“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust.
Being sea-locked on a small, limited island in the core of the Mediterranean, travel, for me, necessarily involves flight or sail. My first flight happened to me at age nineteen – after a lifetime of devouring Spanish muses, from Garcia Lorca to Dali to Bunuel to Belmonte. It was a choice between Valencia and Madrid. Valencia was closer. Easier to get to. Thus the decision made itself.
We all want to travel. Even those that don’t. Travel is not about seeing it is about looking – the fetish of the voyeur to see how other people, fellow species members, have dealt with the issue of life in a landscape superficially different to your own. Peeping-tom journeys. Yes, as Proust says, not to discover new landscapes, but in casting a new gaze on means of living. And always always with the unconscious hope that our own lives are modified in some enigmatic way.
Deep down in all of us is a memory: we are children of migrants. Black apes determined not to be black. Travellers moving away from the sun.
Valencia symbolized to me my own Out of Africa. I came close to what I had been dreaming of. But there was a difference. When we travel in the 21st century we have some idea of what to expect. But we still travel with the eyes of long-forgotten ancestors who travelled without having an idea what was ahead of them. So, though we travel enlightened, we journey blind and giddy. I found what I was expecting: the Ciudad, the Mestalla, the Torres del Quartz, the Turia Gardens. But I encountered what I did not know of: Agua de Valencia, cheap sangria, Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, the bridge of flowers.
When a monarch butterfly sets off on a journey that will inevitably kill him, what is he then: a suicidal angel or an adventurous rogue?
Travelling is a right. A privilege. A basic human need made a luxury by modern climes. Would Homo Erectus have paid border crossings or taxes to travel from Africa into Asia? Would he have just stayed behind? If he had – frugal proto-ancestor! – would we have been born at all? There is a terrible cost we are imposing on ourselves when we charge people for the right to travel. And in an era when the entire world is more intimately connected than ever before, is this not cutting off a right arm or blinding a left eye? What happens in Las Vegas can no longer stay in Vegas. It is exported to Africa, Australia, even the polluted polar ice-regions. So don’t feel guilty about complaining that even low-cost airlines are expensive.
The poems I wrote about Valencia, I wrote when I returned. Experience needs time to be absorbed. To write or even think about an experience while it is happening is like asking for sex when at the point of orgasm. I still write poems about Valencia now. It helps me to remember. Or rather: to not forget. The minute I forget the unexpected discoveries I made, the minute Valencia dies. Writing gives us a nuclear edge in the arms race against forgetting.
I had a dream: I was put into a cardboard box by a bunch of family and neighbours. There was only one hole in the box. And everyday a knife was passed through the hole to stab a different part of my body. I could hear them laughing outside: even my family. But every day the hole necessarily got bigger. More and more light started to come inside. I started dreaming of light things, of warmth, of sun; until, when the hole was big enough for me to escape, it was covered over with industrial tape by the vigilant neighbours. That is what it is to be held back from travel.
We laud travel but ostracize those who are forced to travel. The journeys undertaken by the pebble-dash influx of African migrants on our hallowed European shores are flashbacks of the first journeys Out of Africa. We see them as aliens. Not travelers. They have come here to take over. But what about the laurels we bequeath unto travel: travel is not about the destination but the journey itself. Do we not say that? So it’s not about us, it’s not about their arrival here, it’s about their leaving behind home. Would you do that? Let’s try a thought-experiment.
I never stopped travelling, after Valencia. Italy the year after, then Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Wales, London, Rome. Every single year I temporarily migrate. At least I try. The places I have seen and met become like another star in the night sky. I see them all, at night, mingling with Orion, Polaris and Jupiter. I don’t travel for travel’s sake: I travel for my sake. I don’t want to be left behind, I don’t want to be Maltese, the same as a pupating caterpillar does not want to be a butterfly. I don’t want to be. I just want to see.
I remembered having that dream before: but last time I dreamt I was a monarch butterfly having that very same dream.
The thought-experiment: Imagine ISIS found their way here. Your home, your grocery, your hairdresser, your job; it is all a war-zone. Your family are at risk. Unborn nieces and cousins at risk of dehydration even in the oceanic womb. What would you call yourself then: a refugee, a warrior or a martyr? What would you choose? You don’t have a choice, though, do you? Just as a novelist does not choose his subject matter, a victim has no choice over his fate. And now we come down to it: travel is not a choice. We all travel because we are biologically urged to. Some are urged by pleasure, others by curiosity, others by war. But we all are forced to travel. So why denounce those that are forced to travel far more than you are forced to travel? It’s a scale, a gradation of necessity, and who are you to judge those who are above you in the scale?
To know the Mediterrenean
Is to know streets of burning palm trees.
To know the burning palm trees
Is to know the dancing people.
To know the dancing people
Is to know the sun in their hearts.
To know the sun in their hearts
Is to know the Mediterrenean…
We are at a peculiar, unique crossroads in the history of Western civilization: everything is available and everything costs money we don’t necessarily have. The internet provides a myriad of dreams, yet our pockets just cannot keep up. We want want want and we have to ask ourselves: if I can’t have what I want, should I want it more or less? We are addicts of addiction. We are broke before we even start. I did return to Valencia. But really, I wanted to go to the peak of Kilimanjaro. But in the light of all the illegal journeys proliferating our world: wasn’t Valencia enough? But while I get a second Valencia, others get a second Kilimanjaro. Is that right? Tragedy of the Commons. Best not to know anything.
Best perhaps to travel seeking landscapes, keeping your eyes mercifully closed. But whilst your eyes are closed, your ears can still hear the screams your blindness is inflicting in some corner of the world. The 21st century is a cobweb, each and every one of us is the spider. The flies are trapped somewhere faraway, far from view: but the flies are still there.
Don’t make me feel guilty about having fun. Oh but I must. No, I have worked hard for what I have: what harm have I done? What good have you done? To myself: plenty! What have you seen? The Mediterranean from beyond the clouds. Have you seen the Mediterranean from under the waves? Why should I have to? Because you are made in the image of God. What? That’s what you told me, remember, when you were defending the priests, the hunters, and mocking gays: you do what you do, say what you say, because you are made in the image of God, right? Does God not say to love your neighbor as yourself? Why aren’t you in Syria, then, or at the very least the slums that are two-streets away from your home? Look, just let me live, I’ll shut up about God and everything, I promise to cause no harm, do no evil, help if help seeks me: just let me have my fun before I die. Alright, alright.
After all, you had your Valencia, didn’t you?