The Precious Privilege of Travel
Last August saw various stories in the British press ruing how holidaying that summer was less viable due to the declining value of the pound. It seems almost quaint to consider that marginally more expensive holidays were the main concern for travellers in 2019, as opposed this year’s existential global pandemic.
I had the good fortune to recently be abroad but, owing to one of the countries being taken off the cherished air bridge list, I found myself stuck in one of those strange purgatory scenarios where unplanned for time needs to be used up. I was obliged to pass it in a small, humble French town, in a hotel burdened by reviews of an eyebrow-raising calibre.
I tried to make the most of it but seeking out basics in the town like a coffee proved quite a chore. No coffee served at the bakery. A restaurant that claimed to be ‘ouvret’ (‘open’) with a sign that soberly demanded masks be warn, was, as the barrier tape implied, firmly shut. Black coffee in a meek paper cup was handed over at a roadside service station. I commented in broken French that this was the only place to buy coffee around. The friendly lady nodded lamenting how “c’est triste” (“it’s sad”), how much was shut in town these days.
At least I could travel in some way this summer. And hope to be able to again in a post-COVID world. But the privilege of travel is something that those in wealthy countries who are able to do it often take for granted. Privilege not in the rather loaded contemporary way it’s often used on say social media. But privilege in the sense of travel being something very special yet something that we don’t all have access to.
One of the most rewarding aspects of travelling to another country is to talk to locals and they divulge something about themselves. A theme I’ve noticed and reflected on in light of global travel restrictions is their frustration at not being able to go beyond their own borders, as shown in the tales below.
I got talking to a group of three sisters on a train to Kosovo’s capital Pristina after I correctly identified Ed Sheeran on a notepad one of them was writing in. Churning along we had an intimate conversation, the kind that could happen because we were strangers and not family or friends. From being surprised about my desire to journey through the Balkans, the sisters became forlorn. They quickly touched on feelings of restriction. Of youthful ambition squeezed out of them because of awareness of their constraints. Travelling out of Kosovo for Kosovans is not easy due to Visa complications, which is also the case for many citizens for Balkan countries.
“We want to go to other countries and learn”, said Ajola.
“We want to see the world. We can’t do what you are doing”, bemoaned Vlora.
A wave of guilt grew at the pit of my stomach. It really wasn’t fair. I’d traversed the countries in their home region with relative ease. To break the awkward silence, I thought I would show them my stamp-filled passport. I took out the burgundy leather passport, the physical embodiment of our divergent past and futures.
“We don’t hate you don’t worry” chucked Vlora as they flicked through the pages.
They were learning about the world around them, but the world wasn’t willing to have them: “We read Paul Coelho and we are inspired to follow our dreams.” Vlora looked ruefully outside at the morass of plain brown fields we went past. “Then we realise we live here.”
One of the most precious things about travel is how it fulfils a yearning for excitement and self-development. In foreign encounters and experiences, we learn something about ourselves, about others, and are inexplicitly but definitely changed, even slightly. “There is … something unique about being a young person travelling” said Barack Obama in an interview on the value of travel, that lends itself to “self-discovery”. Obama was describing journeying through Europe alone in his youth, surviving on baguette and cheese each day and the occasional dollop of wine. This wasn’t an option to the three sisters.
I’d done five days walking with Amir in the Nepalese Himalayas. Stocky Amir was a delight of a guide. Giving light-hearted jibes to passers-by on the same trail about their nationality or making jovial jokes when we were in sticky spots on the mountainside. But he was desperate for the lights, noise and thrill of a Western city.
We were in a guesthouse at the end of our journey. It was located in a panoramic valley and as power had been cut for a few days, bookings had been halted and we had the place to ourselves. Looking down you saw a lush green valley and into the distance were what are affectionately called the ‘low hills’. The other way were the snowy Himalayas and the distinctly jutting peak of 7,000 m high ‘Fishtail’ Mountain.
We sat with our beers on different tables in a dining room. The window went across all four walls, allowing a 360-degree view of the valley and mountains. We had an open conversation, a divulgence, that felt part of the ritual celebrations of a challenging peak completed together. Amir said he had a good, peaceful lifestyle with the scenery and the fresh air. He valued being able meet people from other backgrounds.
“But I’ve seen those hills. This valley. This mountain. I want to see other stuff.”
This was The Himalayas. The ‘roof of world’. The setting sun was seeping through the window, creating long shadows. But for Amir, repetition had made the spectacular mundane.
“I want to see nice city, nice buildings of New York or London.”
Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, has its charms, but I could see the appeal in visiting a more pristine and varied city. Many Nepalese want to visit other places.
“But…” Amir shook his head. “It’s not easy to go.”
Do you want to go away if you could?
“I need to look after my parents, who need money for healthcare.” Most of the money Amir earned went on support for them in their two room flat in the south of Nepal.
For people like Amir, even if the money were magicked up, clients come on a whim. There is no fixed, protected holidays. Instead, he must duly offer up experiences that are novel to the flyby tourist but prosaic for him.
I wondered what I could offer, what kind of consolation I might be able to give. I could only gawk at the orange sunset and feel glad to be able to savour it still.
Standing by the road in a Romanian village near the Fagaras mountains, I was close to giving up with hitchhiking. But the distance to the nearest city of Brasov was way beyond walking.
There were a lack of cars going past and drivers didn’t even deign to glance at me, their eyes studiously fixed on the road ahead. I was increasingly mulling on resigning to a hefty taxi fee.
A taxi driver ended up taking me. An uber in fact. But not one on duty. He’d driven all the way from London, over 24 hours away. He was tired, having slept overnight in the back of the car at a motorway service station in Germany. He was on route back home to see his family for a few weeks in the summer. Driving was apparently more cost effective than public transport or flying
My ride seemed pleased to be going home. But it didn’t look like he had much of an option. He clearly liked the prospect of visiting other countries if he could afford to go. It’s more of obligation I suppose for immigrants, that where you do have free time and are able to afford it, you are meant to go back home.
It’s a blind spot of the human mind that we feel more empathy for those we feel more parallels to. But those encounters took on a new meaning in light of my own travel being restricted.
Some, with sombre responsibility, welcome international travel reducing after COVID restrictions are eased. It’ll be too risky and prohibitively expense anyway. More importantly though, for the sake of the environment, no more jet-setting is the right thing to do. Travelling is often portrayed as a suspicious indulgence, so its retirement should be accepted, like the settling down of a wild friend, rather than mourned. The privilege of travel may well be stripped away. But the idea of less travel, and it being permanently barred to those that want to do it but can’t in normal circumstances, seems a great shame.
Interactions with others open us up to new possibilities and new ways of thinking. It nurtures a virtue valuable across cultures: empathy. A news story for a fleeting week or two this summer was migrants or refugees attempting to enter the UK via the precarious crossing of the channel. I’d wager those who have visited countries less advantaged than our own are likely to feel more empathy for those refugees and their challenging circumstances, rather than see them as scrounging chancers.
It’s also a service to another country to visit. On a basic level, for the tourist economy. The impact of COVID on countries that rely on tourists heavily feels underreported and likely underappreciated. I dread to think how Nepal is faring.
On a different level, travelling to a country and singing its praises back home boosts its reputation. If people don’t visit and tell others about it, it’s often left to popular culture to recycle stereotypes. The example that often comes to mind is films like Taken portraying Albanians as nasty criminals when they are in fact incredibly friendly and live in a stunning country blessed with awe-inspiring mountains and unblemished coastline.
You don’t need to travel far to go deep of course; travel can be on your back doorstep. But there’s nothing quite like going to foreign lands and encountering a foreign culture, whether fleetingly or embedding yourself in it. “We read to know we are not alone”, wrote the playwright William Nicholson. In a similar way we travel to know we are not alone, to know our existence isn’t confined to the boundary we happen to be born into. That there are others we can relate to and connect to that don’t speak our language, that we can bond with even more perhaps than those in our country of birth.
I’d wager that the human yearning for travelling won’t be suppressed. To explore is a core part of what it is to be human, going back 100,000 when homo sapiens first left East Africa. A privilege can imply a responsibility to not take it for granted. Perhaps when and if travel recommences there’ll be a newfound appreciation of it. I hope too the likes of those I’ve met on the road might be more able to forge their own paths beyond their borders, as I have.