Solved by Walking: An Ode to Travel

 Sagres. The last bit of earth that Vasco da Gama's men saw, setting off for the New World. A place for courage and leaps of faith.

Sagres. The last bit of earth that Vasco da Gama's men saw, setting off for the New World. A place for courage and leaps of faith.

Too few Euros and too many work obligations are endangering the next trip. Visions of the peaks of the High Atlas and wind-swept Atlantic shores go down the drain. As I am still trying to add up the coins and hours in some new, more hopeful equation, Minerva sits down and joins me. “So, is there any other way we can get on the move? Go somewhere else?” It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

Travel is the deep, abiding love of my life, and the kids have spent half their lives plotting routes on a map. It’s a family legacy: Johannes and Minerva are the fourth generation that feels very comfortable boarding ships and planes. It’s also a species thing: according to Bruce Chatwin, we were created to be on the move, and have developed to roam the desert. Any other way of living chafes at us. He claimed that nomadism is man’s natural life, and the internal burn to move is as programmed in us as is the migratory flight of birds.

Travel offers us endless routes to repletion. There’s the pilgrimage, an ever-renewing spiritual search along age-old routes. There’s the road trip, which has a definite start and sometimes a definite end, but everything in between is dictated by chance and whim. Then there’s the return to a family’s ancestral land, every scent and sound engraved in the soul, though forgotten in the long winter of keeping still.  

Those of us who aren’t very strongly rooted to a culture or a nation, often swing in a mythical pendulum between the dream of a home of one’s very own - Chateaubriand’s castle - and the endless, free road of Ibn Khaldoun’s desert dwellers. If pressed to choose between the two, it's a foregone conclusion. We hold the firm conviction that “solvitur ambulando”: movement will offer the keys to any spiritual, emotional or practical conundrum. It's not a running away, or even a running towards. The solution lies in the internal peace that the movement itself provides. The world rocks us in her cradle.   

Travel is not only a way of life. It offers a way of being at home in the entire universe, reading and interpreting it in ever-new ways. As a young student I read a text book for a course on environmental archaeology which blew my mind. The gist of it was that we have unwittingly been travelling upon the same roads and footpaths since the Bronze Age. The same copses are still standing, the same names, stories and unnamed sensations are still linked to stones, hills and valleys. Whichever bend in the open road we take, generations have trod it before us. We are discoverers, yes, but only in our time.

Chatwin had a glorious thought: all of the world’s mythologies - Ulysses, Mahabharata, all of them - are actually complex roadmaps that describe the physical, spiritual and cultural planes of the places they cover. They are all Aboriginal Songlines. And not only that: they are all linked, they make up a definitive mappa mundi, created by countless travelling seers. Who would not want to smooth out that carta, and find in the sonf the purpose of life?

Places like St. Malo, Sagres, Monte da Lua and California hold a special magic. They are where people have wound up after dreaming, escaping or searching their way right through the continent. Finisterre, Land’s End: millennia of forced reckonings. Almost always there is something particularly soothing and strengthening about these places of last resort and acceptance. For others, they have held another significance entirely: they are places where there is no stopping, no room for cowardice: you get in a galleon and sail for the new world. Either way, they are packed with magnetic energy.

All travel is in a sense a pilgrimage, a return to our souls. It frees us from unconscious intolerance and tunnel vision. It teaches us, not always gently, that other peoples’ realities are just as valid as ours'. It gives us an appreciation of the marvel of diversity in creation and culture. In large cities everywhere, particularly in the West, everyone is cut from much the same cloth. Going out in the African countryside and in remote areas of Asia, you see the glorious variations that nature and the human form and mind can take.

Travel lets us test ourselves, see how well we flow, how much we see, to what extent we can communicate with others, ourselves, God. It lets us broaden the scope of who we are, frees us from the roles we inhabit and the conceptions we and others hold of us. We have all observed with pleasure and astonishment the subtle but definite metamorphosis when a loved one really hits his stride. It affects everything: speech, movement, sleep patterns, smell, opinions and manners.

Minerva is right. The road calls in some other map location, then. Long may we roam, learn and love, reaching out to others and a greater way of being.