Travel as Religious Experience

What is travel?  A strange question perhaps, given the purview of this website.  But let’s have a think for a moment.  Why do we do it?  What does it do for us, and to us, and to the world around us?  What is the worth of travel, and what is its cost?  In this short series of articles, I want to think around some of these questions.  My aim is to find not answers but analogies, alternative ways of thinking about travel and travellers that might challenge some old preconceptions.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at travel as an epic quest or adventure, as an act of cultural ‘cannibalism’ and as a new form of imperialism.  To kick off, though, I invite you to think about travel as a kind of religious ritual.

Picture the scene:  There’s a lake or a river or something like that, maybe even a sea.  And it’s sunrise, or sunset, it doesn’t matter which, and the sun slides low across the sky like an egg yolk.  All along the shoreline, lined-up up like little lanterns, are the beach huts or bungalows or whatever – the backpacker barracks.  And out front, on the balconies and rooftops, sprawled across cushions or strung-out in hammocks, are the travellers themselves.

Tarquin is deep in a dog-eared Dumas he traded two towns back.   With his free hand (and much deliberation) he strokes a ponderous beard.  His is a fossilised figure: skin coarse and cracked as old leather, hair the texture of twine. On his feet, chappals worn to a crisp; his vest is peppered with holes.  He looks up.  Across the deck, four round and ruddy-faced girls sit perched on poofs like hens on the nest.  They gossip, giggle.  One scans idly through photos as another sows beads in her hair.  One is consulting the guidebook.  One is writing a postcard.  Gap years, thinks Tarquin, with a cock of his pierced ‘brow, slaves to the Lonely Planet.  “They change their climate, not their soul, who rush across the sea.”  Hmmm.  Maybe he’ll feed them that one later, if he deigns to converse.

So consider: a ritual, loosely defined, is a kind of social operating procedure.  It’s a time-tested template, a pre-cut pattern of acts and utterances, which, properly connected, can communicate changes in the status of participants.  A wedding ceremony is an obvious example.  There are vows and rings and drunken speeches, and these have to be used in just the right place, at just the right time, to make the marriage effective.  So too with funerals, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, you name it.  A ritual doesn’t have to be religious of course.  Graduations, hazings, even stag- and hen-nights – all involve a certain modus operandi (think silly clothes and public performance), adherence to which serves to signpost safe passage from one life-stage to the next.

Now in secular society, we’re somewhat starved of decent life-changing rituals.  You’d be hard-pressed to argue that a stag-night is as mind-blowingly transformative as the Hindu vel kavadi or an Amerindian vision quest (despite, perhaps, the noble efforts of the best man).  But regardless, we all still partake in rituals.  In fact, they appear to be pretty much indispensable to human culture.  By following the established procedure at certain key stages of our lives, we’re in effect ‘reinvesting’ in society, subscribing to its overarching ethos.  Thus, every time we do a ritual, we at once remake society.

So how does all this apply to travel, you might justly ask.  Let’s think again about the gaggle of gap years sketched out above.  Every year, approximately 100,000 school-leavers head overseas prior to embarking on work or further education.  Many more young people take similar breaks during or after their studies, or in-between jobs.  Among this growing demographic, which is worth an estimated £2.2 billion in the UK alone, there are two major gap year options: project-based trips with organisations such as Global Vision International (GVI) and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO); or budget backpacking through Asia, Australasia and the Americas.  Of those who opt for the latter, some 25,000 visit Thailand, Australia and New Zealand in the same outing, making this the pre-eminent gap year circuit.  Already, then, we have the first elements of ritual: time and place.  But what else?  Well, for a start you need the costume.  (Rituals, you will recall, work best in garish garb.)  Ponchos, sarongs, fisherman’s pants: practical, yes, but also symbolic.  Like braids, dreadlocks, tattoos and piercings, this decorative dress denotes a departure from everyday life and heightens the sense of occasion. There are other adornments too: the journal; the guidebook; the low-slung knapsack.  And then there is ritual talk: “where are you going?”; “where have you been?”; “did you ‘do’ this monument/trek/natural wonder?”; etc.  Drink, drugs and digital photos, sun, sea and social networks – these too are ubiquitous features.

Travel, then, becomes ritual; there is an order of action, a template to be followed.  Upon their return from the wilderness, our young vagrants are transformed (or reformed) into worldly-wise Westerners, new sovereign citizens of a global era.  (Theirs is the Earth and everything that’s in it!)  Through their reintegration, initiates renew a vow to society.  In return, society bestows on them the mantle of maturity, endorsing their experience as life-changing and morally valid.

But what of Tarquin, and his scorn, and his esoteric fiction?  What of all those who recognise the ritual and take pains to avoid it?  Is travel, for Tarquins, still quasi-religious?  Here, the idiom of ritual is surely redundant.  Consider, instead, a pilgrim, or a wandering ascetic.  Both are in search of spiritual fulfilment, the latter through acts of denial, the former through transit itself.  For souls such as Tarquin, travel affords a path to enlightenment, whether through disavowal (detachment from one’s home-world), austerity (renunciation of material comforts) or more formal spiritual practice (yoga, meditation and so on).  In such cases, travel seems less an assent to cultural values than a means to reflect upon and challenge them.

So there we have it.  What appears a humble waterfront guesthouse is in fact a stage upon which various reverent rites are enacted, be it a kind of coming of age ritual akin to an aboriginal walkabout or the righteous restraint of the shoestring ascetic.  Viewing travel in this light is in no way meant to devalue it – quite the opposite in fact.  While at one level these foreign forays are decidedly frivolous, at another they can be seen to fulfil basic social functions.  Indeed, for many in the West today, overseas travel has come to fill the void vacated by ‘real’ religions, providing meaning, purpose, awe and wonder, as well as a sense of belonging.  As we shall see in the following article, it may also serve to satisfy an ancient appetite for adventure and the itching innate in our figurative feet.