Essay

Nomadic tendencies

ON MY THIRTIETH birthday – a while ago – a friend showed me a cartoon parody of a high-school reunion. It depicted a group of thirtysomethings reuniting two decades after graduation. One of them boasted, 'I have a secure job, a spouse and a good retirement plan. What about you?' The person next to him answered, 'I climbed the peaks of the Andes, lived with the indigenous community in the Amazon, and photographed a pride of lions for National Geographic.' I was aware this was only an exaggerated parody of life-choices and their consequences, but I also instinctively knew which choice I had already made. Since I can remember, I have wanted to travel. I was born in communist Poland where little travel was possible, yet I spent hours reading books about faraway lands, dreaming that one day I would visit them. My uncle was a sailor and I worshipped him. He was a mysterious and adventurous figure, removed from the mundane normalities of life. In my imagination I saw him visiting islands that looked like pearls scattered on the crossroads of the oceans. His room was always locked and I imagined the treasures that must have been hidden there. Since then I have lived, worked, studied and travelled extensively in both Americas, the Caribbean Islands, Asia, the Middle East and Australia. Even now, having settled in Melbourne, I am still guilty of nomadic tendencies. It is not just a love of experiencing new places that drives me. It is an inner impulse irresistible in its power; an intuitive knowledge that travel is the key to who we are.

It was not until I entered academia, first as a student, then as a lecturer, that I learned of the fashionable assumption that wanderlust is a modern invention. Undoubtedly, new technological advances in transportation and information technology have helped us to move around with greater efficiency and speed and to more easily visit faraway places. Not only do more of us travel, but even more people would like to participate in the great movement of people and capital. Terms such as 'global nomads' and 'ethnoscapes' have a stronger presence in our lives than a decade ago. And although I admit this is true, I also believe that the desire to travel is as ancient as human imagination. Human beings have always loved to move from place to place. Irreverent as it might sound, wanderlust is not a modern invention or, as some would have it, a modern malaise. It is a natural state of being for us. In our hearts, we have always been nomadic.

The first time I came across a theory for our nomadic tendencies was while reading Bruce Chatwin, a charismatic traveller and writer. Travel and writing about his journeys were the main themes of his life, and more than once he quit prestigious jobs to satisfy his lust for wandering. As a young man, he left his position as the director at Sotheby's in London to live among the nomads in Africa. A few years later, when employed as an art critic at The Sunday Times, he suddenly disappeared, leaving a telegram for his employers, 'Gone to Patagonia. Back in six months.' The text of the telegram is now legendary among Chatwin aficionados, even if not necessarily verifiable. His ideas of what he called 'the nomadic alternative' were first mentioned in his book In Patagonia (1977)[i] and later elaborated on in The Songlines (1986)[ii], a poetic travel book about Australia.

According to Chatwin, even in its earliest stages human society was divided into 'nomads' and 'settlers'. The first clusters of settlers, Chatwin argues, were not a sign of our progress, but rather a tragic turn of events; a choice that for a time took our civilisation in the wrong direction. Settlers have always had different priorities and sets of values than those of nomads. The settlers valued stability and the accumulation of goods. In fact, it is the desire to accumulate that forced early societies to settle down in a particular place. How could they continue moving when they carried more and more baggage? Every traveller knows the dangers of excessive baggage. The nomads, on the other hand, valued their freedom above all. They provided for their needs on the move, carrying with them only that which was necessary and did not impede their movement. In The Songlines, Chatwin traces the threads of the human need for movement and concludes that wanderlust is a primal instinct, irreversibly connected to the search for our origins and the answer to the question, 'Where do we come from?'

The answer, according to Chatwin, is found in excerpts from a collection of his notebooks included in the middle section of The Songlines, filled with quotations from Baudelaire, Pascal, the Desert Fathers (early Christian Saints), the Hindus, Taoists, plus Sufi and Aboriginal wisdom from around the world. Here Chatwin agrees with Baudelaire that it is not homeliness which is our natural state, but rather its opposite, la grande maladie de l'horreur du domicile or 'the horror of domesticity'[iii]. Never one to be accused of a lack of desire for controversy, Chatwin proclaimed that 'psychiatrists, politicians and tyrants' want to convince us that 'the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour, a form of neurosis', forgetting one 'universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe'[iv].

Now Chatwin was no stranger to embellishing facts and scholarly research with a healthy dose of his artistic imagination. This was partly why his books have proved so popular. However, it would be unintelligent to deny a poetic truth simply because it requires a radical departure in imagination from accepted wisdom. Even in ancient times, the call for adventure, which always required leaving home and extensive travel, was explored in great myths that helped to shape cultures from around the world. Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)[v], analysed stages in heroic journeys as part of ancient myths from around the world. The first requirement for each journey's protagonist(s), regardless of their geographical or cultural origins, has always been the 'call to adventure'. This 'call' is often heralded by an encounter with an unusual creature or a mysterious place which challenges and fascinates the protagonists and, ultimately, prompts them to undertake an adventure away from home and familiar settings. The movement away from home and the call for adventure in faraway lands is always the same, irrespective of whether the protagonist is a hero of the Greek myths, such as Odysseus or his son Telemachus from the Odyssey, Jason of the Argonauts, or an Arapaho girl from Native American legends.

 

IN WESTERN TRADITION, testimonies of the urge to travel are found in early examples of travel writing and the transcriptions of ancient graffiti. Paul Fussell, the editor of the Norton Book of Travel (1987), quotes an ancient Greek graffito from the Egyptian pyramids in the Valley of the Kings: 'I, Palladius of Hermopolis...saw (this) and was amazed', followed by the exclamation, 'Unique! Unique! Unique!'[vi] Fussell claims that the Egyptian Valley of the Kings attracted curious travellers as early as 1600 BC[vii]. Ancient wayfarers undertook their journeys in an era when ships had no schedules; they had to sail whenever the ships happened to be ready. Alternatively, they travelled by land, on foot or on donkeys, where, highway robbers aside, 'demons, monsters, devils'[viii] were considered the major obstacles in the ancient and medieval imagination. As people began to travel, the phenomenon of the first travel writers also occurred. As early as the fifth century BC, Herodotus travelled around the southern Mediterranean Sea and wrote extensively on the history and customs of the people he visited. Strabo, in the early first century AD, wrote his famous Geographica based on his travels around Europe, North Africa and Asia. Like Herodotus before him, Strabo wrote from his own experiences of places he visited and compared them with the accounts of earlier travellers. Ancient travel writers had a flair for mythology and a good story, without making clear distinctions between history and imagination. They directed travellers to places of mythological significance, but located them in precise geographical locations. For example, Strabo espoused different theories on the geographical location of the Amazons, the tribe of women warriors: 'The Amazons are said to live among the mountains above Albania. Theophanes...who was in the country of the Albanians says...that the river Mermadalis takes its course through the country lying in the middle between these people and the Amazons. But other writers...say that the Amazons bordered...upon the foot of the Caucasian mountains[ix]...About a hundred years later, in the second century AD, Pausanias wrote the first travel guide book for Romans travelling to visit Greece. The guide explained where to go and what was worth seeing in each place, and gave a detailed account of the historical and mythical significance of the sights in Greek culture and even suggested places to buy antiques and works of fine art[x].

The Middle Ages was also a time of great travel and is often unfairly referred to as the 'dark ages'. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 AD (and with it the ancient world), the age of pilgrimages began with the birth of Christendom. And some of the first medieval traveller-pilgrims were women. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, began her famous travels to the Holy Land at the age of eighty. She went to the Holy Land in search of places and relics associated with Jesus and, almost singlehandedly, began the fever for travelling to the Holy Land. By the fourteenth century, there were many pilgrimage destinations in Europe (the most famous among them being Santiago de Compostela in Spain) and the Holy Land. Routes and tour packages by land and by sea were carefully planned out, with different pricing for the various travelling social classes – from mendicant pilgrims, to middle-class women, aristocrats and knights. There also was a thriving business in souvenirs and faux relics sold regularly to the more naive travellers. And although we might easily assume that all of them were pious pilgrims hoping for a quick trip to heaven, historical and literary sources tell us otherwise. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from the Middle Ages is full of stories of misbehaving pilgrims who chose pilgrimage as a path to frivolous adventures rather than salvation. Women often chose pilgrimage as an escape from marital duties and the only legitimate excuse for travel and adventure. Margery Kempe is one example. She was an English housewife from the fourteenth century who announced to her husband that she was going to travel to holy places both in Europe and the Holy Land. Pilgrimage automatically freed her from domestic and marital duties for the period of her travels. Indeed, this was about the best way to travel for a woman, as it was sanctioned by the all-powerful Church. There are many other examples of medieval women travellers, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (twelfth century) and Birgitta of Sweden (fourteenth century), who used pilgrimage as a means of travel, personal empowerment and to satisfy their wanderlust.

About the same time as Europeans began travelling to the Holy Land in large numbers, a great Chinese fleet of seven flotillas was exploring the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Sultanate of Ormuz under the command of admiral Cheng Ho. All of these expeditions took place some time before the voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan, and a long time before the Grand Tour of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when more middle and upper-class travellers journeyed around Europe and the Middle East at a time when it was already widely believed that travel expanded our horizons, both inside and out.

 

THE DESIRE FOR travel, exploration, and what Chatwin would call our nomadic nature, are periodically questioned. As more people travel and the tourist industry blooms with cheap airfares and tour packages, critics see it as a new form of imperialism where people from First-World countries invade their poorer neighbours in search of the comfortable exotic; that is, the desire to encounter something new and exciting, but in a comfortable and predictable way. Since the mid-1940s there has been plenty of literature on the universal homogenisation, or even 'McDonaldisation' of culture, where every place around the world looks exactly the same as any other, demented by the needs of tourists, pollution and the commercialisation of travel experiences. As early as 1955, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in his Tristes Tropiques, 'Mankind has opted for monoculture...The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth.'[xi] More recent travel writing provides many examples of the disenchanted traveller, starting with Evelyn Waugh and reaching a sardonic climax with Paul Theroux. These works belong to that long line of bored, if not privileged, westerners annoyed that the 'exotic' is not as enchanting for them as it was for their colonial predecessors.

Yet, in many ways, even disenchanted travellers are journeying on a quest for something that will move them in the direction of an authentic experience. This quest for authenticity may or may not be successful depending on how we 'construct' our experience. If travellers are responsible for constructing their own experiences, as McConnell suggests, then it is not any one particular place which gives us the opportunity to experience authenticity, but the process of travel itself – the necessary removal of ourselves from familiar surroundings and people – that creates the shift. Travel helps us to answer the question who am I? One of the most meaningful answers to this question came to me during my visit to Ernest Hemingway's house – Finca Vigia, outside of Havana. As I rushed through the rooms of the house, among a hundred other people, and looked at the little details of Hemingway's life, a tiny bookshelf next to a toilet seat, a full set of works by Turgenev on a chair next to his bed, his typewriter on the desk, I had the clear realisation that writing, not an academic career, was my priority. That what kept me at academia was mostly the desire for status and financial comfort and that it was time to let that go. Yes, the place was full of tourists. Yes, it was completely commercialised. The guides rushed everyone through the house to allow room for more tourists arriving on tour buses. Had I been looking for the seclusion that Hemingway had found there as he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, it would have proved impossible. But it was not the point. My determination to travel across the world to visit his house, reminded me why I had wanted to come there in the first place – to reinstate my intention to be a writer. It gave me the chance to have a glimpse at my authentic self – the writer lost in the life of ambition and career.

The motives of travellers have always been questioned – was it pure wanderlust that drove them, or the desire to gain new territories and resources? The question of motives is always a difficult one and the answer, I believe, largely depends on the individual travellers and historical discourses of their times. The grand migrations of people throughout history were often prompted by the search for land and resources. Did the medieval pilgrims travel only for the religious experience, or was it also out of a wish to see and know the world that drove them? Were the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries nothing more than greedy colonialists, or did they carry in them the same desire to encounter the new through travel? What is more interesting here is that the impulse to travel, to explore, was the inherent human characteristic. It was a valid choice that many took long before modernity was on the horizon. And, like all life choices, this choice required acceptance of its consequences. One of the consequences was, and is, the re-appearance of the question of 'home'. This question has come up a few times in my life, but mostly as an inquiry from strangers rather than my own concern. Only once have I witnessed another person who was asked the same question. I was travelling in Sri Lanka, sharing a small van with four backpackers on the way from Colombo to Kandi. A mature French woman was telling a young backpacker she had been on the road for the last ten years and loving it. 'So where's home?' the young Norwegian asked her. 'Home is where I am,' answered the woman, and I knew exactly what she meant. Over the last few decades scholars have debated the idea of home in the context of global movements. In search of new definitions, Macgregor, Wise[xii], Geyer[xiii] and Shapiro[xiv] provide a refreshing (if provocative) means for exploring the meaning of home. They distinguish between 'home' and 'the home'. The home is a space of human interrelations, but home is 'the creation of a space of comfort'. In this sense, the home is an external, social phenomenon. No choice is involved. One is simply born there. Home, on the other hand, is more of an inner process, a sense of comfort, a sense of belonging. Home defines an inner belonging to a particular 'space of comfort' which may or may not be our place of birth. One may be born into a particular space and only later choose it as one's space of belonging. In this case, the original space and chosen space are the same. By the same token, a person may leave the original space to choose a more comforting one. My comfort zone is an internal, rather than an external, space. I experience home as a dance of polarities between 'here' and 'there'; changing my external environment renews my sense of home within me. Home for me is not an externally tangible place or a particular piece of land. It is more the internal space I carry within me wherever I go.

 

THERE ARE OTHER, slightly less philosophical, consequences of my nomadic tendencies that I have also recently experienced. It must have been about the time I travelled to Kandi, when I contracted my very special consequence. Mind you, I didn't know about it until last month, when my doctor told me I have an extremely rare condition for a westerner – an exotic amoeba in my intestines that normally lives in the soils of remote regions in Africa and Asia. The doctor was apologetic – he had a diagnosis but no medication. The condition is so rare that only two pharmaceutical companies produce the medication: one in Syria and the other in Britain. It could take months to obtain the medicine, he told me, and promised to go through all the right channels. As for me, I was strangely accepting of my condition – the amoeba was testimony to my nomadic lifestyle. I had joined the Pantheon of Travellers. As for obtaining the medication, I used a traveller's global resources. I called a friend in France who has a cousin pharmacist in Poland, whose high school friend (also a pharmacist) married an Australian man recently and was soon going to travel to Sydney. That married friend had a brother, who was a doctor in London, and agreed to write a new prescription so I could buy the medication there. Luckily, he was going to Poland anyway to see his sister before she travelled to Sydney, and so he gave her the medication I needed. Sometime soon, this month hopefully, I will be flying to Sydney. If this is not a triumph of our nomadic tendencies, then I don't know what is. In the meantime, my sedentary doctor is still looking for ways to obtain the right medication from overseas through the proper administrative channels.

 


References

[i]
Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (New York: Penguin, 1988).

[ii] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (London: Vintage, 2005).

[iii] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (London: Vintage, 2005), p. 163.

[iv] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (London: Vintage, 2005), p. 178.

[v] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p.49.

[vi] Paul Fussell, The Norton Book of Travel (Norton & Company 1987), p. 23.

[vii] Paul Fussell, The Norton Book of Travel (Norton & Company 1987), p. 23.

[viii] Paul Fussell, The Norton Book of Travel (Norton & Company 1987), p. 22.

[ix] Strabo, "Geographica'in The Norton Book of Travel, ed. Paul Fussell, (Norton & Company 1987), pp. 44-45.

[x] Pausanias, 'Guide to Greece'in The Norton Book of Travel, ed. Paul Fussell, (Norton & Company 1987), p. 48.

[xi] Claude Levi-Strauss, 'Tristes Tropiques' in The Norton Book of Travel, ed. Paul Fussell, (Norton & Company 1987), p. 777.

[xii] J. Macgregor Wise, "Home: territory and identity", Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (2000), pp.295-310.

[xiii] F. Geyer, Alienation, Ethnicity, and Postmodernism, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995).

[xiv] M.J. Shapiro, Reading the Postmodern Polity, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

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