What To Know Before You Go

What’s the point of travel? It’s to help make us into better people. It’s a sort of therapy. Without anything mystical being meant by this, all of us are, in one way or another, on what could be termed “an inner journey.” That is, we’re trying to develop in particular ways.

In a nutshell, the point of travel is to go to places that can help us in our inner evolution. The outer journey should assist us with the inner one. Every location in the world contains qualities that can support some kind of beneficial change inside a person. Take these 200 million year old stones in America’s Utah Desert.

It’s a place, but looked at psychologically. It’s also an inner destination, a place with perspective, free of preoccupation with the petty and the small-minded. Somewhere imbued with calm and resilience. Religions used to take travel much more seriously than we do now. For them, it was a therapeutic activity. In the Middle Ages, when there was something wrong with you, you were meant to head out for a pilgrimage to commune with relics of a saint or a member of the holy family.

If you had toothache, you’d go to Rome, to the Basilica of San Lorenzo and touch the arm bones of Saint Appolonia, the patron saint of teeth. If you were unhappily married, you might go to Umbria to touch the shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of marital problems. Or, if you were worried about lightning, you were sent to Bad Münstereifel in Germany to touch the skull of Saint Donatus, believed to offer help against fires and explosions. We no longer believe in the divine power of journeys but certain parts of the world still have a power to change and mend the wounded parts of us. In an ideal world, travel agencies would be manned by a new kind of psychotherapist.

They’d take care not just of the flights and the hotels, they’d start by finding out what was wrong with us and how we might want to change. The anxious might be sent to see the majestic, immemorial waves crashing into the cliffs on the west coast of Ireland. People a bit too concerned with being admired and famous might be sent to contemplate the ruins of Detroit. Someone out of touch with their body might be recommended a trip to Porto Seguro in Bahia in Brazil. Nowadays, too often, we head off without fully knowing what’s wrong with us or precisely understanding how our chosen destinations meant to help us.

We should become more conscious travellers on a well articulated search for qualities that places possess, like calm or perspective, sensuality or rigor. We should follow old-fashioned pilgrims in striving to evolve our characters according to the suggestions offered up by the places we’ve been to. We need to relearn how to be ambitious about travel, seeing it as a way of helping us to grow into better versions of ourselves.

You know, I have spent a third of my adult life living out of a suitcase. And looking back on those 30 years, four months every year of traveling, it occurs to me, it’s really clear that travel, thoughtful travel, is well worth the time and the money. And I’d like to take just a few minutes to explain to you why.

Travel opens us up to the wonders of our world. In so many ways, it helps you appreciate nature. I mean for me, a great day is walking high in the Swiss Alps, like tightroping on a ridge, on one side I’ve got lakes stretching all the way to Germany, on the other side the most incredible alpine panorama anywhere, the Eiger Mönch Jungfrau: cut glass peaks against that blue sky.

And ahead of me I hear the long legato tones of an alphorn announcing that the helicopter-stocked mountain hut is open, it’s just around the corner and the coffee schnapps is on. That connects you with nature, and that connects you with culture. And when I’m traveling I love this whole idea that travel connects us with culture. When I am traveling I find that there are different slices of culture that I never realized people could be evangelical about. Cheese, for instance. You go to France and they’re crazy about cheese! I like being a bumpkin in my travels. For me, cheese was always just orange and in the shape of the bread.

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