Travel Musings

I am gotten to the point in life when I start asking why travel at all? I have been to almost every place on Earth that I wanted to see, and I had long since achieved one of the main reasons for travel, i.e., to be able to compare your native environment with other cultures and modes of living to be better able to understand your own in comparing them. Once you realize that the way things done at home are not a necessity, but a choice (albeit, an unconscious one more often than not), you can decide which you prefer and try to fashion your life accordingly.

A Spanish friend recommended a book Teoría del Viaje by Michel Onfray, and I was dumb enough not to realize that it was originally written in French, which I can read a lot more easily than Spanish. However, I need to practice my Spanish more than my French, so I guess reading it in Spanish was not a bad idea. Onfray delineates stereotypes that trips are capable of combatting: “los africanos dotados para el ritmo, los chinos fanáticos del comercio, los asiáticos en general talentosos para el disimulo, los japoneses educados al extremo, los alemanes obsesionados con el orden, los suizos conocidos por su pulcritud, los franceses arrogantes, los ingleses egocéntricos, los espaňoles orgullosos y fasinados por la muerte, los italianos frívoles, los turcos sombríos, los canadienses hospitalarios, los rusos asociados a un agudo sentido de la fatalidad, los brasileňos hedonistas, los argentines aquejados de resentimiento y melancolía, mientras los magredíes sobresalen, evidentemente, en hipocresía y delincuencia.” (my translation of the Spanish translation of the French: “Africans gifted with rhythm, Chinese fanatics of trade, Asians in general talented for concealing [their feelings], Japanese extremely educated, Germans obsessed with order, Swiss known for their tidiness, French arrogant, English egocentric, Spanish proud and fascinated by death, Italians frivolous, Turks gloomy, Canadians hospitable, Russians associated with a sharp sense of fate or misfortune, Brazilians hedonists, Argentines suffering from resentment and melancholy, while Magrebis obviously stand out by their hypocrisy and delinquency.”)

Quite amusing, but sad at the same time that such stereotypes are so widespread. Of course, whether travel really breaks down such stereotypes is debatable and often depends on individual experiences. After seeing the movie Summer Palace (颐和园) directed by Lou Ye (娄烨), it became very clear to me that Chinese are very similar to Westerners, facing the same existential problems in life, and I doubt that it is different anywhere else, just different prerequisites for dealing with them. People, whom I have met in different countries and who were not part of a larger group traveling, have been very different from national stereotypes.

One of my students when I taught in Korea, and with whom I did not develop any rapport, once stated that Koreans and Westerners were fundamentally different, i.e., when going to the toilet (and I don’t remember which order he stated), Koreans first defecate and then piss and Westerners first piss and then defecate. Rather silly and not an aspect that I had previously given any thought to, but he was serious. I pointed out how different each of the four US Americans (including me) were from each other, and that I although I respected him, I admitted that we were not on the same wavelength, but there were other Korean students in the class with whom I developed close bonds. The only reason we led different lives was because we had different prerequisites in life, had grown up with different choices.

Individuals in one-on-one encounters are often quite different from when they are in a group. I find Germans on group tours to be aggressive, Italians loud, French affected and Americans naïve. Germans and French are different, although I am not sure why. Just go to any French city and then a German one and you notice that the ambiance is not the same. Germans tend to be orderly, they long for romantic chaos as exemplified by German Romanticism in the late-18th and early 19th centuries and their longing for unbridled nature. On the other hand, the French are chaotic but try to force order, exemplified by how geometrically they cut and shape trees and bushes and landscaping such as at Versailles. Hegel’s very German sentence (if I am quoting correctly; I have long since gotten rid of his books) “Es gibt Ordnung in Unordnung und Unordnung in Ordnung” (There is order in disorder and disorder in order) contrasts well with Pascal’s very French one “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” (The heart has its reasons that reason does not know), i.e., the German’s everything has its logic to the French’s sometimes there is no logic.

Onfray has a few prejudices about traveling, which he considers to be universal truths, but with which I simply cannot agree. He believes that traveling with one friend, who is not your lover, is the best way to travel. However, I have found that traveling alone is often the best way to have contact with a foreign culture, since you are forced to interact with locals. In addition, I often traveled with my wife and child, later with my girlfriend, and a few times with friends, and each journey was special in a special way, not better or worse than any other method.

He continues to insist that three or four “seňales”, souvenirs, photos, poems, or five or six at the most are the maximum that you should bring back from a trip. True, having a home full of knickknacks or hundreds of photos, films, etc. from a trip sounds a bit overdone, but generalizing it so much is really going a bit too far. He takes all his opinions for universal truths, i.e., a long bicycle journey is nothing short of masochism (is he just in bad physical shape?) or that learning a foreign language is not necessary (is he just lazy). He claims that Roland Barthes had more insight into the Japanese after a short stay without language knowledge than many who foreigners who had lived there for a long time and spoke the lingo. It may be that few of us have the intellectual acumen of a Roland Barthes, but knowing the language of a country you are visiting certainly lets you gain more insight into its culture and people. (A slight digression: In Barthes’ book Mytologies, the last sentence in his essay about Billy Graham stating that he was nothing other than a representative of US American cultural imperialism was left out in the English translation in the US in the edition of the book that we were reading in college.)

Onfray also distinguishes “tourists” and “travelers”, something I find a bit overblown. I cannot recall how many times that I have met people on the road claiming they were “travelers” and not “tourists,” which usually meant that they were miserly tourists, staying in cheap guesthouses and eating at cheap local restaurants, but otherwise not really doing anything different from their tourist brethren. In addition, he dictates the length of travels, since otherwise he considers you a “vagabond” and no longer a traveler.

In her very insightful book, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen writes about the origin of Hilton Hotels, founded by the arch-conservative US American Conrad Hilton: “The Hilton was there to discourage American customers from spending too much time in a foreign culture, from considering other ways of life.” That reminds of a TV commercial that I saw many years ago in the States, where they proudly proclaimed that staying their hotels (forget which hotel chain) you would get “no surprises,” i.e., exactly the same conditions as at home without any “nasty” foreign influences or contact. At least “travelers” differ in that they search for “surprises” and contact with local cultures. And what sense does it make to travel great distances to “exotic” countries only to experience the same as at home? Might as well just go to Disneyland and visit the foreign pavilions there without having to fear that you might not be able to get a hamburger (apparently the only food that is now available in all countries of the world).

I have met people claiming to have traveled for 5–10 years and in pursuit of the most-traveled traveler award, although it turned out that most of them had stayed put somewhere for a couple of years in-between working and earning some money to continue, i.e., modern day hobos. I love the explanation in Wikipedia, which fits many of the long-term travelers I have met: “A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished. … Unlike a ‘tramp’, who works only when forced to, and a ‘bum’, who does not work at all, a ‘hobo’ is a traveling worker.”

Is their working in a foreign country to be considered part of traveling? Do my language courses in foreign countries qualify as travel? No idea nor does it really matter to me; I find staying in a place for a certain length of time while learning the language gives me a lot more insight into a country, its culture and people than just going some place and visiting the sights.

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