What is Travel?


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In the last few years, I have enjoyed travel for its limbo-quality, the sense of being suspended from my own existence, my obligations and my ties with what we call home. Travel, then, creates a sense of freedom (albeit false) where physical and personal borders and boundaries no longer seem to matter. But travel is also an intrinsic part of the human condition (most of us started out as nomads) and without it we cannot properly develop, change or progress.

Last weekend, I was cleaning out our bookcase to donate some books from our book-lined little house in Orinda and the beauty of going past the shelves is finding books you forgot you had. One of them was by the Dutch author Albert Helman who, in the 1920s, traveled across North Africa with my great-uncle, the painter Gerard Huijsser. Helman’s lyrical prose has dated somewhat, but his observations on travel were a pure gem in that they made me see that homesickness is not a longing for home but is in fact a (home)sickness and yearning for travel, for not to travel is to stand still, deny ourselves happiness and become stagnant. As far as I know, not much of Helman’s work has appeared in (English) translation, which is why I have translated and edited some of the more compelling passages here:

Traveling is the earthly projection of thinking, which is our most angelic act. […] Food and drink are our most intimate communication with the world outside of us but travel provides a more engaged communication, i.e. to approach things with our five senses and not with our blood. […]

The key of all travel is to let go of all our points of reference, or rather the letting go of our familiar points of reference [while travel’s] essence, joy and sorrow is our wandering about in search of a closed paradise. We seek frantically after that one road that still might have access. We may see many roads, but are never fatigued.

Sometimes, a strange scent will waft across the walls from the yellowing petals of paradise: sometimes we even smell the sweet voluptuousness of its maturing fruits. Above its walls, a gray mist hovers with a mirage of its gardens. We come closer: aren’t those the voices of angels, humming in a distant arbor? But the gate is nowhere to be found. Deceptively, the road will take us to a dark desert. Travel becomes the hasty walk through a labyrinth and sometimes we return to the same place where we were before which means there is no end or beginning to traveling. When returning to a familiar spot we may rejoice for thinking that travel will begin anew and this time, surely, we must be able to find the road to paradise. […]

[If we do] chance upon a city, we may think: herein happiness must be confined; behind this old wall, in this dark but friendly home. But travel on we must, with speed, while merely remembering the strange happiness that was palpable in the streets when we moved through the city because once we remain inside this happiness, we develop great homesickness for travel which means we may never be cured of our inclination to travel. […]

Travel is the story you make yourself, that you create while you’re telling it. Whether you do that with cold-blooded analysis or untamed fantasy, there is always a desire for adventure. It’s something very complicated and subtle in a human being for it’s the desire to marvel at oneself. Travel is to take the immutable self and expose it to strange circumstances so that in the end, you hardly recognize yourself. And this new view of ourselves is the marvel and joy of adventure. In order to know ourselves, we must change our milieu by a form of traveling. Travel doesn’t require space or distance (for soon the world would be too small!) but all that’s needed is change and mutability […] in ourselves, [and so] the history of mankind [becomes] the history of travel.

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