’.
– Bruce Chatwin, ‘The Songlines’
Recently I started to doubt my reasons for wanting to travel. My friends and family have always said it’s something I ‘have’ to do, to the point where I now almost feel like I’m obliged to do it. It’s something I’ve known I want to do since I was around seventeen years old, but why? I’ll justify it by saying ‘It’s the once chance that I’ll get to do it’, but there must be more to it than that. What is it about it that people consider to be so essential to one’s life?
This all started, funnily enough, whilst I was writing an essay. It was for my Travel Writing module, and I was reading a passage that described the difference between a tourist and a traveller*. It said:
‘The traveller was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing’… He expects everything to be done to him and for him. Thus foreign travel ceased to be an activity—an experience, an undertaking—and became instead a commodity.’
I started to wonder exactly what it was that I would gain from travelling, and to be honest it didn’t take me long to find my answer. I thought about a few of my friends that are in Thailand at the minute, but particularly a story that I can confidently say, with confirmation from others who have heard it, that their first day in Bangkok is the singular most unbelievable, outrageous, and foolish situation I have ever know a human being to be in (I really can’t divulge what happened, but let’s say their wallets, dignity, and self-esteem were much lighter at the end of that day). I remembered telling everyone else what had happened to them, and strangely I found myself wishing that I had been there with them, because in the future they are going to look back on what happened be glad it didn’t happen any other way – though, not just yet.
I guess I realised that I don’t want travelling to be easy, because no one wants to hear about something you’ve done that was easy. The best stories are the ones where we’ve been tested, and they’re something that last a lifetime.
*Jonathan Culler, ‘Semiotics of Tourism’, The American Journal of Semiotics, 1 (1981) pp. 127-140