I’m back from being three weeks away. Travel is a funny thing, primarily because it messes with your sense of space and time. No wonder the invention of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution changed notions of ‘a here, a there and elsewhere’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha, Travelers’ Tales) so radically.
The notion of travel, that is, actually packing up your bags and going somewhere, as opposed to commuting to work, say, entails a mild sense of uprooting, even if it were for a few days. What fascinates me is the condition of being ‘on the road’, the sense of being ‘en route’ somewhere. Travel agencies sell destinations, rarely the journeys themselves. What could they say? ‘Your very own cramped seat on a mind-numbingly long flight. Only £399!’ Not likely. They sell you the destination so that you won’t mind the tedium of getting there. TV travellers like Michael Palin make journeys seem exciting, adventurous, even fun, with the benefit of planning crews, film budgets and editing machines.
I am often impatient to get where I want, and get frustrated when trains are delayed, or resentful when connections are missed, so on this trip, I tried being aware at various stages of the state of being en route, in flight, on the way. At different points (usually when I remembered), I decided to try and experience actually being on the way, rather than trying to speed through it to some point in the future. So I began to notice mundane details like the pattern on the upholstery, the whirr of the engine and the cramp in my buttock. Occasionally (again when I remembered), I tried being aware of my breath. It wasn’t long before I started noticing the pleasures of travelling in spring — the daffodils by the roadside, the brighter days, the general feeling of going somewhere.
Returning home, however, entails a different kind of adjustment. A winding down and up again. A winding down from the travel buzz and a winding up again to the old rhythms of deadlines, appointments, even household chores, that my body seems to have forgotten. Maybe this awkward gear-shifting is what made Elizabeth Bishop wonder if it might have been easier to have stayed put in the first place.
From Questions of Travel
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
But no, that question could never even have been asked if one had never left at all.