The road less travelled

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“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been and travellers don’t know where they are going,” so wrote the great travel writer Paul Theroux. For many, next year’s holiday is an opportunity to grab some sunshine, forget about work and read some books and magazines that require little in the way of thinking. Travel however, can be a form of personal redemption, allowing us to transcend our mundane routines, exercise all of our senses in a alien culture and lead us on a unfathomable journey where the final destination is unknown.

We are all travellers, even if it is only to the bathroom and back. Many of us spend much of our time travelling on the daily commute between home and the office or doing the school run. So how do we differentiate real travelling from making a regular trip or going on holiday? Maybe it is the time dedicated to being a traveller or an element of unplanned participation in a country and a culture that is alien to us. Kapuscinski believed that, ““A journey, after all, neither begins at the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.” (Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus)

Within the act of travelling there is also an element of sacrifice. We are leaving behind the creature comforts of home, if we have one, our familiar routines, possessions, work and our friends. There is something about the shedding of our usual skin that creates within us a form of liberation. Most people find that there is something fundamentally freeing about embarking on a journey with just a small selection of our possessions that we have to be able to carry. This sacrifice, together with our participation in the unknown can help us to move beyond our constructed ego and get back to our real selves, unburdened by material objects and superficial habits of behavior. The results aren’t always pleasant and many struggle to come to terms with their unadorned selves, so go about constructing routines and rituals that trick themselves into believing that they are actually at home.

Bruce Chatwin, himself a nomad for much of his life, believed that there was something natural and morally good about travelling, “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones. There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hardest journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside. The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The ‘dictators’ of the animal kingdom are those who live in an ambience of plenty. The anarchists, as always, are the ‘gentlemen of the road’.” (Bruce Chatwin, The Song-lines)


So who is ready for some anarchy then? Unfortunately, travel experiences have become increasingly commodified from carefully constructed tours where you can be herded from one hotel, destination and coach to the next, to whole “Gap Year Experiences”. In my view, these structures are not altogether bad in themselves – let’s face it, everyone sets out on a travelling experience with some kind of itinerary and a checklist of things to see and do. Real travelling can start though when we rip up our itinerary and embrace the flow of the journey. They say that sometimes you need to get lost to really find yourself. By allowing the anarchy of having no plans, we can be swept away by whims and fancies, participate in activities and experiences that we would never really try and meet people that we would not ordinarily meet. Spiritual adventurers will know that I am talking about embracing the Taoist principle of “Wu Wei”, that literally translates as action without action (or purposeless wandering).

As we allow ourselves to succumb to total spontaneity and be at one with the flow of life, we loosen our grip on time and time releases its grip on us. Back home, it can seem that in the busyness of our daily routine, weeks and months can fly by with just a few snatched memories. Getting lost on the road, our concept of time alters and becomes less linear. We can lose track of the day and date, as we cease the day and joyfully suck the marrow off the bones of life. “We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”….”

(Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values)

For every traveller that is rushing from one destination to the next, barely looking up from the screen of their iPhone, there is also a traveller taking the road less travelled, escaping the herd and living by their instincts and intuition. I had the unusual pleasure recently, of sharing a table with a few fellow travellers in a hostel in Cadiz, Spain. One was a German doctor that had arrived by motorbike after a journey of several months, another was from Idaho and was travelling around the Iberian peninsula on a bicycle and the third, was a working in the hostel having walked from his home in Slovenia to Cadiz, over a period of two years. That night, there were certainly some stories told and many more that went unspoken.

So next time the ebb and flow of life give you chance to schedule a trip away, only vaguely pencil in your return date and get a little lost for a while. You may be surprised what you discover.

Marcus Gomm

Marcus is a travel writer and Editor-in-Chief of Feet Up Magazine. Check his ‘zine out here