A few years ago, when I told family and friends that I was going to retire, many of them assumed that I would spend a large portion of my time traveling. After I came to California, many of the people I have met here seem to enjoy traveling. While I do not dismiss the idea that they might be getting a lot out of it, I have done very little traveling since I retired since I do not enjoy it, especially if it involves airlines. I have done a lot of traveling in my life, either out of the desire to see family or for work. Seeing new places for its own sake has very little allure for me and now that I do not have to do it, I avoid doing so. I only travel if it means visiting family and friends, nowadays only going to see my grandchildren.
While I enjoy learning about other places and people and cultures, taking a short visit to those places does not satisfy that need. I would much rather read about them or see them on TV. The closest I get to nature is through David Attenborough documentaries and that suits me fine.
So I was interested to read this article by Agnes Collard who shares my antipathy to travel and makes the case against it.
What is the most uninformative statement that people are inclined to make? My nominee would be “I love to travel.” This tells you very little about a person, because nearly everyone likes to travel; and yet people say it, because, for some reason, they pride themselves both on having travelled and on the fact that they look forward to doing so.
The opposition team is small but articulate. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “travel narrows the mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called travel “a fool’s paradise.” Socrates and Immanuel Kant—arguably the two greatest philosophers of all time—voted with their feet, rarely leaving their respective home towns of Athens and Königsberg. But the greatest hater of travel, ever, was the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, whose wonderful “Book of Disquiet” crackles with outrage:
I abhor new ways of life and unfamiliar places. . . . The idea of travelling nauseates me. . . . Ah, let those who don’t exist travel! . . . Travel is for those who cannot feel. . . . Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel.
If you are inclined to dismiss this as contrarian posturing, try shifting the object of your thought from your own travel to that of others. At home or abroad, one tends to avoid “touristy” activities. “Tourism” is what we call travelling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them. Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.
Travel gets branded as an achievement: see interesting places, have interesting experiences, become interesting people. Is that what it really is?
Pessoa, Emerson, and Chesterton believed that travel, far from putting us in touch with humanity, divorced us from it. Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best. Call this the traveller’s delusion.
Tourism is marked by its locomotive character. “I went to France.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” That is, before quickly moving on: apparently, many people spend just fifteen seconds looking at the “Mona Lisa.” It’s locomotion all the way down.
The peculiar rationality of tourists allows them to be moved both by a desire to do what they are supposed to do in a place and a desire to avoid precisely what they are supposed to do. This is how it came to pass that, on my first trip to Paris, I avoided both the “Mona Lisa” and the Louvre.
I have seen many things, such as the pyramids in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower and London bridge, but I cannot say that I felt uplifted in any way by those experiences. There are many other places that are part of the tourist itinerary that I have not seen and do not feel that I am missing out. The one place that I did make a special effort to see was the Grand Canyon and I am glad I did. It was a truly transcendental experience to gaze at the deep gorges and get a sense of deep time, the vast number of years that had to have passed for the river to carve out that canyon, and it filled me with a sense of both awe and calm. The sheer immensity and beauty was impressive and I still remember the experience of sitting in silence on the edge of a gorge and looking out.
Would I feel similarly uplifted by seeing (say) the original Mona Lisa rather than an image of it on a screen or a book? Maybe, but I doubt it. I have visited exhibitions of the works of great painters like Picasso or Van Gogh in Cleveland when I lived there but I cannot recall now any sense of wonder when gazing upon the originals. So why would I travel all over the world to see them?
I think my problem is that in short visits to another place one does not get to really know the people who live there. It would be different if one could spend an extended period, say at least a year, in some place where one got to know the rhythms of daily life, the people, the language, and the food and one was able to make lasting friends. I can see that that would be interesting and educational. But to fly in, see some tourist attractions, and then fly out? I’ll pass.