One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain. Talking about what travel does to one’s worldview, he wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” While I agree with Twain’s quote on the surface level, I want to take a moment and push back regarding his assertions.

I do think that travel broadens one’s perspective and it aids in breaking down “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” However, in order for these barriers to crumble, the traveler must be open to the experiences and people that he or she will encounter on the journey. Every traveler, no matter the place of origin, carriers within themselves their own feelings and beliefs, and these things can serve cause the traveler to become closed off to the insights that travel provides.

Lillian Smith, in the prologue of her 1954 book The Journey, described the things that follow us on on travels. She writes,

There is no going alone on a journey. Whether one explores strange lands or Main Street or one’s own back yard, always invisible traveling companions are close by: the giants and pygmies of memory, of belief, pulling you this way and that, not letting you see the world life-size but insisting that you measure it by their own height and weight.

But you forget this. You start out feeling free. Your bags and your brain are packed full of supplies and facts for your trip, all the things you think you need. And then you get on your ship or plane or whatever, set for places you have not seen, friends you have not met–and suddenly something is there beside you, whispering, Better not look at that, better not listen; come, I know a place . . . a person . . .

Smith’s book chronicles her own personal journey, a journey where she wrestles with the memories and beliefs of her past. No matter the traveler, “giants and pygmies of memory” wrestle within the psyche of the person trekking to unknown places. In order for the traveler to fully get the most of the trip, he or she must first remove the giants and pygmies that fight to keep the traveler’s mind encased in a shell.

The point of travel, in any form, is to build bridges, one by one, across time and space.

Unless the traveler wants to shed those giants and pygmies, the chances of the journey tearing down “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” diminish exponentially. This does not mean that the trip will not eventually break down these barriers, but if the beliefs and memory have grown roots deep into the psyche then the chances of uprooting them become slim.

We should separate, I would argue, travel from tourism. To truly break down the barriers or remove the roots, we must travel. We must immerse ourselves in the place we go to, whether that place be across the town or across the ocean. We must open ourselves up to experiences and interactions that will challenge us and the giants and pygmies of our memory. We must not treat our excursions as escapes from our own self-centered existence. We must treat them as opportunities to enrich not only our lives but the lives of those we know and of those we come in contact with during our travels.

Tourism, on the other hand, does not open one up to others. Instead, it works as a self-centered enterprise to make the traveler feel comfortable and entitled. Jamacia Kincaid writes about just this in A Small Place. Throughout the book, she address the reader, the tourist, probably white, who comes to Antigua to escape their hum-drum, well-regulated life in the United States or Europe.

She tells the reader, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true; A tourist is an ugly human being.” What makes a tourist “ugly”? Is it the entitlement that one feels? Is it the feeling that the trip should be “perfect” and nothing should go wrong? Is it the feeling that everyone should treat you with respect? What is it? I would say it is all of these and more. No matter where we travel, we are not entitled to anything.

Along with this feeling of false entitlement, tourists typically shut themselves off to even thinking about what is like for people to live in the places they visit. Kincaid begins A Small Place by pointing out that the sunshine and blue water in Antigua comes at a cost to the individuals who live there. She writes,

What a beautiful island Antigua is–more beautiful than any of the other islands you have seen, and they were very beautiful, in their way, but they were much too green, much too lush with vegetation, which indicated to you, the tourist, that they got quite a bit of rainfall, and rain is the very thing that you, just now, do not want, for you are thinking of the hard and cold and dark and long days you spent working in North America (or,worse, Europe), earning some money so that you could stay in this place (Antigua) where the sun always shines and where the climate is deliciously hot and dry for the four to ten days you are going to be staying there; and since you are on your holiday, since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water used (while at the same time being surrounded by a sea and an ocean–the Caribbean Sea on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other), must never cross your mind.

Within this one sentence, Kincaid does multiple things. The key thing, though, is that she highlights the ways that tourists focus on their own pleasure, ignoring the lives of those they encounter. Tourists to Antigua fail to question the costs of the continuous sun. They fail to question the droughts. They fail to question the scarcity of drinking water. They fail to question the infrastructure. They fail to question the history of the island. They fail to question all of this.

The point of travel is to connect with others. The point of travel is to broaden your horizons. The point of travel across town is to meet people and learn from them. The point of travel through literature is to open your mind to the experiences of others. The point of travel, in any form, is to build bridges, one by one, across time and space. The point of travel is to grow. The point of travel is not tourism.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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2 Comments on “Why do we travel?

  1. Pingback: Current and Future Projects at the Lillian E. Smith Center | Interminable Rambling

  2. Pingback: Ridding Ourselves of the Giants and Pygmies of the Past | Interminable Rambling

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