The Tao of Not Traveling
At seventeen years old, I set out from home on my own for the first time.
I was gone for ten months on a trip which took me around the globe in a northwestward fashion, at once both slowly closing and widening the gap that separated me from my parent’s farm in Manitoba, Canada. There was no great mystery in the trip – it was of a determinate length and I knew beforehand, more or less, the countries I would be passing through. What made it something notable to me was that the furthest I had gone on my own before was a one hour’s drive away from home.
That trip was my initiation into what I considered to be an illustrious group I call the Those Who Travel Club.
From a young age, I had been desperate to join the Club, which I considered the means of blossoming into a cultured, well-rounded individual. Although I only knew a few Club Members and grew up around even fewer, I knew that all seeds, however small, grow well with enough water, light, and support. Luckily, I was provided with plenty of all three and there was little to nothing preventing me from my departure.
Before I left, I visited my two Grandmothers, very different women, both of whom presented me with a gift. The first was a generational prairie woman who had spent only a few days away from her farm in her life. She had no worldly possessions. Her house was small and simple and smelled of over-boiled potatoes and stale water. I don’t know what she thought of me going off, but I can assume it was a troubled mix of deep anxiety and concern. It was just as well I didn’t realize that at the time – I would have no doubt thought her worrying ignorant and groundless, as she was not a member of the Club. Before I left, she advised me that the worst hotels are found near bus stations before pressing a small golden pendant of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel, into my hand.
My other grandmother had lived a peripatetic life long before she became a British expatriate in Canada. She had visited relatives in Africa as a child and had spent summers on the Mediterranean with her family. A wide-ranging and adventurous traveler in her own right, she had traveled to every continent, including Antarctica, which she visited twice. Scattered about her house were Chinese trinkets, Indian rugs, and Russian nesting dolls. She was, in short, a predominant member of the Those Who Travel Club. I have no doubt she considered my going off a mere adventure, something to kick-start me into the kind of life that she had had. Although concerned about my welfare, she had some thoughts for the fun I would have as well.
Her gift to me was a rubber-jacketed writing journal embossed with a compass rose, the rose surrounded by the spiraling quote: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” Back then, I was somewhat a believer of quotes and I embraced this particular one as my mantra.
Before setting off, I took care to pack the journal, but I left the pendant at home. Rather than the thoughtful gift of my anxious Grandmother it was, in my eyes, the pendant was a sign of a vexed old woman who knew too little of the world to rightfully worry about it. She had never been far – what could she possibly know?
If my life were a novel, shortly after leaving home, I would have been robbed in a hotel near the bus station and left to rue the moment I decided to leave St. Christopher at home. But I wasn’t. I went on my trip and returned.
Many of my childhood illusions were shattered on that trip, but most shocking to me was that the capital c Club was far from the illustrious group I had imagined it to be.
Travelers, far from the swashbuckling adventurers I had imagined them to be, were mostly ordinary people on different kinds of vacations. Vacations from work, from school, from life. Workers on vacation, students on vacation, hippies and deadbeats and scammers, all on vacation, everyone moving about somewhat aimlessly on their way back home. They were normal people who happened to be doing something extraordinary.
They were not the explorers I had imagined. But I still felt they carried a certain status over those who chose to stay at home.
When I returned home, that idea came along with the realization that, for the first time in my life, I had seen something – many things – that no one else I knew had seen. It was the feeling of possessing a mysterious power.
One night, as my father and I watched the evening news, a report concerning Rome and the Vatican flashed on the screen. ‘I’ve been there,’ I said flippantly, as though I had some insight into the news story. This was 2008, and when discussions turned to the financial crisis, I would breezily mention that I had been in Greece, although truthfully I hadn’t known anything about there being a crisis until well after returning home.
Travel had opened my eyes to the world and presented me with a platform from which to speak about a variety of subjects. I was bursting with opinions on the world. I felt both qualified and justified, although most of what I said was overeagerly extrapolated. The beauty was in the simplicity: I had gone away, so those who hadn’t ought to listen. I, after all, had been around the world, and that meant something.
Travelers are a widely varying group of people and travel itself begets many qualities in them, but humility is rarely one of them.
In youth hostels and bars across the world, regardless of where we were, conversations were relentlessly steered towards places that people had already been.
“Well, I know that in India the people think…”
“Of course, the Peruvians are very much like that…”
“They don’t do anything like that in Estonia, you know…”
This kind of internal challenge erupted any time two or more members of the Those Who Travel Club were together. The intent was to direct attention to places we had all previously been, with the idea of establishing a kind of hierarchy.
Respect went to the person with the most countries to his name; those with less than five may as well not have had an opinion at all.
A lack of humility has let that hostel and bar talk spill over into the world in the form of websites and blogs which manage to both chastise the ignorance wrought by not traveling while reveling in the limitless epiphanies that are endowed upon people who venture away from home.
But not one of these epiphanies ever seems to be: it is okay not to travel.
My father belongs to the prairie side of my family. He is a devoted homebody. As a farmer, leaving, rather than staying, is the greater cause of anxiety. But he has traveled. Besides a journey across Canada to the east coast, he has taken a handful of trips to British Columbia, has been twice to England and once to Mexico. None of these events would, I believe classify my father as a traveler, as he needed to be goaded into taking most, if not all, of the trips.
My father went to Mexico for a week over Christmastime. My parents, my sister and I all met in Tepoztlan, a small, quiet satellite town in the hills outside of Mexico City. I predicted that he would be nervous and overwhelmed – it was an entirely new environment for him – but he took to the change of scenery well.
One day, we hiked to the local pyramid El Tepozteco. The supposed birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the pyramid lies at the summit of a rocky outcrop, reached by a winding stone staircase. It was hot and the stairs were littered with the sweating bodies of Mexicans on holiday. As we neared the top, a call rang out to move aside. Two laborers, their backs bent double with the weight of multiple boxes of bottled water, were making their way to the top. Their foreheads pressed into supportive leather straps and the chords of their necks looked tight enough to snap under the strain. They passed on ahead, dropped their load at the pyramid-side concession stand, and began the trek back down the mountain.
At the top, sitting on a stone slab, my father exclaimed breathily, “Jesus, can you imagine carrying all that water up?” I was more concerned with the view and asked him what he thought of the vista over the town and the knobbed canopy of broccoli trees below us. He nodded slowly and sighed. “Hell of a thing for a prairie boy to see,” he said, hands clasped in his lap.
The surprising clarity of his answer shocked me; subsequently, my shock shocked me. I was meant to be the one providing pithy wisdom. I was the traveler.
I had misused the platform that travel had given me, mistaking my travel experiences for something virtuous.
By considering myself a capital T traveler (and a card-carrying member of the Those Who Travel Club), I’d been unable to accept the experiences of any untraveled person as worthy. I knew it wasn’t just me – I continue to hear that kind of talk in traveler’s circles a decade on.
Why then, do Those Who Travel hold a stigma against the untraveled?
Traveling is a slightly unreal experience. While partaking, you seem to exist on a different plane than everything around you. You exist somewhere on the edge of the law and are allotted a special status, able to get away with things ordinary citizens may not. While that simplicity can provide clarity, it can also make things so clear as to render them invisible.
Think of inspirational travel quotes, the kind attributed seemingly at random to writers, philosophers, and celebrities: “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer” or “Travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” Of course, these quotes are complete rubbish, proved by anyone who needs to spend their life working to live. Still, people believe in them – take a look at any online travel blog and you will find them there, scrawled in flowery writing over photographs of African sunsets or jungle waterfalls.
Coupling laziness or misaligned priorities with not traveling makes it easy to disregard the people who chose not to leave home: we’re meant to believe them cowardly, lazy people who misspend their money.
Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of home. For many, home is something to escape – travel provides that escape. Admitting that something worthwhile, even wisdom, comes from home negates some reason behind leaving. In a foreign country, we think of the wisdom an old man that has lived in a village his entire life encapsulates (picture the old man in the lotus position sitting on a smooth rock). Hearing the same thing at home conjures up the image of a dirty, racist old crank, someone too stuck in the past to be of any use.
Those who stay home don’t do so because they are cultureless or because they fail to inhabit the spirit of travel. They inhabit a different spirit altogether – the spirit to remain.
While the common trope is to think of someone untraveled as simple, unsophisticated, or unenlightened, I have found the opposite to be true. The bulk of the good wisdom I’ve received in life has come from people who either live within only a few miles of where they were born or from people who have been rooted in a place long enough that their local knowledge far surpasses anything that can be learned over a visit.
There is no superiority in having traveled.
Although it may no longer be a luxury, it is still a privilege that relies on people staying home. They remain to drive buses, till fields, watch cows, cook food, and so on. Rather than being ignorant, it’s their knowledge of their world that keeps everything, and everyone, moving.
Maybe some part of every traveler knows this – how many backpackers and tourists sign up for tours because they are advertised as local or authentic. The joke is, travelers want to blend in, as sticking out is usually inconvenient and annoying. In fact, the ultimate compliment you can pay a traveler is to tell them that you confused them with a local. The paradoxical truth about travelers is that they wish to be away and at home, all at once.
A few years ago, my Portuguese partner visited my parent’s farm for the first time. During her visit, a tire on my father’s tractor went flat. The repairman was called. My father and I talked as we watched him pump a rotten-smelling black sludgy liquid from the flattened tire. The topic of my partner came up and with it, her nationality. The repairman listened, his face twisting in worried concentration. “Portugal, eh?” he said. “Where is that? Eastern Europe?”
“No,” my father said, shaking his head. “It’s south of Spain.”
These gaffes made it back to the family, and we all had a good laugh at the mistakes. How funny these provincial bumpkins are, confusing the location of countries on a map.
But so what? Surely knowing how to fix a tractor tire is more important than knowing where Portugal is.
Anyway, my father hadn’t been all wrong. All the same, in a mass-connected and highly-exposed world, that kind of articulated unworldliness is ripe for unfair ridicule.
Those who don’t travel aren’t misspending their money, they aren’t lesser for it. In fact, they are a necessary part of travel itself: someone has to stay home. Travel, in its purest form of service, is the act of finding information in a faraway land and returning home to relay it to those who didn’t go along for the journey. The information is provided by and disseminated to those who remain. There is no superiority in travel – it owes too much to the people who remain home for that.
The traveler who realizes themselves as a mere vessel has already gone much further than the highest-ranking member of the Those Who Travel Club ever can.
As I write this, I remember one more piece of advice my prairie Grandmother (she of the Saint Christopher pendant) gave me before I left home that first time. It was to “keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut.” Now when I hear that someone has never been anywhere, I get excited and think, “I wonder what they’ll teach me.”