Wide Horizons, Narrow Visions

Angkor Wat

Over the years I have spent an inordinate amount of time sitting (or standing) on public transport. As well as preparing me for purgatory this has had the advantage of enabling me to overhear the conversations of many, mostly Australian, young people engaged in the process of working their way around the world. The thing that most frequently strikes me about these conversations is how animated they are about things which could have happened at home, getting drunk, having sex, and how banal they are about things which could only happen abroad, seeing Angkor Wat, walking through Santiago de Compostela on the Feast of St James.

It is as if the world exists in order to provide entertainment to the person who observes it. What is important, it would seem, to such travellers is the eyes through which they look, the mind by which they judge and the feelings which they experience. The internal apparatus carried about by them is intended to return intact to Sydney or Adelaide with only the memory added to or changed. Wherever they may be they walk in the shadow of Australia. By contrast I once knew a man who had set out on his world tour, from Argentina as it happens, in the 1970’s. He was something of a playboy from a well to do family and travelled largely for hedonistic reasons. His itinerary took in pre-chaos Iran and Afghanistan. Also a long sea voyage from Australia to Europe during which time he looked at the horizon and thought. Upon landing he made his way to the Grande Chartreuse, home of the most austere monastic order in the Catholic Church, and demanded to be admitted as a novice. At some point on his journey he had escaped from the shadow of Argentina and had allowed his internal apparatus to be affected by the world in which he was travelling.

We can never, of course, alter the events that have gone into shaping us, heredity, class, nation, culture, we always see the world from a particular perspective. What we can do, though, is appreciate that the way it appears to us is not necessarily the way that it is, or at least, the only way that it is. The word ‘appreciate’ is not a synonym for ‘be vaguely aware of’ it means-

1.recognize the full worth of
2 understand (a situation) fully; grasp the full implications of.

If we travel fully grasping the fact that our understanding of what we see is only partial and heavily constrained by our own narrowness then we can develop ways of escaping from under the shadow of our native sky. Paradoxically our sense of familiarity can be one such way. If we encounter something which we know to be wholly new to us but which we nonetheless experience as somehow being familiar then we can interrogate ourselves as to why this might be so. Perhaps there is something universal in it which speaks to a way of being human in the world that resonates with us and may resonate likewise with others about us so that we are seeing it not just as ourselves but as everyman or everywoman.

Contrariwise if we encounter something as being wholly alien or unfamiliar but those who know it well treat it as normal and expected then we can seek to find ways of experiencing it as they experience it. We shift our perspective until the thing which appears out of focus to us comes into focus. This can only happen if we ourselves are changed by what we observe.

To travel apart from our native shadow it is necessary to wish to do so. The desire of our times is to be our own masters, to be autonomous, it is an act of rebellion to wish to be imposed upon. And yet we can only learn if things imposed upon us change us and we can only effectively learn if we eagerly seek to be imposed upon and to be changed. Travelling around the world and returning unchanged is wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we set out upon a journey it should be with the intention not of taking ourselves to St Peter’s or St Petersburg but of admitting them into ourselves and changing our internal shape accordingly. If we do not we may as well stay at home.

@stevhep

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My other blog is Catholic Scot

The picture is of Angkor Wat from the Daily Telegraph

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4 Comments

  1. One of the disappointing things about travelling (and I’ve only done a little bit) is how similar everywhere is now – more or less the same Europeanised shops all over the place: it’s quite tricky to find utter difference. And I don’t think being an Aussie spending a year on beaches and bar life is necessarily bad – it would be unfeasible if the whole lot of them thought they were Bruce Chatwin. I suspect too that as you fret about your backpack your passport and your phrase book, you’d need to stay in one place for a pretty long time to begin to properly acclimatise. There are plenty of IELTS teachers knocking round the globe though, and I expect they stay longer, drink less and are face to face with the locals, so there’s plenty of non-shallow engagement going on too.

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    1. Travelling in order to be the same person as you were before you travelled isn’t bad but it is a wasted opportunity. I’m suggesting that it would be well to take advantage of something which after all is unrepeatable. I think too that there are significant differences between one place and another, they are not as blatant as once they were so the traveller has to look harder and maybe for longer in order to see them.

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      1. Hmm, well I’m not sure that it is ‘unrepeatable’ – chap in my local shop pinged between here and Indonesia for years (and has the colourful shirts to prove it). You could go once for the freedom, twice for the sex, third time for the drugs — and then explore a spot of enlightenment after that if you were still not happy. All of this might still not be worse than selling insurance for twenty years. But it’s the hippies with the backpacks who get done for shallowness..

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  2. You can never cross the same river twice. Likewise you can never visit the same place for the first time as a young person twice. First impressions are tremendously important (and so is being young.) Talking of hippies I’ve always liked Joni Mitchell’s comment at the Isle of Wight festival-

    “I was at a Hopi snake dance a couple of weeks ago and there were tourists who acted like Indians and Indians who acted like tourists — you’re just a bunch of tourists. Some of us have our lives involved in this music. Show some respect.”

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