When it comes to travel, I’m increasingly with Robert Louis Stevenson. “For my part,” he wrote in Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.” He meant away from himself.
It isn’t the most syrupy observation but as anyone haunted by the siren call of the road knows, it’s probably the most accurate. For despite its touted benefits – usually character-building and the dissolution of prejudice (notions anyone familiar with the Costa del Sol during peak tourist season will dismiss) – travel should really be about escape.
Not to a beach or spa resort, however pristine or dreamy. Certainly not to some design-driven boutique hotel with ‘signature’ cocktails, however high the thread count. That’s just changing the scenery.
Travel is not about escaping the daily grind, although that’s part of it. Nor is it about experiencing the new, the unexpected or the different, although that’s part of it too. Travel is alchemy. It is about leaving the known, escaping who and what you are and for a while – be that a week, a month or a lifetime – becoming someone and something else altogether.
Travel is dangerous. Not because you might not come back (though that is possible) but because you ought not come back at all. Not as you were. Travel is meant to remake and if it doesn’t, it’s only a holiday, regardless of how or where you go.
The UN says 1.23 billion people travelled last year. As a percentage of the global population, that’s probably higher than at any time since our ancestors traded hunter-gathering for agriculture.
But as travel has become more ubiquitous, it has lost much that made it transformative and transgressive. Forget chain hotels and Hipsterification, even the countercultural rebellion of backpacking (a genuine challenge as little as 30 years ago) has been sanitised, with the same mango lassis being served to same soundtrack to the same crowds reading the same guide books at the same ‘traveller’ cafés the world over. It’s so guided and curated and the ‘experiences’ so rehearsed that you wonder what culture, if any, is being countered.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, that ode to the metamorphosis of travel, Tolkien wrote that “not all those who wander are lost” but as cheap flight, package holidays and social media remorselessly turn the planet into a virtual version of It’s a Small World, perhaps it would be better if they were?