The Tao of Travel

Now that the holidays have abruptly come to an end I will have to content myself with some armchair travelling for the Autumn months ahead.
At the library today I was lucky to spot this in the new books section  : American travel writer Paul Theroux’s latest nonfiction book called “The Tao of Travel.”

It’s a collection of a few of Theroux‘s writings, as well as some of his favourite travel writings by other authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Bruce Chatwin and Ernest Hemingway.
I have only dipped into the titles of the various sections as yet but it is partly philosophical with a miscellany of lists and various reminiscences.

Some of the intriguing chapter titles include “The Contents of Some Travellers’ Bags,” “Writers Who Wrote About Places They Never Visited” and “Travel as an Ordeal.”

This is an extract from a review of the book titled The Importance of Elsewhere ( full article is at the end of this post) :

"Theroux’s aim, stated explicitly in it's lovely preface, is to show “in its approaches to travel, ways of living and thinking too.” 
Thus, the Tao, an ancient Chinese mystical “path” towards peace and freedom, becomes a metaphor for ways of undertaking both the spiritual and existential side of human life, which is to say, the “importance of elsewhere”.

As Chekhov once said, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry,” so too it might be said, if you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t undertake real travel. 

Swings on tree Helsinki park

And so we confront the first Tao of travel: Leave home and travel alone — admonitions modern tourists won’t countenance, considering that one Hilton Hotel is much like another, down to the sheets and the food, which is also to say that most modern tourism consists of staying at home from thousands of miles away. 

I know people who fly to the Caribbean in a jumbo jet and stay at a Holiday Inn, eat hamburgers and swim in the pool."


I love travelling since I have retired and hope that as long as I am fit and able that I can continue to do so because I am very aware that my rheumatoid arthritis will probably at some point prevent me from doing so in years to come.

This edited extract from this article and quote by one of my favourite travel writers Pico Iyer sums up more eloquently than I ever could some of the reasons why I appreciate it so much:

"We travel to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, "The Philosophy of Travel." 

We "need sometimes," the Harvard philosopher wrote, "to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.".....................

"Since travel is, in a sense, about the conspiracy of perception and imagination, the two great travel writers, for me, to whom I constantly return are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that "traveling is a fool's paradise," and the other who "traveled a good deal in Concord"). 

Both of them insist on the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. 

Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us." 
So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also -- Emerson and Thoreau remind us -- have to carry with us our sense of destination.

The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds we cross in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center.

Sunset Leaving St Petersburg from ship. 

And even as the world seems to grow more exhausted, our travels do not, and some of the finest travel books in recent years have been those that undertake a parallel journey, matching the physical steps of a pilgrimage with the metaphysical steps of a questioning (as in Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard"), or chronicling a trip to the farthest reaches of human strangeness (as in Oliver Sack's "Island of the Color-Blind," which features a journey not just to a remote atoll in the Pacific, but to a realm where people actually see light differently). 

The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.

So travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau with whom I began, wrote, "There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor." 

Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. 

And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end."

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