Thursday, June 2, 2011

Travel as Travail

The two words are related: to travel is to undergo discomfort, even suffering. The hero on his mythic journey has to undergo hardship if he is to be tested and learn who he is. So is that why we ordinary folk today travel great distances?

The question has been on my mind since returning recently from ten days in Edinburgh, with side trips to Durham (England) and a few places in Scotland. Buffeted by high winds and daily rain, we endured expensive discomfort, eating odd foods, missing our own beds and bathrooms, and being generally exhausted by crowds and, on the way home, by eleven hours in the air followed by secruity at the airport that included, for the first time, a dog who sniffed out an uneaten sandwich in my carry-on bag; it was confiscated. The dog was friendly, but this episode delayed our connecting flight, which we nearly missed. So it goes.

Why do people endure all this to have a good time? Is fun what we seek when we travel long distances?

What leads me to be cooped up like a frozen chicken in a narrow seat for eight hours of transoceanic flight, my body punished by lack of sleep and time changes? Is it to escape the boredom of my life in Florida? No. Is it to learn new things? Yes, perhaps, but much of what I have learned about Scotland has come from reading. Is it to prove to myself that I, like a medieval pilgrim, can find spiritual enlightenment in ancient, revered places? Perhaps, since I do revere ancient places where "prayer has long been valid," as Eliot wrote. Or did he? I am still too tired to know.

As I look at the pictures I took on those rare moments last week when the sun appeared, I sense that it was all worth it: the ridiculous prices, the inconvenience, the queues, the strangeness of things: all this produced more than bragging rights. I now have evidence that I saw beauty and that I encountered something in the past of my culture that means something to me. And I learned I could do it, despite the fearful apprehensions and all the bother.

I don't enjoy writing; I enjoyed having written, someone once said. The same is true of traveling overseas: I only really enjoy having traveled, being grateful I have survived the ordeal and can look back on unique memories. I heard the English language used in amusing ways, met charming people, and saw some wonderful things. I have enriched my life (I think) by undergoing the travail of traveling 8,000 miles.

But would I do it again?

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