There are some sentiments which it is simply unacceptable to utter aloud without evoking the horror of everyone around you. Here is one such – I am not particularly interested in travel. Making noises to this effect with your face will, in every case in my experience, result in either pity, disgust, or outright fright from the listener. It is understood to be a tacit declaration of delight in ignorance and disinterest in personal development. How, their horrified faces seem to imply, could you become self-actualised here? Where “here” is, is not relevant. The horror will be the same if you declare little interest in travel and you live almost anywhere in the Western world.
Travel is in itself value-neutral (except in environmental terms, in which case do not lecture me while waving your bag for life about; a round trip flight between New York and California, according to the New York Times, generates about 20 per cent of the greenhouse gases your car emits in the course of an entire year. There is little an individual can do worse for the environment than fly). The personal benefit which comes from travel depends largely on why the experience is embarked upon and what is done with it. Generally speaking, the Western obsession with travel for travel’s sake is based upon the idea that the real substance of life is to be experienced in a place that is other. It presupposes that philosophical enlightenment can be bought, and that expanding one’s mind and understanding is a matter of having enough money combined with a change in geographical location. Proximity to something new, we have decided, is equivalent to understanding it.
I don’t want to sound like an isolationist loon. I have, of course, visited different places. Some of them have been pleasant; others not, at least insofar as I could tell after staying there for a few days, which is certainly not enough to give you any real sense of the soul of a place or its people. Visiting different parts of Ireland is vastly enjoyable, but we don’t take a trip to Ballydehob and return with coy claims to secret knowledge or self-actualisation, and we don’t romanticise the life of the noble “Ballydehobbians”. I once got chatting briefly to an American tourist at the train station in Galway who told me that it moved him – a person of Irish ancestry – to hear the native Irish language spoken so casually by two nearby people chatting animatedly on the platform. I observed politely that the people he referred to were speaking Polish. The conversation ended there.
For most people, the appeal of travel (which, as we consider the concept in modernity, is very different from visiting somewhere for a specific purpose) is the open-ended possibility of new and unanticipated experiences. These can, of course, be positive or negative, and it is the inability to know which is the source of excitement and anticipation. New experiences do indeed provide us with the opportunity to expand our horizons and develop new skills. However, not all new experiences are created equal, they are mostly as beneficial as our reaction to them, and not having a heartfelt desire to trek across India is not a pathological condition. There is little more indicative of privilege (much as I dislike the term) than dipping into a poor country in your newly purchased hiking boots and backpack to gawk at the people who live there and declare their abject struggle “charming” or indicative of a purer way of living before you bugger off to the next place.
Despite this, I’m not opposed to travel for travel’s sake – I am opposed to doing it myself. Not for moral reasons, or particularly intellectual ones, but rather because I don’t enjoy planes, buses, jetlag and all of the attendant stuff. I enjoy visiting somewhere new (finances permitting) for a short time, and then going home again. Can’t those of us who don’t have the travel bug and those who do just get along? Must you shudder at my philistinism because I haven’t eaten Kenke in Ghana or met a panda (I do regret that one) or got that photo everyone gets at the Taj Mahal? I’m grand.