The Age of Enlightenment has yet to come to terms with itself. The road to progress has left many a roadkill along the way and though some if not most ancient practices and dogmas are best left flattened it is in no one’s interest to be lost where there is nowhere to go. “Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.” Denis Diderot emphasises freedom and reason without, through no fault of his own, giving us the tools to be free and the means to reason.
Renowned biologist J.B.S. Haldane says that the major evolutionary trend of our species has been “greater prolongation of childhood and retardation of maturity.” And there is now nearly uniform consensus amongst biologists that neoteny is the rule in our species and that we are in essence child apes that refused to grow up. This cannot help – Enlightened as we are – but make us question the relationship between childhood and adulthood. Wherein lies our true selves? Is the true butterfly the caterpillar or the pupated end product? So we ask of us.
Peter Pan Syndrome is very much an irreplaceable component of our genetic make-up. We are a playful species even as adults. Creativity, the arts, flair, flirting, eccentricity, theatre: these are all the grown-up games of an age-inappropriate species. I would ponder the question are the keys to our true logos, our genuine selves, to be unearthed in our childhood? very seriously were it not for the undeniable capacity all life has for change and growth. Instead I would rather say we are different types of children every step of the way.
The more time passes and our civilization streams along the more freedom to play we are given. Many tyrannies are being consigned to the annals of history and our transitional minds are taking over and making us not-quite-caterpillars not-quite-butterflies. Religion – that great inhibitor – is in the West being marginalised and its theocratic authority forcibly relinquished. Political tyranny is also being deprived of the hand-slapping ruler. Slavery, inquisitions, racism, sexism; they are all shackles that are being gradually if incompletely discarded. The 21st century promises to be the most playful yet. This is the age of freely Enlightened boys and girls.
The innate instinctive wanderlust we most of us share is, then, a necessary nerve-reaction to finding the purpose behind our games and the meaning of our freedom. In an increasingly globalised world – where we are all told to play together – travel plays a vital role in opening us up to many myriad ways which our brothers and sisters across the meandering globe are playing their games: how everyone else is finding purposeful lives in a purposeless universe. Travel is an existential hunt to which we are devoted for the rewards are both short and long-term. It is amongst the first games humanity ever learned to play.
And in the end games serve but one purpose: a great thought-experiment that unearths the laws and dictums we will grow up into. Just as the lion cub jumps on its sibling to practice the art of hunting so a writer writes a novel to discover what would happen if he murdered his next-of-kin.
If the Enlightenment has made children of us all then we have no other recourse but to play. All games are philosophy for they are fueled by curiosity and question-asking. It is no wonder then that within a few tens of thousands of years our exclusively African ancestors found themselves scattered and exploring the glaciers of Patagonia and the deserts of Australia. Travel brought them new bounties new frontiers new possibilities new difficulties too. The last right our paternal society is yet to bequeath is the right for all men and women to travel at their leisure. Being confined within man-made borders is morally equivalent to imprisoning a man or woman. This cannot be achieved indefinitely: look at the latest mass migration in Europe by confined Syrians and Iraqis. We just can’t be held back.
Like that other great game we play – science – travel is also an essential pillar to human ethics. God is dead, yes, this we know and have known long enough – but to begin to find the new malleable morals of the day we must first take to the road or sea or air or all. The 17th century French poet Jean de Santeul once wrote: castigat ridendo mores. “Laughing corrects morals.” Emphasising the import of satirical writing in changing viewpoints. Travel is no less of import. Is it ethical that millions of people die of hunger whilst millionaires continually make more millions than they can spend? Go to India. To China. To America. Even close by in the UK. Travel: see how some suffer and others reign. Then go to Saudi Arabia and see the Hanbali school of jurisprudence inflict its justice. Make yourself a witness. Then perhaps travel to paradisiacal Samoa and listen to women talking about the rights they are bequeathed. And do of course go to Costa Rica to see how they are transforming their nation into a green model and making their beaches and rainforests protected havens above all else.
Seeing these things will not – if you are obstinate – change your morals and values but they will rattle them and you cannot consider any action or viewpoint fully-formed until you can see the greater picture. And forget, please, the super media: see things for yourself and save yourself the meandering truths and steadfast lies.
One’s own ethical and existential state of being is also at stake. Evolution has made our species remarkably homogenous. Despite our different colours and appearance we are in effect genetic kin with a myriad more similarities than differences. We are all descended from a small band of hardy survivors who used their wits to navigate the hellish conditions of Paleolithic Africa. Chimpanzees, remarkably, are far more genetically diverse than our own species. Thus, we may summarily surmise: the problems facing an Indian man are the same facing a Mexican woman or a Tahitian child or a German grandmother. Culture, then, is the way our landscapes influenced our divergent responses to the uniform questions of existence.
I was raised believing that the answers to life come from God and his vicarious vicar on earth the Catholic church. A similar man might have been raised in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea believing that the meaning of life comes from the spirits of the ancestors. Our belief systems are an accident of birth. They are subjective by definition. But if you are to better yourself and to better your surroundings, can you be indefatigably sure that the answers you were raised with are in any way morally superior or better fitted for the job? Travel breeds objectivity in open minds ready to question and learn. As a species we have a lot to learn from our scattered kin.
Not only in the existential questions may we adopt adapt and borrow stratagems and routines from our geographic cousins. This is something that interests me down to the bone. The meaning of life is a lofty question: but it cannot begin to be answered without establishing its base foundations. Before asking what you want from life reflect first on how you live life. Day-to-day. Between the excitement. When there are no highs no lows. Just casual days going by and hours a-flittering. There are as many possible answers to this as there are trees in the Amazon. The possibilities we can carve out for us are infinite and grand. How to begin to narrow the remit? Travel.
Above all else travel is experiencing a way of life different than your own. That is why attention to details is so crucial. Even a walk in a foreign supermarket can tell you more about a nation than its state religion or political system. Walking through streets noticing the bars (a real must for all travelers anywhere), cafes, shops, seasides and walkways. Forget the museums: all they tell you is that the past is there for profit. Living is not. Unassailable.
To mine the true gold of travel one must not be so over-eager to rove and wander on. Savour the place. Spend a week or two in a city a village a retreat and live a life you’ve never lived before reflect be humble admit you are a blank slate a child of the Enlightenment and try it all never cower and you might just find something. A something weight more than star-stuff. Travel might just be what makes you a rarity in our vast infinite universe: a pocket of purpose in a celestial ocean of nothingness. A purpose brighter than any light from dying stars.
Where, in all of this, does the merit and import of writing enter into this Enlightenment age travel-game? In an epoch when one can travel from your own living-room why do we need to read the tales of life’s journeymen? Are the days of Kerouacs, Hemingways and Orwells long behind us? Ah but they can never be. Not so long as we are human beings. Children. Writing about travel – travel-writing – is a democratic, nay, dare I say, a socialist, act. It opens up the world to those whose borders serve as artificial yet all-too-real boundaries. It inflames imagination worldwide. And not merely for it also is a tool for exchanging knowledge with fellow travelers. It is impossible to travel the entirety of our world in one lifetime. But through writing the whole world opens up to you.
It is the duty of a travel writer to take his role seriously. Firstly he must be humble enough to remember he is privileged. And then arrogant enough to place himself at the forefront of philosophy. Not, necessarily, the philosophy of academia: but the lingering questions about life living and ethics that the average man and woman confronts since childhood and beyond. The travel writer must be a child: inquisitive, ever-learning, ruminating, playful. Most crucially of all: he must be a vessel and a translator for awe. When travelling through this magical world his or her words cannot be other than magical.
Be it the joy of a glass of Rioja in the dusty bars of Pamplona; a night by the fire under the Saharan Milky Way; singing a country song in the depths of Tennessee; or simply walking through the early morning streets of a new land: the travel writer must cherish and convey his every passing fleeting moment. We are all Epicurean travellers just passing through this world, but for our brief foray here, let us make it’s variegated terrain our home.