It was the poor person’s way of going abroad – standing at the seaside and staring at the ocean. All travellers are optimists, I thought. Travel itself is a sort of optimism in action. – The Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux
You are lucky to have the sea. It’s good for fantasy. - Viennese artist visiting Helsinki.
In Solved by Walking, I got to write about my very favourite subject. Some thoughts were left over from that post. Here I share them with you: the way the meaning of travel changes with time, and the spiritual aspects of being on the move.
Travel and Time
As with all human activity, what travel offers depends on what you are searching for. Apart from the obvious – new experiences, new acquaintances, the thrill of movement and sense of freedom – there are subconscious or at least intangible expectations, and they change with age and experience.
La vie est ailleurs. When I was young, wanderlust was inextricably tied to the idea that real life was always waiting at the end of a plane trip and could not be found in boring old Finland. As Baudelaire put it, “I think I would be happy in that place I happen not to be…” In a sense it is true, of course. We are more alive when travelling. With time, we catch on to life’s little trick: the real shift happens inside us, not in our surroundings.
When I was young, my intellectual friends had dug up the late 18th century author Xavier de Maistre and his book Voyage autour de ma chambre (Journey Around my Room). They would quote it at me, looking wise, in order to drive home that all my journeying was futile and what I sought I could find right in that musty little flat in southern Helsinki. It irked me endlessly: they were missing the point, the world is there to be explored, and my peace came from moving through it. I figured they were just hiding their cowardice behind literary allusions. With hindsight, we were all right and wrong. To each his own.
True, stillness of mind can replace need for physical displacement. But equally, stillness of mind teaches what is intrinsic to us, and what we can gain by living true to our nature. With age, “voyages in my room” have come to complement voyages out there, and the same calm follows my feet in the best of times here and there. That turns all travel – and all life - into pilgrimage.
A lot of the thrill of travel is in the waiting and planning. At the computer and in bed, too excited to sleep, everything takes on a fairy tale glow. In practice, it’s not as easy to ”get in the mood”, that meditative, shining state, once you're actually on the road, as one imagines at home. There’s so much to distract, so much to take care of, so many dangers to avoid. And of course, you take yourself along, with all the things and thoughts you would have preferred to leave behind.
Spirit on the Move
The early church recognised two kinds of pilgrimage: the first was wandering for God, ambulare pro Deo, in imitation of Christ. This is the more familiar meaning, and common to most established religions. The road to Mecca, to Kumbh Mela. Sometimes the road is endless: desert mothers and fathers reverted to nomadism to hear God’s voice better, as do the Indian Baulis still today.
The other, penitential pilgrimage, was for criminals guilty of heinous crimes. They needed to work out their salvation on the road. In a way, travel is still a combination of both – a search and an atonement.
Nature goes on pilgrimage too. Tides come in, then go out again, far out. Winds bring “blood sand” from Sahara to inner Italy. Seas and mountains travel slower, leaving fossils in their wake.
In Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines – the travel book to end all travel books – Fredrik Barth noted that there are few religious practices among the Basseri, a tribe of Iranian nomads, because “the Journey itself was the ritual, that the road to summer uplands was the Way, and that the pitching and dismantling of tents were prayers more meaningful than any in the mosque.”
As travel becomes ever more a way for people to “live the dream” for a moment in plush hotels, it’s worthwhile remembering Arkady’s words: “The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future”. I am no better than most – with age, I grow fond of my creature comforts. But in my dreams, I am brown, long-limbed, strong and free. Like the desert nomads that Ibn Khaldun describes: "the desert was thus a reservoir of civilisation, and desert peoples had the advantage over settlers because they were more abstemious, freer, braver, healthier, less bloated, less craven, less liable to submit to rotten laws, and altogether easier to cure.”