Are you a tourist or a traveller?
“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them, I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” ~ David Livingstone
There’s a difference between a traveller and a tourist. Maybe I’m old-fashioned: I prefer reading to television; trains to jets; long sojourns to quick getaways. I love reading stories about travellers who went abroad for months, even years, and became completely transformed. Like Ibn Batutta. He left his homeland, Morocco, to make a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1325AD that should have taken 16 months. He didn’t return home for 24 years.
In total, Ibn Battuta traveled for 30 years. He covered most of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, all the way to China, for a total of 75,000 miles (121,000 km) – a mileage record that held for more than 400 years. Batutta recorded his travels in a book called The Rihla (Journeys) of Ibn Battuta.
I think of the 19th century as the golden age of travel. People packed steamer trunks and ventured out into the world before there was any kind of tourism infrastructure. These people had adventures! Mark Twain was an inveterate traveller, who wrote travelogues and books – such as Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad and The Innocents Abroad – and gave humorous lectures based on his travel experiences.
India was one of Twain’s favourite destinations. According to Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography, he found “in India all that Rudyard Kipling had painted it and more. “INDIA THE MARVELLOUS” he printed in his notebook in large capitals, as an effort to picture his thought, and in his book he wrote: ‘So far as I am able to judge nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds.’”
A surprising number of travellers/explorers in the 19th century were women. Alexandra David-Néel started traveling in India in 1890. Her adventures include living in a cave in Sikkim for two years and becoming a Buddhist; and dressing like a Tibetan man and walking into Lhasa, a city that was closed to foreigners. Her book My Journey to Lhasa is a classic.
The 20th century gave rise to a large number of travellers who could really write, and the travel literature genre was born. Some of my favourite writers include Robert Byron, Somerset Maugham, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, Pico Iyer and Dervla Murphy, to name a few.
Right now, I’m reading The Road to Oxiana (1937) by Robert Byron, about his misadventures in the Middle East, trying to reach a legendary tower somewhere near the
border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. This was the book Chatwin carried with him everywhere, apparently, dog-eared and worn. Byron – who was distantly related to the poet – was an eccentric individual with a unique style: A personal narrative about the absurdities of his adventures that is shockingly funny interposed with startlingly imaginative evocations of place, brilliant snippets of dialogue and long, detailed architectural descriptions.
In the modern era we have flash packers, of course, plus travel bloggers, the location independent, volunteers, spiritual seekers, hippies – there are lots of people on the road, and lots writing about their adventures. The writing that appeals to me is from the travellers who dive in, head first; who immerse themselves into a culture and make their own road.