Sunday, August 19, 2007

Well? Shall we ­go? Yes, let’s ­go. [They do not ­move.]

Just being ­still
Might give us a brand new ­thrill.
So why don’t we try staying ­home?
Wouldn’t that be ­nice?
We’ve tried everything else ­twice.
So why don’t we try staying ­home?
(“Why Don’t We Try Staying Home?” 1929)
Travel began as a precise landlord’s retribution, and no matter how plush the circumstances of movement have become, lodged still in travel’s DNA are the traces of a sweet deal gone sour: The big plane will shudder, the ­high-­decked ship rock, the Segway reverse course. And physical shocks are the least of it. Our errant first parents had only each other to endure. But we move in the company of . . . others, and it costs us. The assorted penalties of contemporary travel are evidence of how long the Almighty can hold a ­grudge.
Why do we go? Our motives are pretty much what the motives for elective travel have always been: to see the country, or the world; to know the unknown; to open ourselves to new experience; to relax; to confirm that, by golly, people the world over really are the same. An intrepid few of us may even insist, with Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels With a Donkey), “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.” Easy enough for him to say; the jackass he traveled with wasn’t the garrulous stranger in an adjacent ­seat.
But what’s left for the casual traveler to discover? Since that day when the world was all before our unsettled ancestors, a lot has happened. Adam and Eve may have traveled light, but they did carry curiosity from Eden, and it was the best part of their legacy. All the brave individuals, down through the ages, who said to themselves, “I know what’s here, but what’s elsewhere?” and then set out to answer the question, made us a gift of the world they ­observed.
The great heroic age of travel and exploration is ended. The planet’s become a familiar sight to billions of ­people ­not because they’ve been everywhere, or anywhere necessarily, but because so many others have done the job for them and broadcast the results, in words and images. It’s not just the world’s signature architectural ­sites ­the easy stuff like Pyramids, Parthenon, Pantheon, Kremlin, and ­such ­or natural wonders, like the Nile in flow, that we recognize. Thanks to nature TV, we’re savvy about the world’s rarest flora, and practically on speaking terms with a lot of its fauna. Haven’t we all felt the pain of those hapless penguins, whose ­to-­and-­froing across Antarctica for the species’ survival seems hardly preferable to their fallback fate as a sea lion’s lunch? The camera can profile an insect borne from egg to oblivion on an indifferent carrion bird, or find the shyest mollusk mating in an undersea recess. It won’t be long before TV runs out of novel world, unless evolution picks up the ­pace.
“But isn’t it important to see for yourself? Travel broadens us, right?” How firsthand does experience have to be before it counts as experience? If you’ve seen pictures of the pigeons in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, do you need to have them hem you in on-site, while you confirm that the nearby basilica and the bobbing gondolas look . . . just like they do in their photos? If travel is indeed broadening, the benefits are entirely contained. What’s more numbing than to hear about somebody else’s trip? A routine of vacation slide shows, or maybe PowerPoint presentations, could break the steeliest ­terrorist ­or would The Hague cry “Foul!”( much more from the Wilson Quarterly)

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