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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | ESSAY

Why We Travel

There's Joy in Leaving All Our Beliefs and Certainties at Home, in Seeing Everything in a Different Light

April 19, 1998|PICO IYER | Iyer is the author of several travel books, including "Video Nights in Kathmandu: and Other Reports From the Not So Far East" (Vintage Departures), and most recently "Tropical Classical" (Alfred A. Knopf). His writings on cultural and global affairs have appeared in Time, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Times and other publications. When he's not traveling, Iyer lives in Santa Barbara and Kyoto

We 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, get taken in and fall in love once more. * The beauty of this whole process was perhaps best described, 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 timelessness, 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 that 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 Orchid" (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 Col. Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis. If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic in Evanston, Ill., it only follows that a McDonald's would seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator. 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. In many cases, 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 much the same.

But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around, turns you upside down and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can 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 as if they're being visited by an extraterrestrial, 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 to receive only official programming.

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 in Haiti, 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.

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