Why I travel
A recent column in the Mail & Guardian suggested a number of reasons why Afrikaners should travel more. These included, and mostly with reference to Europe, 1) to appreciate our (presumably good quality and inexpensive) meat, 2) to learn to be on time, 3) to rediscover our cultural roots, 4) to understand how language can bind people together, 5) to realise that one can have more than one cultural identity. Although I’m sure the column was well-intended (and was perhaps filled with some nostalgia after a few weeks away from home), there are simply too many generalisations to take it seriously: “Europe is essentially individualistic and the downfall of one individual or family rarely affects the rest of a community. Ask someone what the surname of their neighbour is and they would not be able to tell you.” Here’s my confession: I’ve lived in South Africa all my life and I cannot name one of my many neighbours’ surnames.
But the piece did get me thinking about why I travel. I am fortunate to travel relatively frequently, mostly to attend some economic history congress somewhere in Europe. I usually manage to take a day or two after a conference to see the sights. So, apart from attending conferences, why do I do it? I guess we all have our own reasons for travelling (and, I should add, ways of travelling), but I think it boils down to this:
Travelling is a conversation with yourself. It is a way to take stock, to reflect, to reassess, to change course. To adopt what is good and to discard the bad. Destinations become beacons – Uganda 2003, Utrecht 2010 – the value of which only become apparent much later in life. Travelling is a conversation with friends. About shared dreams and desires. About shared hopes and disappointments. About plans for the future. About the good old times. It is laughing together, fighting together, being-late-for-the-train together. It is about writing new stories – together (New York 2010). Travelling is also a conversation with strangers. Stef Bos, the Dutch-Afrikaans word maestro, sings: ‘Ek wil praat met ‘n vreemde om myself te verstaan’ (I want to chat with a stranger to understand myself.) Travel allows us to define who we are (Afrikaans? South African? African?). It is a way to define what we believe (in), and what we do not. Travelling forces us to confront our own prejudices and stereotypes. It is also about changing perceptions. (Nearly every South African travelling abroad will have a story about stranger’s ignorance about Africa. Mine was on a train with a Belgian student. She asked me where I was from. I said South Africa. She responded that her brother had been to North Africa. I said ‘South Africa’ is a country, not a region. And it’s about as far away from North Africa as Brussels is from Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. The remainder of the three hour journey was awkwardly quiet.)
Travelling is an education. Much like in Night at the Museum, it brings history alive: I would have known very little of the Moorish invasion of Spain had I not been to the Alhambra (Granada, Spain), or little of the devastating impact of communism had I not walked through the streets of Riga (Latvia). The slave trade and its many atrocities only fully manifests on a visit to Goreé, an island off the coast of Dakar (Senegal), and the plight of the early Christians is evident in the catacombs of Rome (Italy). Travelling is also about geography, of course: Where is is the origin of the Nile? (Answer: Jinja, Uganda. But don’t swim in those waters – I did, only to discover crocodiles on the opposite bank.) What is the highest mountain in Western Europe? (Answer: Mont Blanc, France. But don’t forget your gloves. Ever.) And it teaches ethics (should I pay the bribe?), arithmetic (try the 14 (English Pound), 25 (Hungarian Forint) or 55 (West African Franc) multiplication table to get to Rand), negotiation (‘Welcome to Istanbul. This is my lowest price.’ The best response: ‘Okay, let’s begin at half of that.’), and music (Who knew the Germans are stuck in the 80s?).
Travelling activates the senses. The smells of port in the Porto (Portugal) caves, of home-brewed beer in Talinn (Estonia), of meat on the braais in the Kgalagadi (South Africa), of gluhwein at the Christmas markets of Budapest (Hungary). The tastes of deep-dish pizzas in Chicago, of pastries in Holland, of chocolate cake in New York, of a brie and fig steak in a guest house next to Augrabies Falls (South Africa). The sounds of Mozart in Vienna (Austria), of the US national anthem (sung by the Chicago Gay Choir) before a baseball game at Wrigley Field (Chicago), ‘vergeet om niet uit te checken’ announcements on the Utrecht (Netherlands) buses, and of a vuvuzela at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (South Africa). And then there are the sights: The colours of Istanbul (Turkey), Maputo (Mozambique), of Sintra (Portugal) or Durban (South Africa). The breathtaking awe of cathedrals (Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste, Lyon), and mosques (Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul), and temples (Pantheon, Rome) or the tiny chapel in which I got married (McGregor, South Africa, pictured). The majestic beauty of elephants on the plains of the South Luangwa National Park (Zambia), or of a rhino in the Kruger Park (South Africa), or of polar and brown bears in Finland (pictured). And the epic landscapes of the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, or of Positano (Italy, pictured), or the Alps, or Lake Victoria just before landing at Entebbe (Uganda).
But, ultimately, travelling gives ‘home’ new meaning. It forces us to consider the possibility that our own (people, places – policitians?) are not unique, not different, not special. That we share all the vices and virtues with all of humanity: I’ve encountered sloth, pride (racism, sexism), and greed everywhere I’ve been. But I’ve also experienced the greatest patience, humility and charity. We all share a common ancestry, a common history, a common humanity and – the sooner we realise this the better – a common future.
Stef Bos also writes: ‘Ek wil reis rond die wêreld om huis toe te gaan’ (I want to journey around the world to go home). Not only should Afrikaners travel more. We should all travel more. Even if it is simply to meet our neighbours (next door or on another continent).
PS: At the start of this year, my wife and I started a travel blog in Afrikaans to document our journeys. We called it Grensloos (borderless). There are also numerous other sites, but if you want to be inspired to travel (and perhaps laugh and cry at the same time), watch this.