Why We Travel
By Pico Iyer
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March 18, 2000 | W e travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again -- to slow time down and get taken in, and
fall in love once more. The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, "The Philosophy of Travel." We "need sometimes," the Harvard philosopher wrote, "to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what."

I like that stress on work, since never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are
 to the difficulty that precedes them; and I like the stress on a holiday that's "moral" since we fall into our ethical habits as easily as into our beds at night. Few of us ever forget the connection between "travel" and "travail,"
and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship -- both my own, which I want to feel, and others', which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion -- of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while
 feeling without seeing can be blind.

Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home,
 and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of "Wild Orchids" (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: In China, after all, people will pay a whole week's wages to
eat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis.

If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic to us in Evanston, Ill., it only follows that a McDonald's would
seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator -- or, at least, equally far from everything expected. Though it's
fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real
distinction lies
between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among
those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home,"
while a traveler is one who grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo --
or Cuzco or Kathmandu." It's all very much the same.

But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around
and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can
famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash
course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is
how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal. When you go to North Korea,
for example, you really do feel as if you've landed on a different planet -- and the North Koreans
doubtless feel that they're being visited by an extra-terrestrial, too (or else they simply assume that you,
as they do, receive orders every morning from the Central Committee on what clothes to wear and
what route to use when walking to work, and you, as they do, have loudspeakers in your bedroom
broadcasting propaganda every morning at dawn, and you, as they do, have your radios fixed so as
to receive only a single channel).

We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies,
the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow's headlines: When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is
almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet
and a "one world order" grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity
of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

And in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can
bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon -- an
anti-Federal Express, if you like -- in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that
I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California;
I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and
come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers.

But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts
of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can
take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like
Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with
the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson
or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import --
and export -- dreams with tenderness.

By now all of us have heard (too often) the old Proust line about how the real voyage of discovery
consists not in seeing new places but in seeing with new eyes. Yet one of the subtler beauties of travel
is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. Thus even as holidays help
you appreciate your own home more -- not least by seeing it through a distant admirer's eyes --
they help you bring newly appreciative -- distant -- eyes to the places you visit. You can teach them
what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach. This, I think, is
how tourism, which so obviously destroys cultures, can also resuscitate or revive them, how it has
created new "traditional" dances in Bali, and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their
works. If the first thing we can bring the Cubans is a real and balanced sense of what contemporary
America is like, the second -- and perhaps more important -- thing we can bring them is a fresh
and renewed sense of how special are the warmth and beauty of their country, for those who can
compare it with other places around the globe.

Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that
we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that
might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods
and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we'd otherwise seldom have cause to visit.

On the most basic level, when I'm in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9 p.m.,
I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end
in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and,
in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally
obscured by chatter and routine.

We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity -- and, of course, in finding the one we
apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are,
as Hazlitt puts it, just the "gentlemen in the parlour," and people cannot put a name or tag to us.
And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the
opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to
explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).

Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as
when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves
up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious -- to others, at first,
and sometimes to ourselves -- and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted,
"A man never goes so far as when he doesn't know where he is going."

There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise
of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more
open kind of self. Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year
-- or at least 45 hours -- and traveling is an easy way of surrounding ourselves, as in childhood,
with what we cannot understand. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to
France, we often migrate to French, and the more childlike self, simple and polite, that speaking
a foreign language educes. Even when I'm not speaking pidgin English in Hanoi, I'm simplified in
a positive way, and concerned not with expressing myself, but simply making sense.

So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel
in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more
abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my
vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet
can "place" me -- no one can fix me in my rsum --I can remake myself for better, as well as,
of course, for worse (if travel is notoriously a cradle for false identities, it can also, at its best,
be a crucible for truer ones). In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move:
On the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more
possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.

This is what Camus meant when he said that "what gives value to travel is fear" -- disruption,
in other words, (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide.
And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions. I, like
many people, tend to ask questions of the places I visit, and relish most the ones that ask
the most searching questions back of me: In Paraguay, for example, where one car in every
two is stolen, and two-thirds of the goods on sale are smuggled, I have to rethink my every
Californian assumption. And in Thailand, where many young women give up their bodies in
order to protect their families -- to become better Buddhists -- I have to question my own
too-ready judgments. "The ideal travel book," Christopher Isherwood once said, "should be
perhaps a little like a crime story in which you're in search of something." And it's the best kind
of something, I would add, if it's one that you can never quite find.

I remember, in fact, after my first trips to Southeast Asia, more than a decade ago, how I would
come back to my apartment in New York, and lie in my bed, kept up by something more than
jet lag, playing back, in my memory, over and over, all that I had experienced, and paging
wistfully though my photographs and reading and re-reading my diaries, as if to extract some
mystery from them. Anyone witnessing this strange scene would have drawn the right conclusion:
I was in love.

For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can't quite
speak the language, and you don't know where you're going, and you're pulled ever deeper
into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left
puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in love with. All the great travel books are
love stories, by some reckoning -- from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy
and the New Testament -- and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself
and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.

And what this metaphor also brings home to us is that all travel is a two-way transaction, as
we too easily forget, and if warfare is one model of the meeting of nations, romance is another.
For what we all too often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much
as the people we scrutinize, and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume, as much
on the road as when we are at home. At the very least, we are objects of speculation
(and even desire) who can seem as exotic to the people around us as they do to us.

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.


About the writer
Pico Iyer is a contributing editor of Salon Travel & Food. His new book is "The Global Soul."
He is also the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk,"
"Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."