Why We Travel
Travel Stories: In a classic essay, Pico Iyer explores the reasons we leave our beliefs and certainties at home to see the world with open eyes
We are the comic props in Japanese home-movies, the oddities in Maliese anecdotes and the fall-guys in Chinese jokes; we are the moving postcards or bizarre objets trouves that villagers in Peru will later tell their friends about. If travel is about the meeting of realities, it is no less about the mating of illusions: You give me my dreamed-of vision of Tibet, and I’ll give you your wished-for California. And in truth, many of us, even (or especially) the ones who are fleeing America abroad, will get taken, willy-nilly, as symbols of the American Dream.
That, in fact, is perhaps the most central and most wrenching of the questions travel proposes to us: how to respond to the dream that people tender to you? Do you encourage their notions of a Land of Milk and Honey across the horizon, even if it is the same land you’ve abandoned? Or do you try to dampen their enthusiasm for a place that exists only in the mind? To quicken their dreams may, after all, be to match-make them with an illusion; yet to dash them may be to strip them of the one possession that sustains them in adversity.
That whole complex interaction—not unlike the dilemmas we face with those we love (how do we balance truthfulness and tact?)—is partly the reason why so many of the great travel writers, by nature, are enthusiasts: not just Pierre Loti, who famously, infamously, fell in love wherever he alighted (an archetypal sailor leaving offspring in the form of Madame Butterfly myths), but also Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence or Graham Greene, all of whom bore out the hidden truth that we are optimists abroad as readily as pessimists as home. None of them was by any means blind to the deficiencies of the places around them, but all, having chosen to go there, chose to find something to admire.
All, in that sense, believed in “being moved” as one of the points of taking trips, and “being transported” by private as well as public means; all saw that “ecstasy” (“ex-stasis”) tells us that our highest moments come when we’re not stationary, and that epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it. I remember once asking the great travel writer Norman Lewis if he’d ever be interested in writing on apartheid South Africa. He looked at me astonished. “To write well about a thing,” he said, “I’ve got to like it!”
At the same time, as all this is intrinsic to travel, from Ovid to O’Rourke, travel itself is changing as the world does, and with it, the mandate of the travel writer. It’s not enough to go to the ends of the earth these days (not least because the ends of the earth are often coming to you); and where a writer like Jan Morris could, a few years ago, achieve something miraculous simply by voyaging to all the great cities of the globe, now anyone with a Visa card can do that. So where Morris, in effect, was chronicling the last days of the Empire, a younger travel writer is in a better position to chart the first days of a new Empire, post-national, global, mobile and yet as diligent as the Raj in transporting its props and its values around the world.
In the mid-19th century, the British famously sent the Bible and Shakespeare and cricket round the world; now a more international kind of Empire is sending Madonna and the Simpsons and Brad Pitt. And the way in which each culture takes in this common pool of references tells you as much about them as their indigenous products might. Madonna in an Islamic country, after all, sounds radically different from Madonna in a Confucian one, and neither begins to mean the same as Madonna on East 14th Street. When you go to a McDonald’s outlet in Kyoto, you will find Teriyaki McBurgers and Bacon Potato Pies. The placemats offer maps of the great temples of the city, and the posters all around broadcast the wonders of San Francisco. And—most crucial of all—the young people eating their Big Macs, with baseball caps worn backwards, and tight 501 jeans, are still utterly and inalienably Japanese in the way they move, they nod, they sip their Oolong teas—and never to be mistaken for the patrons of a McDonald’s outlet in Rio, Morocco or Managua. These days a whole new realm of exotica arises out of the way one culture colors and appropriates the products of another.
The other factor complicating and exciting all of this is people, who are, more and more, themselves as many-tongued and mongrel as cities like Sydney or Toronto or Hong Kong. I am, in many ways, an increasingly typical specimen, if only because I was born, as the son of Indian parents, in England, moved to America at 7 and cannot really call myself an Indian, an American or an Englishman. I was, in short, a traveler at birth, for whom even a visit to the candy store was a trip through a foreign world where no one I saw quite matched my parents’ inheritance, or my own. And though some of this is involuntary and tragic—the number of refugees in the world, which came to just 2.5 million in 1970, is now at least 27.4 million—it does involve, for some of us, the chance to be transnational in a happier sense, able to adapt anywhere, used to being outsiders everywhere and forced to fashion our own rigorous sense of home. (And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere.)
Besides, even those who don’t move around the world find the world moving more and more around them. Walk just six blocks, in Queens or Berkeley, and you’re traveling through several cultures in as many minutes; get into a cab outside the White House, and you’re often in a piece of Addis Ababa. And technology, too, compounds this (sometimes deceptive) sense of availability, so that many people feel they can travel around the world without leaving the room—through cyberspace or CD-ROMs, videos and virtual travel. There are many challenges in this, of course, in what it says about essential notions of family and community and loyalty, and in the worry that air-conditioned, purely synthetic versions of places may replace the real thing—not to mention the fact that the world seems increasingly in flux, a moving target quicker than our notions of it. But there is, for the traveler at least, the sense that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same thing.
All of us feel this from the cradle, and know, in some sense, that all the significant movement we ever take is internal. We travel when we see a movie, strike up a new friendship, get held up. Novels are often journeys as much as travel books are fictions; and though this has been true since at least as long ago as Sir John Mandeville’s colorful 14th century accounts of a Far East he’d never visited, it’s an even more shadowy distinction now, as genre distinctions join other borders in collapsing.
In Mary Morris’s “House Arrest,” a thinly disguised account of Castro’s Cuba, the novelist reiterates, on the copyright page, “All dialogue is invented. Isabella, her family, the inhabitants and even la isla itself are creations of the author’s imagination.” On Page 172, however, we read, “La isla, of course, does exist. Don’t let anyone fool you about that. It just feels as if it doesn’t. But it does.” No wonder the travel-writer narrator—a fictional construct (or not)?—confesses to devoting her travel magazine column to places that never existed. “Erewhon,” after all, the undiscovered land in Samuel Butler’s great travel novel, is just “nowhere” rearranged.
Travel, then, is a voyage into that famously subjective zone, the imagination, and what the traveler brings back is—and has to be—an ineffable compound of himself and the place, what’s really there and what’s only in him. Thus Bruce Chatwin’s books seem to dance around the distinction between fact and fancy. V.S. Naipaul’s recent book, “A Way in the World,” was published as a non-fictional “series” in England and a “novel” in the United States. And when some of the stories in Paul Theroux’s half-invented memoir, “My Other Life,” were published in The New Yorker, they were slyly categorized as “Fact and Fiction.”
And since travel is, in a sense, about the conspiracy of perception and imagination, the two great travel writers, for me, to whom I constantly return are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that “traveling is a fool’s paradise,” and the other who “traveled a good deal in Concord”). Both of them insist on the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, “We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us.”
So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also—Emerson and Thoreau remind us—have to carry with us our sense of destination. The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds we cross in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center.
And even as the world seems to grow more exhausted, our travels do not, and some of the finest travel books in recent years have been those that undertake a parallel journey, matching the physical steps of a pilgrimage with the metaphysical steps of a questioning (as in Peter Matthiessen’s great “The Snow Leopard”), or chronicling a trip to the farthest reaches of human strangeness (as in Oliver Sack’s “Island of the Color-Blind,” which features a journey not just to a remote atoll in the Pacific, but to a realm where people actually see light differently). The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.
So travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau with whom I began, wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.
This piece originally appeared on Salon.com.