“Journeys are the midwives of thought.” This quote from Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel goes a long way in explaining why almost everything I’ve ever written has been tinted with wanderlust.
Human beings are lofty animals because we, uniquely, have a name for happiness. Other animals can only ‘do’ happiness – be it eating, mating, hunting or forging social ties. We can name it and thus seek it out in places other than where we currently reside.
(Consequently, if there existed a human language that lacked the word happiness in its vocabulary, would they still seek it out or know it extraneously?)
Travel is a paradoxical means of achieving happiness. It requires the underhanded acknowledgment that we would be happier somewhere else than where we are. It implies that our lives are imperfect and that we need to migrate to find the better-off. We very seldom stop to ask ourselves why we travel.
Like sex, eating and friendship – travel is a human activity that brings joy. The Greeks gave this feeling the beautiful name, eudaimonia – human flourishing. In travel we flourish but we also flounder. When we take the decision to travel we are making a conscious effort to pursue happiness. Travel is the transient embodiment of the American constitution’s poetic dictum to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And where there is a pursuit there is also the looming shadow of failure. This borderline between the pursuit of happiness and its downfall is perfect territory for a novelist. A novelist has the role of both providing happiness to his readers and also making them question the very nature of happiness.
After all, if naming happiness makes us human, then dissecting the word makes us all-too-human. I’m addicted to writing about travelling not merely for the aesthetic thrill of it. But I do it also because travel underlies a rainbow of truths peculiar to human nature that only travel writing can elucidate.
Feelings of anticipation, excitement and dread before we set off; matching our expectations when we arrive, does our imagination sync up satisfactorily with reality; living a life, however briefly, that is not our own; subjecting ourselves to the influence of new climates and mindsets; then on leaving re-evaluating our place in the vast world.
These are all emotions that we experience like an addictive lottery when we travel. And it’s a shame that we’ve become numb to them. It’s a shame we’ve become numb to travel.
Think of what a miracle travel actually is. We are all victims of our birth, made to live wherever we happen to emerge into life. Some invisible destiny has made us Maltese, English, Spanish, Argentinian. Some invisible destiny has given us a corner of the world to live, breathe and die in. When we travel we defy the dictums of that invisible destiny. When we travel we rebel.
And it’s not Romantic or anachronistic to say that we live on an incredible planet. Few of us will ever get to leave it. It is the only planet we’ll ever know and ever live on. And when we travel we become more intimate with it. We defy our lot in life and take a gamble on the greater beauty. It is human nature. The domestic instinct is only new-born in our collective spirit. Humanity is by nature a migratory ape. How else would we have populated the seven seas many times over?
So long as this will to migrate doesn’t disappear entirely, I shall continue writing about it. If it were to disappear, then I would write about it anyway, the way historians write about the fallen grandeur of the Elgin marbles.
Next summer I too will be travelling. I will be leaving the continent that has borne and cradled me and travel to the New World; to the frozen wilds of Chile and Patagonia. It will be a journey that takes me more than halfway across our pale blue dot. And I will go there armed with notebooks and an open spirit.
It took human beings tens of thousands of years to reach South America after the initial exodus from Africa. I will make that journey in under a day. And I can do so because, to quote Newton, I can stand on the shoulders of giants.
Giants who have explored vast uncharted corners of the world. Giants who have explored the limits of science. Giants who sought new arenas for their gladiatorial pleasure games. Giants who have taken humanity out of the caves and made the first step into the larger world.
Ours is a civilisation founded on the will to explore. One day, humanity will travel so far as to arrive on the doorstep of the gods. But until then, I would much rather re-live our species’ childhood and take a few small, giant steps into the world. A world that feels young, still, even after it’s seen so much.