What is travel? And why do we do it? The most obvious answer perhaps, is one that entails movement. Travelling is about going somewhere, seeing something and returning with pictures to prove it. We do it for excitement, a break, relaxation. But travel is also a state of mind, even an emotion. It is the feeling of capaciousness that transcends the confines of “home.”
When languages, cultures, and peoples collide, that is, when we travel, the
categories that label and classify us into separateness begin to soften. Human beings are divided by political borders, oceans, religion, skin colour, eating habits, and sense of humour. But if we keep our eyes and hearts open, travel reveals how much also unites the world. The writer and traveler, Pico Iyer, puts it neatly when he describes travel as “the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.”
Before I travelled to China, a country I lived in for 7 years, I had believed it to be inscrutable. The scale of its architecture had felt outlandish, the Chinese language sounded impenetrable and the art of the chopstick certainly beyond my grasp. And yet, once I was in Beijing walking around the city’s old criss-crossing warren of hutong alleyways, what I noticed was the familiar cadence of kabariwallahs crying out for waste to recycle as they slowly bicycled past the faded glory of courtyard-style homes. I delighted in the spicy sizzle of street food and noted the manner in which strangers addressed each other as family: auntie, grandmother, older brother. Rural folk shared their boiled eggs and oranges with me on bus rides across the country, reminiscent of similar journeys in India. In the unlikeliest of places- outside the Great Mosque in Xi’an, on the waterfront Bund of Shanghai and in a taxi in the far northeastern city of Harbin- people sang “Awaaran Hoon.”
In Turkey, on my honeymoon, I discovered that the dessert most often
recommended by the locals is halwa. In an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia’s East Java, I was told that the three Muslim reformers who founded the school are referred to as the trimurti. In Spain (my husband is Spanish) I learnt that families are as boisterous, complicated, and annoying as any in India. And in Belgium I realised that the origin of french fries (Belgian apparently, not French) is as contentious an issue as the origin of a certain type of spring roll is in Indonesia and Malaysia (both lay claim to the “Semarang lumpia”).
The world over, people complain about what foreigners have done to their food. Italians tell me there is no such thing as macaroni (the term is apparently a somewhat archaic, generic word for pasta) and Alfredo sauce is an abomination. Indians can legitimately claim the same of a Balti curry, not to mention the “Madras sauce” so beloved of British curry houses. And speaking of, what in the name of a vindaloo is a curry house?
Travel also teaches us that people everywhere have similar concerns. In India we wait for the rain, in Belgium they wait for the sun. But the celebration of “fine” weather, when it comes, is the same. In China it is considered rude to arrive late to a party, but being early is entirely forgivable. In India, only Chinese diplomats and Huawei employees arrive before 9:00pm for a 7:00pm invite. But hosts in both nations treat their guests lavishly.
Travel also deconstructs the categories of “normal” and “exotic.” Shopping at an Ikea in Sweden may be the height of banality, but not in Beijing. On Sunday afternoons entire families make a pilgrimage to the store in the Chinese capital. People test the beds on sale by actually taking naps on them. Grannies in Chairman Mao hairstyles chow down on Swedish meatballs, while a band plays at the restaurant. It is the hippest place to be. It’s almost as fun as watching Europeans in India exploding in excitement at the sight of a “water buffalo.”
Travel helps us develop multiple perspectives and understand other points of view. An Indian may discover how the Chinese view the 1962 border war in a rather different light. An Indonesian might find herself unexpectedly
sympathetic to the Malaysian standpoint on the matter of the lumpia.
Travel puts our own reality in context. A Bruxellois inevitably groans about the terrible traffic on Chaussée de Waterloo until he encounters Beijing’s third ring road. A Beijinger cannot imagine anything worse than the gridlock on Dongzhimenwai on a weekday evening until she experiences a traffic jam on Jalan Sudirman in Jakarta. And a Jakartan only need spend a weekend in Mumbai to feel a lot better about the traffic in his city.
Not everything about travel is salubrious or enriching. There are humiliating experiences at immigration checkpoints. There are moments of great frustration when you cannot be understood and cannot understand. There are limits to everyone’s ability to embrace cultural diversity.
Even though there were occasions when I pretended to the contrary, I never developed a taste for sea slugs in the years I lived in China. In Jakarta, I grew aggravated with my inability to find a hair salon that used warm water for shampoos. In Tibet, I ran out of inventive excuses to pass on the butter tea (not to mention Yaks testicles). In Brussels I was robbed at the airport, barely ten minutes after landing. In Berlin I lost my luggage. In Cambodia I lost my temper. In London I lost my heart. But I always gained more than I lost.
The real traveler is more than a tourist. And travel is an education rather than an event. Through travel we have the opportunity to realize that the truth is rarely singular and always messy. By travelling to foreign countries we also travel into ourselves, and discover inner passageways that remain opaque to us at home. To travel is to celebrate the diversity of the world and appreciate the humanity of people. It is to fall in love anew.