Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reflections: Travel Tips

Yesterday I received in the mail some very nice photographs, taken by my good friend, Jim, on a trip he recently took to sub-Saharan Africa. The beauty of two of them especially—a scene of women washing clothes in a stream; and a scene of women carrying sheaves of newly-cut hay through the fields—almost made me envious of his trip. Almost. Not quite.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I had several opportunities to do some serious traveling. I went to Italy first, and saw Florence, Ravenna, Rome. On my next two major excursions abroad, I visited many of the other capitals and major cities of Europe—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Athens, Cologne, Brussels, and more. The Middle East was a component of one of these trips—Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman.

I have also been across Canada by car, as far east as Montreal, and as far West as Vancouver, British Columbia. I have seen the Great Plains of both Calgary and Kansas. I have traveled through the Canadian Rockies in the breathtakingly beautiful Banff national park, and the American Rockies in the area of Boulder and Denver. I have seen Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, and I have visited William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon, overlooking the Pacific.

I wouldn’t give any of that up. The memories are golden. Yet, when I read the following words of William Empson in the introduction to the book The Royal Beasts, I understood precisely what he was getting at. In a letter, written to a friend back in England, as Empson was traveling in the Far East, he wrote:

“Always rather embarrassing to wonder what one gets out of travel to make up for its privations; except that it requires so much imagination to stay at home.”

These sentiments hit me from two different angles; high and low, so to speak. In my traveling days, I found that I had a very low tolerance for those “privations” of travel. While standing in front of the Mona Lisa, or the magnificent cathedral in Cologne, or the pyramid of Cheops; or while riding on horseback through the narrow defile leading into the "lost city" of Petra, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. Getting there, however, was another story. The struggle with luggage; the chaos of airports and train terminals; the money-changing; the passport presenting, and the stamping of visas; the waiting; the hurrying; the deadlines and the timetables; the decisions about food and lodging; the general hassle of it all always made me very glad to be back home; made me even to dread the outset of the next wonderful journey.

But the more subtle, and more interesting, aspect of Empson’s quote is the part about the amount of imagination required to stay at home. This, I believe, refers to the constant human struggle against boredom and ennui. If we aren’t doing, we don’t feel that we are really being. If we cannot distract ourselves from ourselves by means of travel, or work, or by consuming mass quantities of entertainment—if, in short, we are left alone, with nothing but our own minds for company—that is, with only our imaginations to lend a sense of ontological worth to our time, as it passes—we suffer.

Today, I am content to say, although I am pretty much a stay-at-home, boredom is seldom an issue for me. I am able to traverse that universe inside my skull—without luggage, chaotic airports, or the inevitable bouts with traveler’s diarrhea.

The time may grow long, but that is time for prayer and contemplation. Or time to blog.