Why We Travel
Published: September 2011
By Guy Trebay
Travel has the power to transform places and people in an instant. T+L looks at why we go.
In a bitter winter landscape, white in every direction, two travelers go haring along in an unheated Soviet automobile. Snowy fields stretch to the pale horizon, blurring the boundary between earth and sky. Flocks of swifts, scared up by the vehicle, wheel around looking like gravel flung into the air.
The year is 1989, and in the hinterlands of Romania, in that season of revolution, the rural landscape remains so unmarked by modernity that, but for the car, we might easily have strayed back a century in time. Crossing the border from Hungary into a country where, days before, an oppressive regime had been toppled suddenly, a photographer and I were heading for the Carpathian Mountains in search of Laszlo Tokes, dissident protestant minister and unlikely fomenter of a movement to end the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s infamous dictator.
We managed to slip past armored checkpoints and discover this man, where the Romanian army had not, hidden away in a remote mountain village of timber houses and churches with onion domes. I scarcely recall the story I wrote, which had no notable effect on world events. What I do remember from that day, with uncanny clarity, is the stubble fields, the pewter sky, the wheezing sound of the crummy car that was the only vehicle Budapest rental agencies would risk sending across the border.
And in that memory is contained a specific truth of travel, its power to impress on memory the places we’ve been, leaving there a record more indelible than any image captured with tablet or lens. On that trip, small alterations were triggered in my sense of the world, as I believe they are on every journey we undertake.
Lately, this aspect of travel seems all but forgotten. With an entirely different sense of expectations and heartier appetites for wonder, earlier travelers packed their bags expecting to find strangeness in the wide world. They set out on Grand Tours, great explorations, overland treks, and thrilling adventures, often with the specific goal of opening, if not actually blowing, their minds. When in the 18th century the indomitable traveler Eliza Fay first embarked on a voyage across the globe, an ordinary woman of no great beauty, connections, or means, she was stoked by an intrepid nature and insatiable curiosity. Making her way to Calcutta from Dover, Fay traveled by carriage, sedan chair, sailing ship, ferry, and felucca; on the backs of horses, asses, mules, or camels; and often enough on foot. She put up with hardships, fevers, tempers, bad roads, “boisterous” weather, tossing gales, shifty innkeepers, and bedbugs in order, it seems, to experience life from an unaccustomed vantage. She passed her wonderment along to the readers of her letters, chatty, shrewd, and hilarious documents rediscovered in the early 20th century by E. M. Forster and still in print even now.
Literature is rich in people like Eliza Fay, voyagers who set out with the forthright expectation that by altering circumstance one might reasonably expect an improvement in general perception, people for whom the traveler’s usual murk of misunderstanding alternated with stark flashes of human recognition, tourists whose unstated aim in leaving home was to experience firsthand the chaos, intrusions, and glories of the world.
Those goals seem a bit creaky now, vaguely incongruous with an age when people appear most intent on miniaturizing the planet, shrinking things down to one’s own size. The impulse to document every gesture, update global position, tweet random thoughts, become mayor on Foursquare, or post iPhone evidence of one’s existence on a Super Wall is a far cry from the obligation earlier travelers felt to report back on the doge’s procession, the throng of retainers accompanying the king of Sardinia on his daily constitutional, the customs of “Hindoo” ladies on the rare occasions when they left the cloister of purdah and went out on the town.
What seems lacking from the current welter of digital communications is a sense of people using travel in the oldest of ways: to escape. The great beauty of travel, after all, is that it forces you to leave the keyboard, glance up from the PDA, and get out of the house and into the world. It is only when you stop wielding handheld devices as shields or weapons, when you pocket the electronic third eye, that it is possible to have a good look around.
Sometimes in the limbo of a long-haul flight, I will remove my passport from my inside jacket pocket and squint at the obscure entry and exit stamps, the faded records of my peregrinations.
There is one cylinder stamp in purple ink, marked on paper palely patterned with a repeat of the Liberty Bell. The mark documents the not-notable fact that on December 6, 2004, I entered Sri Lanka via the capital of Colombo and that on December 25 I exited by the same port. The date stamps in themselves reveal little of interest. Yet for me they trigger an intense recollection of the flat, fierce sun of an Indian Ocean winter; of long shadows falling on the parade ground by the jetty in Colombo; of a sacred temple elephant grabbing with its trunk a great stalk of bananas I’d brought in offering; of a slow drive past oceanfront villages in the early hours of a cool morning en route to the walled fort at Galle.
That particular day I stopped at a turtle hatchery near Kosgoda. Wandering along sandy paths among cement tanks, I paused to observe the small scrambling ovals of turtle hatchlings: olive ridleys, hawksbills, greens, and leatherbacks. Protected from fishermen, mongooses, and avian marauders, the hatchlings would be brought to the sea at roughly four days old, and under safe cover of darkness released into the water, there to commence the pelagic migrations the species has pursued for close to 200 million years.
That morning I found myself moved in ways I have seldom been in any place of worship. I felt vaguely awestruck in the presence of these indomitable wanderers. The weather was fine, the sea mild, the sky an intense Rickett’s blue.
I departed Sri Lanka on Christmas aboard a plane filled with barefoot female pilgrims heading for the birthplace of Buddhism in distant Bihar, India. In a little under 24 hours the placid scene I’d left on the beach at Kosgoda would slowly reverse itself, the sea drawing back toward its depths, then surging in again to consume the coastline, hungrily sucking up rail tracks, palm groves, asphalt roads, the hotel and oceanfront room I’d checked out of just a day earlier. The Victor Hasselblad turtle hatchery, too, was all but erased and a New York acquaintance of mine was, like many of the 34,000 Sri Lankans unknown to me, swallowed up by the tsunami and never seen again.
Destiny always seems close when we travel, and to the manageable nuisances a wanderer faces—pickpockets, sunstroke, Montezuma’s Revenge—others arise to remind us that none of us can outrun fate. Yet, as Fay’s letters make clear, the perils of the journey are offset by that of staying put and missing out on the world’s enchantments, its wondrousness and unfailing oddity.
It is certainly no accident that the profession I chose has provided me with a pretext for satisfying a nomadic longing to know what lies over the next hill. A vagrant spirit the German Romantics termed wanderlust in me finds a less poetic though sharper and possibly more useful variant in the modern German word Fernweh, a word that translates roughly as an aching for distance.
That longing to be away once led me, in the days before monks gave their lives to incite a Saffron Revolution there, to the zigzag boardwalk span of U Bein Bridge, in rural Myanmar, once known as Burma. Spanning mudflats and shallow grass verges where farmers graze their cattle, the bridge is ramshackle, a poetic structure allegedly built from the teak boards of ruined temples.
Mist off the lake wreathed the scene that day, and at several points along the span turbaned women sat with caged songbirds alongside them. As at many temples in Asia, the birds are sold to visitors or passersby as a kind of karmic barter. Free one and gain points toward the next incarnation. In one bamboo cage crouched a young owl, head swiveling, wings flaring anxiously against the bars. The crone who’d caught it wanted $20 U.S. to liberate the owl, and my guide—warm, intelligent, a sympathetic and genial government employee who was almost certainly a spy—made clear to me the circularity of the bargain.
“If the owl is set free, she will only capture another,” this man said, speaking in terms that may have been a veiled reference to Myanmar’s repressive government. I reached into my wallet, found the currency, paid the woman, and then watched as she unlatched the door and tipped the bird awkwardly from the confines of the cage.
In the anxious seconds it took for the owl to get its bearings I stood around in case its hesitation guaranteed fulfillment of the guide’s prediction. Dazed and still, the bird perched there on the splintered boards until I nudged it with a toe.
“Perhaps it is injured,” said the guide, and in roughly the time it took for him to utter the sentence, the bird shot off like a little avian rocket.
I followed it with my eyes as far as the tree canopy, and then it was lost from view. Even now, the image of that bird’s flight to freedom remains fixed in a traveler’s memory.