Why travel

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“The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The most intriguing part about traveling is how it changes your idea about that place. Before you go somewhere, you have in your mind’s eye an image, a visual impression, however vague or jumbled, of what it will be like. It’s usually a visual impression by default since we live in a very image-dominant culture.

But once you actually go to that place, all of these preconceived ideas are erased. Thereafter, you can never quite remember what you used to think of it. No matter how hard you try, your actual experience will forever tint the preconceived ideas you had before you went. Your impression will have been “upgraded” not only with the actual sights of the place, but also the smells, noises, and general feeling you had while there. You can never again gain access to that naive pre-visit impression.

In a few hours I’ll be flying to India. I’m told that as soon as I arrive late at night the next day, I’ll be assaulted by noises, chaos, sights and smells (mostly the smells) of a sort that you’ve never before experienced until you’ve actually been there to experience it. Culture shock will most likely set in even before I reach the ‘hotel’ in Old Delhi where I’ll stay for two nights before venturing further into northern India and Nepal. (The quality of this particular two-star hotel? Let me put it this way: I read the Trip Advisor reviews and wish I hadn’t.) It’s been reported how air quality in New Delhi has been particularly horrendous lately. Even still, I didn’t expect for the weather forecast to be “Smoke”. (Is that even a proper meteorological term?) 

Many of the people I know who have been to India have remarked how difficult it can be. There’s chaos, scams, crowds, Delhi belly, (extreme) poverty, heat, cold. I’ve seen poverty in other countries like Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Ecuador. But I’m told that absolutely nothing will prepare me for the poverty I will encounter in India, particularly in New Delhi and Agra.

There’s always been that nagging sense in the back of my mind that somehow this kind of travel is a bit elitist, even when traveling on a budget like I’ll be doing (hostels, overnight trains, public buses, etc.). This is why I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with cliches about how “travel broadens the mind” or how it’s good to “get outside your comfort zone”. Like most cliches, however, they contain a grain of truth. Maybe there’s just something I find a bit too elite about viewing the world as some kind of jet-setting playground. But I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that.

Part of this reluctance may stem from the fact that I live in a world of iPhones, Equinox gyms, Alain de Botton books, art galleries, and any kind of food that I could possibly want. I mean, yesterday I ate from the salad bar at the Whole Foods in Yorkville. My lunch had something like thirty cringe-inducing ingredients from who-knows-where. (Two types of quinoa! Shredded beets! Sesame tofu! Oh god.) It cost me about $6. If this isn’t the definition of living in a liberal bubble, then I don’t know what is. (I’m using ‘liberal in the general sense of the word).

I’m fully aware that this is not real life. I mean, it is real, but it’s too good to be true. It’s an insanely rare real-world utopia. Open space, public transit, clean air, clean water, clean streets, education, indoor plumbing, public safety, bank accounts. I’m sorry, but this just isn’t the status quo. In the whole of human history, democratic institutions and a robust civil society is the exception — the rare exception — rather than the rule. We are perpetually living in a world that’s so aptly depicted in the grocery store scene in the movie The Hurt Locker, but we don’t realize it because it’s been normalized to the point of being mundane.

Even the fact that flying on an airplane is commonplace is itself insane. As Louis CK points out, instead of complaining about a flight being delayed forty minutes, we should instead be marvelling at how we can “fly through the air incredibly like a bird [and] partake in the miracle of human flight.” Everyone, on every plane, he says, should be screaming “Oh my god! Wow!” He’s right.

So, even if you’re part of “the 99%”, if you live in any modern cosmopolitan city in the Western world, you are actually part of the 1%, relatively speaking. We are in very rarified company. Most people in human history have never had access to these kinds of freedoms or basic conveniences. As the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris says in the book Waking Up, “Many people on Earth at this moment can’t even imagine the freedom that you currently take for granted.” This is the liberal bubble.

In any event, the impressions I now have of India and Nepal will soon be forever tinted by my actual experience. And this experience will, even if temporarily, burst the bubble that I now live in. Or, as Mark Twain put it, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

This, I suppose, is what makes travel worthwhile.

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