Monday, August 06, 2007

The Purpose of Travel

This was written in my gridbook on the train from Madrid to Lisbon:

What is the purpose of travel?

We often speak of someone who has traveled extensively like we talk about those who are particularly wise or gifted. My liberal arts college even made travel experience a requirement for graduation. (It was call a “Cross-Cultural” requirement, but it almost always involved crossing a border.) What is all this importance given to traveling to distant countries? Isn't it just another form of recreation, in which the world becomes our source of amusement?

So today is the last day of our month in Europe. We have traveled across six different countries. I have seen some beautiful and amazing places. With such brief visits to each nation, however, we only got the smallest taste for the different cultures –mostly only in the form of differences in dress, mannerisms, and architecture. With a significant language barrier in each country, there weren't really opportunities to interact with people there in any meaningful way. I have been much more culturally enriched getting to know immigrants back in the United States.

I have a tendency to be cynical about tourism. I find the idea of going to some distant place and “paying people to stare at them and their homes” a bid degrading (both for the tourist and the native). My idealism, also, groans at the prospect of spending so much money and resources on my own edification which could be better spent on more “worthy” causes. I cannot help but wonder if the idea of the “world-traveler” is a holdover from Colonialism –the rich masters go touring around the world to gain notable experiences, oblivious to the sufferings their wealth and opulence cause.

But in spite of all my reservations, I am glad that we did it... glad I can say I have stood where Plato, Agamemnon, and Julius Caesar stood... glad I have hiked the Alps... glad I saw hundreds of places and works of art I have read about my whole life... glad I walked the streets of the same town in Italy where my grandfather grew up. I know these enjoyable experiences don't constitute a worthwhile apology for tourism, but it has been my experience. Right or wrong, I am glad I took a month of my life to ride the rails in Europe.

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