Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
So it is that other writers before me have contemplated the significance of travel in the face of fear. In March of last year, in the wake of the bombing at the Brussels airport, Travel & Leisure magazine published an editorial exhorting its readers not to be frightened into staying home. “In moments like these, traveling can seem like an act of defiance, and for affected parts of the world, of support,” wrote the editor. “Travel is one of the great forces of good. Let’s keep at it.”
Just last month the New York Times travel pages published an essay in response to the London Bridge attack. Travel itself, wrote the author, is the best palliative against the fear that some would have us feel. “The more I travel in today’s security climate, and refuse to alter my behavior, the better I feel about travel — and the sillier I feel afterward for worrying.”
What is new today is that the most important government in the world charged with making us safer is now actively impeding engagement with the outside world. Over the last few months, there have been numerous cases of perfectly innocuous travelers being denied entry to the United States or detained at the port of entry. Just a few days ago, despite its patent irrationality and ineffectiveness as a security measure, the Trump administration’s travel ban aimed at majority Muslim countries went into effect.
Travel is now an act of defiance not only against scary men in balaclavas wielding AKs in grainy Youtube videos, but also against those governments seemingly no less committed to making everyone into fearful homebodies.
Because travel is by its very nature about the crossing of boundaries. International travel literally involves the traversing of borders and frontiers. And metaphorically it involves the crossing of other boundaries — linguistic, racial, religious, cultural. To cross boundaries is to erase them. To venture into the unfamiliar is to have faith that people on the other side are basically like us and essentially decent, to embrace other varieties of humanity, even if they wear different clothes or eat different food or worship different gods.
And we travel precisely because the most interesting things happen when we cross those boundaries. The most memorable experiences, the most worthwhile new understandings, the most dramatic expansions of our minds and of ourselves, happen when we locate ourselves in foreign lands, when we encounter the alien.
Travel transforms the traveler. The Iranian mystical poem, “The Conference of the Birds,” tells of thirty birds who go on a long pilgrimage seeking an avian god. But when they arrive at their destination they discover that the lot of them together have become, through the act of travel, the god that they sought.
So it was that Mark Twain, the quintessential American writer, once wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Marking my own little two-year anniversary, I have for the moment returned to where I started, the United States. And of course it happens to be the week of the 4th of July, which this year was a time of unease more than of celebration. In some ways not much has changed in this country since I left — Americans remain basically decent, as any people on the other side of any frontier typically are. But in some other ways very much has changed.
So Twain’s wit is more relevant than ever: many Americans more sorely than ever before need the antidote against bigotry that is travel.
But of course Twain’s comment applies not only to Americans. Whatever our nationality, we can all use a bit less bigotry and prejudice and a bit more travel.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."