Travel to Create Your Self

We travel to grow up, wake up, and stay on our toes.

Posted Oct 08, 2009

Ever let the fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home...
Open wide the mind's cage-door,
She'll dart forth, and cloudward soar.
- John Keats

Most kids visit their grandparents by car. Not me. Mine lived on Puget Sound and to see them my mother, baby brother, and I (at age five, and on a return visit, at nine) rode the train for a week--from New Jersey to Seattle. We had a roomette to ourselves, but roamed the train under the watchful eyes of "porters," all of whom belonged to The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the vanguard union for African-American labor.

By the time these men had served us breakfast of sliced oranges and blueberry pancakes in five states, daily made up our little room, and hovered helpfully from sea to shining sea, they were like fond uncles. The contrast between the prevailing racist stereotype and my personal experience of these kindly protectors could hardly have been starker.

A decade later, when I met blacks at college, my experience of the porters helped me bridge what might otherwise have felt like a chasm.

Travel breaks stereotypes. We get to see for ourselves, form our own impressions.

Like many who read Jack Kerouac's bible for trans-continental pilgrims--On the Road--I spent several summers exploring America in old cars fueled by 35 cent per gallon gasoline.

Why did I go? To devour my country. To swallow it whole. Like a gerbil exploring its cage, I was driven to give my confines a once over and probe the limits of the Americentric vision I'd been raised on. In Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe writes of someone who consumed not books, but libraries. That rang a bell. The generation that came of age as America took its place on the world stage was voracious for experience.

Shortly after chalking up my forty-eighth state, I sailed to France for a year of graduate study. Within days of landing, I took off for Germany on a rented scooter to see if it lay in ruins as depicted in wartime newsreels.

Not a stone seemed out of place in Munich, but on the outskirts of the city lay a mountain of rubble that was all that remained of the prewar site of the legendary Oktoberfest. And just down the road was the death camp of Dachau, which left me with a life-long question, one I plan to address in a subsequent blogpost: How could the Holocaust have happened?

In the late sixties, travel brought me another life-shaping revelation, this time in the Soviet Union. Celebrated as our ally against Hitler in World War II, the USSR was now regarded as a treacherous Cold War enemy. By this time my compulsion to explore whatever cage I found myself in had resulted in multiple forays through Western Europe and South America. But Russia, the Pacific countries, and Africa remained virgin territory.

My immediate goal was to find out if the USSR was indeed a workers' paradise, as some claimed, or a police state with an agenda of world conquest, as others insisted. An exchange with the Russian guide assigned to "mind" me, planted a question that would drive me for decades. After several days of fervent lectures on the unparalleled achievements of Soviet communism, I asked the guide how mental illness was treated in the USSR. I remember her answer verbatim: "There is no mental illness in the Soviet Union. Mental illness is a by-product of capitalism."

I suspected otherwise, and for years I wondered if behind their official masks, Russians were not just like us. It was, of course, logically possible that they inhabited a parallel universe; that truth for them was different than truth for us. I facetiously called this the "Martian hypothesis," and vowed to put it to the empirical test, in the manner of my youth, by riding the trans-Siberian railroad across Russia.

Ten years would pass before I could get it together to make the journey. Six years after riding from the Baltic to the Pacific in search of common ground with the Russians, I took the "trans-Sib" in the reverse direction--from Beijing to Budapest. Travel-writer Paul Theroux speaks for me when he notes, "I sought trains; I found passengers."

I've since traveled to Russia many times, and every trip has been an adventure. During the Cold War, there was uncertainty about getting a visa, clearing passport control, even finding an edible meal. Foreigners and Soviet citizens alike feared arbitrary arrest. Getting anything done, felt like a small victory. I was anxious the whole time, even in my sleep.

Fear is part of what makes travel so enlivening and revelatory. You're perpetually off-balance and on guard. After a while one yearns for the mindlessness of familiar routines. And when you do return home, old pleasures are much the sweeter for having been suspended.

Travel is like truth serum. Whether snaking across the American prairie or the Siberian taiga, crossing the Rockies, Urals, or Karakorams, or cycling through Beijing or Berlin, travel makes us porous to new customs, beauties, ideas, and dreams. I can't think of a better vaccine against dogmatism or a quicker cure for self-satisfaction. As we struggle to reconcile what we're experiencing with what we take for granted, we strip away what's arbitrary in cultural practice and approach what is universal.

Non-travelers are more susceptible to habitual seeing and thinking. Traveling jolts us awake. Even to cross the street we must cease our sleepwalking...or die. It must be admitted, however, that travel may simply confirm some in the superiority of their own ways. As Thomas Fuller observed in 1732, "Travel makes a wise man better, but a fool worse."

Travel not only invites us to see the world anew, it gives us an unaccustomed look at who is doing the seeing. None of the benefits of travel compares to the oblique glance it allows us of our selves. By placing us outside ourselves, travel provides us with the distance required to see what it is we are habitually doing and the anonymity to risk new ways of being in the world.

So, we do not travel to get away from it all. Alas, as the bumper sticker says, "Wherever you go, there you are." Travel fails as escape but it succeeds as confrontation--confrontation with our old selves that, deprived of their usual confirmatory surroundings, may yield to a new one.

Lately, as I head to the airport, I'm starting to feel like one of Pavlov's dogs. The self-renewal so reliably delivered, by making myself a stranger in a strange land, seems to be triggered by merely climbing into the airport van. By the time I disembark an hour later, it feels like there are enough new ideas coursing through me to justify turning around and going straight home where I can sort them out in comfort.

Once your travels have shown you what it means to see freshly, you discover that you can almost do so without leaving home. Almost, but not quite, at least not forever. There seems to be nothing like immersion in another culture for staving off the mind's tendency to calcification. We travel to grow up, wake up, and stay on our toes.

The object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country... .
- G. K. Chesterton