Why Travel?

It has been nearly nine(!) months since my last entry on this blog. Part of the reason for my neglect is a series of distractions, not all of which I would be proud to disclose. But one of the distractions is worthy of mention: my wife and I are in the midst of planning to rent out our home for a year or so and to take off “around the world.”

To that end I will be adding to this web site a new blog that will be exclusively devoted to reporting on our plans and preparations for the trip and, once we are under way, what we encounter and experience on our travels. [Update: here's the link to Mike and Serafin's Travelogue.]

We’re not particularly wealthy: though we like to travel, we try to do it frugally — camping when we can, staying in inexpensive accommodations, avoiding expensive meals (usually). This trip is no exception. But it will have its costs, and we’ll need to dip into our retirement savings to make it happen. Which raises the question, is it really worth the expense? What’s travel good for, anyway?

The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Travel provides new experiences; it broadens one’s perspective on many things; it breaks down barriers that needlessly separate people of different locales; it makes concrete what we can otherwise only imagine from reading or from reports in the media; it affords an opportunity to visit great art museums, not to mention historical and archeological sites that bring the past to life; it introduces us to new people — both other travelers and the inhabitants of other lands. And of course, it’s a lot of fun (most of the time).

I nod my head enthusiastically at answers like these. Still, the question “Why travel?” keeps pestering me. Perhaps that’s because of my thoughtful and centered friends who point out that travel itself is not necessarily anything but a distraction from our true tasks as human beings, however those tasks may be defined. Just as collecting more and more “stuff” is a way to avoid our higher calling as human beings (a thought that, for example, has given rise in many traditions to the practice of asceticism in service of the spiritual life), so too is collecting experiences from exotic lands of very limited value.

Can’t one equally well be jolted out of one’s provincialism by an encounter with great literature? Can’t one deeply encounter other ways of thinking about the world from a serious study of philosophy or history? And anyway, don’t most tourists just skim the surface during their travels, limited as they usually are by ignorance of the local language and by itineraries that leave little leisure for experiences of high quality?

I am very sympathetic to these concerns. Surely there is such a thing as traveling badly. Is there also traveling well? If so, what is it?

Heraclitus declared, “You would not discover the limits of the soul even journeying far and wide — it has so deep a Logos.” Travel may be broadening, but how can it become deepening? How do I avoid overindulging in superficial delight in the novel and exotic? How do I get beyond seeking out great photo ops (my special temptation) at the risk of missing out on truly transformative experiences? Most important, perhaps: how do I overcome the inevitable temptation of appropriating “the other” through the categories offered by my culture and my prior experience?

I suspect the answer to all this is that travel itself is not inherently worthwhile, no more than staying home would be. Rather, traveling well is a matter of how we approach our experiences on the road: Am I open to being surprised? Do I risk moving out of my comfort zone? Am I prepared to be attentive, to listen, to resist prejudging? Am I able to sustain an introspectively charged inquisitiveness?

It should be an interesting year!

Comments are closed.