It’s straightforward to call the experience of travel artificial and ungrounded, and to go on about its inauthenticity, to cite the plethora of foolish misunderstandings and incorrect, shallow interpretations with which, from Marco Polo on, travel literature is filled. There were not real beasties in those vacant spaces on the map, just beasties of absent knowledge and voids of what some people these days are inclined to call cultural intelligence.
These mistakes are so much more readily made when the language is unknown or unfamiliar. Watching teenagers with whom you were having a conversation in English seize on a stream of miscomprehension and chase it down to its antic destination rang a bell. Worse than my many mistakes was my inability to correct them politely. Hopeless. Still more, the looks of blank incomprehension while searching for cues as to what possibly could be meant; I’d been like that too, often. Tourist language both gets you by and lets you down. You simply can’t find out many of the things you’d really like to know.
Language is obvious and central, however there are all those other ways of showing your incompetence. Who would have thought, for example, that you would ever swim anywhere other than to the left of the lane?
Why put yourself in that situations like that? Is it a case of inventing problems for yourself to solve while paying for the privilege?
The answer is probably yes. A good dose of the incompetences doesn’t do you any harm. You could say it is a reminder of the permanent character of life for some people and that’s true, but it is also the administration of some cultural humility.
The experience of travel is inauthentic? No it isn’t. It’s very real. You can feel and sense what happened, and you can describe it just as you can with any other set of experiences. There is no pretence that you’re a local living a local life as if that was the criterion for ‘authenticity’. You can make mistakes of interpretation, but you can certainly tell people what happened to you. They’ll make their own judgments about your version, judgments about you, based on a thousand things. He’s fixated on food. He goes to sleep on trains. He’s got the Ottomans completely wrong. He must have been tired for a week somewhere round Bulgaria. I don’t mind. Truly.
And is it trivial, the merest skim of a surface? Is it just food and shelter, galleries and World Heritage sites, experiences with guides and minor hiccups with travel arrangements? Yes it is, but as I have tried to suggest those things are not trivial. They are the stuff of life. I love the way so many of the people we spent time with were deeply concerned with the quality and intrinsic interest of what they ate and drank. They’re not gluttons or gourmands; they are just thinking about how they spend a significant part of their lives underpinned as it so often is with forms of sociability. And I think it is correct to be suspicious of someone reaching transcendence on an empty stomach or without the prospect of a decent cup of tea. Travel sometimes, often, does reduce us to essentials without the invisible and forgotten web of props that sustain us ‘at home’.
Most of us live in our own fishbowl, confident of its contents and the manner and conventions of the games played there. The circuit is predictable and we know what is expected. To travel is to unanchor those conventions, to shift your frame of reference and to focus on different things; and to change not just the content of your reflection but its very mode, a function of having to try to enter into whatever is happening where you are. Even New Zealand, that most comfortable of foreign countries, is constantly full of surprises with different benchmarks required for your judgments and perceptions. But there are more radical cases where, for example, the country you are standing, like so many of the places on this trip, has recently been full of war and desperate political situations.
For me, travel provides both the stimulus and the opportunity, in Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal conjuring, to be confronted by the unknown unknowns, to grapple with the known unknowns and to reconfigure and try to make better sense of what I have taken to be the knowns. Travel may, in fact, broaden one. A dollar spent travelling is rarely wasted.
• The young chap in the front of the photo above is sitting on a veranda at Bebandem school on the slopes of Mt Agung in Bali. He is holding his workbook which describes where he is going to travel when he grows up.