“The farther one travels, the less one really knows . . . “ Beatle George Harrison once intoned, in a perfect distillation of Eastern wisdom.
Today, this seems more true than ever — more than he or any of the sages of immobility could have envisioned – and not just from some transcendental point of view. On the one hand, we are more enabled to experience many of travel’s more salutary aspects from our desktop; on the other, the experiences or immersions we seek out through traveling are less and less in evidence.
This has led to me to start daydreaming about creating virtual tours to “mental landscapes.” By this, I mean that the worlds all of us imagine when listening to say, Indian classical music, or reading a novel set in the Australian outback, are at this point far more exotic, strange and startling than anything we’d encounter in actual places. The India that echoes in the beat of the tabla or the drone of the tamboura is eternal, ethereal, contemplative, evocative of glinting jewels, happy gods, mad gurus, mysterious princesses. When we land in the real India of the 21st century, we immediately have our sniffing tourist noses rubbed in such disillusioning aspects as Indian gas stations, Indian highways and, as of recent developments, Indian shopping malls. Substitute any country you like.
When I interviewed master travel writer Paul Theroux awhile back on a visit to Bangkok, and asked him where he thinks the “exotic” now lies, he did make the salient point that it’s the consciousness of the people in a 7-11 convenience store in Thailand (found on every corner) that matter more than the 7-11 and all its shelves of Lay’s potato chips. In other words, maybe the kid chugging a Coke next to you still believes in burning incense before graven images. But the author also admitted that real travel, as asserted in a film made by one of his sons, might lie at this stage of history only in dangerous war zones.
It’s easy to make fun of the “bad mood” school of travel writing that I unwittingly joined (and Theroux did much to found). Yet perhaps it was about more than a personal predilection toward kvetching and disappointment; perhaps it was even prophetic. “I can know myself only through disaster,” I once wrote. Is not the opportunity for the disastrous, and all the self-learning that can bring, the only thing left that we can’t get from scrolling Trip Advisor? (The triple-negative seems appropriate.) Maybe we really can travel farther through cultural telepathy and by bringing the distilled essence of distant places home through intellectual adventuring.