Some Slightly Cynical Aphorisms on Travelling

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by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog

People no doubt stomach the frustration of touristic spots, especially historic ones, because the place is worth seeing; you can even get your evidence of being there to look like it wasn’t a bit of a drag – i.e. a picture where things have been prepped a way that it makes it look less inundated, less single-file walk, less waiting; or you can get pictures of unlikely things in the same spot, away from the main event, with that slight sanctimonious detachment. If you compared a famed spot with all the pictures that people, in all their rich variety, took there it would be something peculiar and strange and might make you think twice about what it is that goes on there.

How you would wish to experience a place doesn’t matter because you rarely get to experience anything in that order, and when you do, it is something to shout about: “nobody was there!”; you are guided, pay the fees, play the part, and by accepting all these things they sink back down in the mind as the threshold needed to pass by. So what? It’s not good to have too many expectations when travelling, anyway. Tourist spots are strange places to be if you aren’t interested in what the spot is about – and I don’t mean the reactionary forcing uninterest because everyone goes there, or it’s such a drag to put yourself through the ordeal of being hemmed in here and there, but what can we expect? There’s too much anxiety over preservation so we will never be able to run amok in these strange places, and that means a rule of one for everyone. It must be very dull to go to one of these spots if you aren’t interested in the spot, but if you have the energy to look around you, it seems oddly satisfying to not be in so much of a hassle when you’re there and just to look at what’s going on: guided walks, tonnes of information that will likely be forgotten, and a whole lot of reverence which you feel is misplaced; it’s like you accidentally got initiated into a mystery.

It occurs to me that I may not be a very good traveller because sometimes I am very childish with what I want, and I like to be happily lazy when I can. Travel has always seemed to me that it should be a blend of being happily lazy and then going through an intense time of loneliness, slight alienation, unprepared despite preparation, and the idealisation of travel crushed and reformed, crushed again. If I go to a tourist spot that I am interested in I don’t want other people there and I rarely even like people telling me things about where I am, seeing it as either beside the point (for now; if you’re interested in something chances are that you have read up and found your own way to engage with it), or sometimes I even feel like it is a trick. If I begin thinking about all those things I’m being told then how can I experience what I am seeing now at the place as it exists still in the present? – I’m suddenly using a language given me, instead of half-forming my own thoughts, or reflecting on it later. Is it so useless to instead be thinking things like: are we supposed to experience historical sites in the present or how we imagine they were in the past, or a strange blend of the two, and how do the facts work to alter what is we are seeing? All you get from paying attention at tourist sites, i.e. not listening very well to people and all the information that is thrown your way in form of pamphlets, guide-books, and those bursting with facts, is half-delight and a half-jaded boredom.

There is no doubt that travelling does something to you. I don’t think that you can tell exactly what that something is; I should add that I am not as well travelled as those who are travellers, i.e. work to mostly travel and their life is that (you meet these people travelling and they are not like past-time travellers who are attached to the natural high that comes, depending where you are, from being in foreign lands without the care of home but knowing that home will eventually be where you will return, and most likely for good). Past-time travellers sometimes say: “man, society! Who needs it?”, and use it as a means to “change something via experience”; that isn’t so much a traveller as a poverty of mind. Nobody likes “society” much, they like their idea of society and their ideals, but “society” being such a complex frustrated half-repressed, half-exploding, load of phoneyness which has such control over lives and seemingly perpetrates unfair tragedy, it is understandable that navigating it is too much, so: “man, society, who needs it?”. And so, you travel as a means to cut-up the hold of society, by going to another kind of society, and something has happened to you when you return, or along the way; you feel as though you have remembered something vital. Don’t worry, you will forget it again.

There is no doubt that travelling does not change what you expect it to change. D.H. Lawrence was vague enough when he left England to call it his “savage pilgrimage” and he may have had the right idea about travelling because he didn’t seem to have in mind where this pilgrimage would lead him, knowing only it was a necessary way to see and feel something. You can leave troubles behind and then return to them for another bout. Is travelling mostly internal? A Roman poet, I forget which one, said something along the lines of: one flies from oneself, going abroad, for a self un-becoming, thinking they will out-riddle death. People ought to fly from themselves from time to time, but not to mythologize their return, otherwise, they might miss the slight change in themself.   

Travel ‘opens your mind’ etc., or at least makes you aware that you could be more open – this is still quite vague. It is true, there is something that happens when you are in another culture and parts of you come open, but the mind of the average traveller is still quite closed. It seems open because, especially if you go to a hostel, everyone is high on the otherness and difference, and ready to be different from what they are, ready to show a new face. Good travellers just want to look around, hopefully with others, hopefully with some phrases, and if you’re lucky, some kind of local guide, especially where it calls for it, i.e. a jungle.

What is that kind of travel all about where you go somewhere completely foreign but never leave your country? I have, ashamed as I am to admit, done it. They are not travellers, and I don’t know what they are, or what I was when I did it. During the famous ‘Trimalchio’s Feast’ section of Petronius’ Satyricon, Trimalchio discusses a project of buying up properties all down the country and abroad so that he never has to leave his ‘home’ to travel to Africa (we’re talking Roman Empire). Is it the same as the package holiday where you are trained to the airport, trained to the resort and sit by the pool eating and drinking. “Society! With such things in it!”  

If you live in a capital or major city, you live in a tourist zone, and if you live around it for long enough it becomes not only manageable but an experience in itself – you probably have better things to do but it’s not as tiring to stomach because a) you know your way around b) you feel somehow above the innocence of a tourist looking around as if it is worth looking around c) you’re in the flow. B) might be the only useful thing you can get from looking at tourists; there certainly is a great joy in perception and looking around without an eye of a camera i.e. trying to capture it and ruthlessly figure it out.

It is kind of a joke to the insecure, less-travelled and experienced folk, who are reactionary by nature, to hear someone speak of their travels. A traveller who speaks about their travels, especially if they are below 30, is a try-hard and is making claims of an outrageous nature; it’s better to be quiet about it and let out the information slowly from time to time “oh, yeah, I was there once” nothing more, nothing more; now you have the mystique of seeing something foreign and strange, and have learned something arcane; do not under any circumstances talk about how it changed your life, or that you cried about something over there, even if it did or you did; nobody gives a damn and if it is so then hold onto like a secret that will inwardly bloom your life’s curiosity.

People, naturally, want to talk about their time away, and you should listen but you shouldn’t pay attention as if you really understood it, only let it re-inspire them; or, if you are feeling insecure, you can try and take it away from them. Travelling is strange because, mostly, you don’t have the language to say what’s going on, how you’re feeling, what it’s doing, how it’s doing it, so mostly it ends in reportage as the starting ground. There are beginnings and ends, constantly. Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris was written because when he returned home from a botched mission to trace his ancestry, he felt different but not knowing why, and being unmarkedly unabashed and honest as a writer, he wrote out the events in order to understand and in the, perhaps, vain hope of SEEING what had happened. Did he then understand? Only in the sense that the feeling was related to that time, and somehow crossed the Atlantic back to the U.S.

You can read David Foster Wallace going on a cruise, or going anywhere, and reporting like a stranger who is not fooled and dare not drop his guard to the lies of advertisements which try to sell an experience. It may feel like being sincere in this age is a bit of a bore, or too cerebral; it is, however, better to be so, when being sincere means facing up to the empty charges of mockery. A good travel experience may lie in between all the pictures and supposed “good times” that people share of their time away, and the desire to feel the largeness of this world; it may lie in the indisputably difficult endeavour of making up your own language, in all sincerity, of how to report just what happened when you travelled, as you experience living, instead of falling in line, falling among, the countless photographs of the same select spots.

The Carl Kruse Blog homepage.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Fraser include New Year’s Resolutions, Carlo Gesualdo, and Matters of the Occult.
An older Carl Kruse Blog is here.

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