Travel as Epic Adventure

In the last article, I set out the idea that travel can serve a quasi-religious function akin to a ritual or pilgrimage.  This week, I want to look at our motivation in a different light.  Rather than viewing travel as a kind of religious experience, it is, I contend, an epic adventure, a journey of discovery whose destination, as Henry Miller once suggested, ‘is never a place but a new way of looking at things’.  Above all else, it affords us a new way of looking at each other, and at ourselves.  More tellingly perhaps, it offers the chance to change what we see, to ‘find’ oneself and fashion it anew.

“We’d just made it to Camp 3, halfway up the Lhotse Face, when the storm set in.  24,000 ft., -20°C, and the snow’s coming in literally at right angles…  I remember thinking: there’s a very real chance I’ll die here tonight!  We just had to bunk down and hope for the best…  The next morning the sky had cleared completely, and to see that sunrise – I’ve never felt anything like it…”

“The rooms were filthy, I mean really dirty: the sheets hadn’t been washed, the bathroom was a state, I was like ‘honestly!’  So we got the maid up but of course she doesn’t speak English.  Anyway, the manager was ever so nice about it – we got upgraded to the Queen suite, proper VIP treatment!  And the food was fantastic…”

Whatever one says about travel, whatever truths one tries to mine from its representative depths, it is most certainly, literally, an adventure.  Be it two weeks in Malta or two years in Tibet (visa permitting), the act of travel presupposes the same encounter with the unknown that is at the heart of every adventurous undertaking.  The term itself is suggestive: ‘adventure’ is derived from the Latin advenire, ‘to arrive, come about or befall’.  As such, we might view the adventure as a series of unforeseen episodes that befall one, much as the gorgon befell Perseus or Gene Hackman befell the Poseidon.  And as travel is more or less a matter of letting things befall one, of submitting to the new and unfamiliar in the pursuit of pleasure, it is, by definition, an adventure.

So what are these things we allow to befall us?  Which novel events comprise the adventure?  To name but a few of this endless assortment, there are different climates, different foods, different modes of dress.  Often, the language too is unfamiliar, while elsewhere we may encounter disparate laws, singular customs, foreign fauna and strange currencies.  More generally, travel rests on a series of oppositions or inversions in the fabric of everyday life.  Thus, we swap cold weather for warmth, city living for country, fast living for slow, stress for calm and so on, perhaps vice versa.  While the extent of these inversions may vary – not everyone swaps the rat race for an ashram or the Arctic for Arabia – they have in common the essence of adventure, namely, the substitution of novelty for normality.

Why, then, do we take pleasure in reversing our daily routines?  For creatures of habit, as humans are, what is to be gained from abandoning the comfort of familiarity?  Well, the first and most obvious explanation is that the highs justify the lows, which is to say that the unforeseeable pleasures equal or exceed the unforeseeable pains.  So it is, then, that the sunrise trumps the blizzard, the food trumps the filth and so on.  By extension, travel offers the possibility of discovering paradise, a place where pleasures don’t merely trump pain, they trivialise it.  But travel isn’t simply the upshot of a cost-benefit analysis, its aim being to increase our net measure of pleasure.  In fact, the epic adventure is less a quest for paradise than a quest for ourselves.  Now this might sound like a clumsy cliché, and granted, it can be unwieldy.  But there is truth to this truism, for in the course of the adventure, in the process of displacing our persons from their usual surrounds, we cannot help but arrive at a fuller conception of our characters.  This is equally true of those who travel with us, be they friends, partners or family: change someone’s context, induce the unfamiliar, and you see what stuff they are made of.  For the vast majority of people, this is arguably the ultimate appeal of travel: it is a means and a medium to know one another, an adventure to be shared.  But what of those who prefer to go solo?  Why the desire to ‘find’ oneself?  And what does this actually mean?

At this point, things get a little messy.  Traditionally, people have thought of the ‘self’ as something absolute, unchanging; we are born with a certain nature – good, bad, brave, dumb, etc. – and that’s the way we remain.  Existentialism changed all this by arguing that the self had to be discovered in the course of existence (hence the name), only for postmodernism to shift the goalposts once again by asserting that the self was in fact an illusion.  Now this might all seem pretty abstract, but these various ideas have had some very concrete effects.  Existentialist concepts of freedom and choice, for example, were readily apparent in the counter-cultural movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which spawned the first era of self-seeking travellers.  A generation and a half later, and we’re starting to see evidence of the postmodernist claim that the self exists only as a self-penned, self-conscious caricature; we do x, y and z not because we need or even want to, but because we want ourselves to appear like we do.  Viewed this way, the desire to travel is inseparable from the desire to appear (i.e. look and feel) like a traveller, just as the need for adventure is synonymous with the need to appear adventurous.  Travel, then, is a brand that helps to define one’s identity.  Like the food we eat, the car we drive and the clothes we wear, it works to confer on us sense of our own individuality.  Nevertheless, like any other product, it is subject to the market and the whims of consumerism, a theme that I’ll return to in the following article.