Travel

For most of last week I was in Rome. This was the first time I have ever been to Italy. In spite of my love of everything ancient, the Romans have never been a culture that has appealed to me. Nevertheless, I am fully aware of just how much we are still in their shadow… and so it would be strange indeed not to wish to visit the Eternal City.

What with global warming, never mind the cost of travel, I am conflicted whenever I become a tourist – especially as I have found that travel can ‘narrow the mind’… I suppose I should explain what I mean by this. The notion that travel “broadens the mind” relates, it seems to me, to a period before TV (and certainly before the internet). A time when what people knew about the world was often distorted through their own ‘cultural lens’… not just a sort of game of Chinese whispers, but actual prejudice: the ‘other’ worshipped wrongly, or, worse, worshipped entirely the wrong gods. They ate strange (probably disgusting) food. They had dubious morality or the wrong colour of skin. This ‘lens’ distorted not only the present, but also the past. All you have to do is consider Hollywood epics (more recent ones are now attempting some reflection of the truth) to see what an entirely fantastic confection of history these present… In this context, and in contrast to it, of course travel “broadened the mind” – how could it not?
Things have changed. For most of us, the ‘other’ is living among us. We eat their food and, as the conviction in our own religions falters, their beliefs often seem just as plausible as (perhaps even more so than) our own. Our TV screens let us see the rest of the world in ever increasing detail and clarity. From the comfort of our homes we can peer at the most exotic creatures, anywhere, at any scale, watching the most intimate aspects of their lives. Not for us the dodgy dolphins of the Renaissance; or Dürer’s rhino… We’ve seen the real beasts!
Now, like you, I’ve seen most every famous ancient ruin many times… close up… without the crowds… with some elegantly informative voice-over… on TV. When you have only heard rumours or legends of a ruin, then standing in front of it must be quite some experience… When you have seen it exquisitely presented in a documentary, standing in front of it can often be a let down… I found this with Angkor Wat, with the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, with the Pyramids, for frot’s sake!!! Crawling with tourists and locals trying to sell you tat, embedded in some modern suburb of just another city; any ancient ruin can easily be an anti-climax. My point being that the images you have in your mind of these places might well be ‘better’ than the real thing.
You may now be able to understand something of my reaction to wandering around Rome. Of course it is spectacular, beautiful – but less so than I had expected. The Pantheon was amazing – because it is NOT a ruin, and thus, when you are in it, you may as well be in ancient Rome. It is, besides, a stunning space that can bear comparison with any other I have ever been in. The Colosseum I found impressive – once in it, you are cut off from the rest of the world. The Basilica of St. Peter seemed to me rather vulgar… intended entirely to overpower and to demonstrate wealth… a LOT of wealth! But in the tide of tourists, the building had as much sanctity as a mall… The Vatican Museum, on the other hand, was breathtaking. Of course, the experience of moving through it is also entirely designed to impress on the visitor the mind-boggling wealth of the Popes and the glory and sheer antiquity of the Catholic Church. It is, besides, a befuddling sequence of corridors and courtyards stuffed full of the most exquisite treasures – it felt like a dream.
But then Rome is just another modern city and the culture of its people hardly distinguishable from my own… so that I was left wondering what was the point of using so much fossil fuel to get me there… The ever increasing sophistication of transmission technologies allow us to ‘telepresence’ – to be in Rome virtually – any Rome, not just today’s, but yesterday’s… Strangely, I feel that I can better justify to myself travelling further afield – because, at least, there is a chance of meeting something, someone that is genuinely ‘other’… though, with every passing year this ‘otherness’ is slipping away.

10 thoughts on “Travel

  1. I don’t know… Standing at the actual sites can give you an added sense of reality… For instance, we were very happy to visit the ancient Irish ruins recently, and we are frequent visitors of Carrickfergus Castle – a picture in a book just doesn’t convey the same. They’re different ‘media’.

    Things having fallen into ruin not necessarily hinder the experience – it’s an extra ‘layer’ if you will, the layer of time. Also, a site can be enjoyed for its beauty alone, apart from whatever historical significance.

    Obviously, the layer THEN added, of antey tourist, souvenir shops, etc, are fogging the above perception. But be aware that there are many sites that don’t always have them, or not at all!

    As for the Chinese whispers – I would argue that they can have a charm all by themselves – perhaps the real Orient (to name an example) can never live up to the Orient of the old tales, historically inaccurate as those stories may be. Same with the Rhino – Durer’s beast was truly a miracle beast, an animal to dream about, to warn your children against (“There be Monsters!”), while seeing the thing in the zoo can be a bit underwhelming.

    I just contradicted myself, didn’t I?…

    1. Firstly, I wasn’t talking about pictures in books… but, rather, film… and HD film at that… Secondly, your Carrickfergus Castle is, I believe, not a ruin… and thus more comparable to my Pantheon… I wasn’t denying the romance of ruins… merely how they can sometimes actually work against imagining what they were like when they were in use: that the ‘reality’ of a ruin easily overcomes attempts to imagine it as it was – especially if you’re being harried by tourists and touts… The sites that don’t have these two distractions are generally not the great ones (such as Angkor Wat) that are glamorous enough to draw people to them from thousands of miles away…

      *grin* I do tend to think that you do contradict yourself at the end… though I agree: the fantastic creations of ignorance are much to be missed (recently saw someone talking about a belief, held until quite recently, that the Alps were filled with dragons!) – though, in truth, reality is not actually that prosaic…

  2. Oh, I do agree to a certain extent…

    But the reality of a place, in 3D, within its context, can never be fully surplanted by television, film (HD or not). There’s the scale, the dimensions, the colours, the way it interacts with the sun and clouds, the smells…

    As I stated, tourists and touts do tend to mar this, but I find that to actually visit a monument, whether it’s a ruin or not (and believe me, Carrickfergus castle isn’t complete), is worth a lot.

    It’s like the Internet… You can really, really know someone through the internet, spend years emailing and IMming… But one still has to meet in person to find out whether there’s love or merely friendship.

    …And there’s of course that story of the shipwrecked monkey in the 18th Century, which was tried and hung as a French spy………….

    1. notwithstanding the monkey tried for being a French spy *wide grin* – that is a perfect case of how travel in those times WOULD broaden the mind – my point is exactly the same as yours… While I agree with you with respect to the person you meet on the internet, I disagree with you concerning ruins – and for the same reason: in the former what you want to know is the person; in the latter what you seek is how the ruin was in its heyday… (though, of course, you might be interested in the ruin AS a ruin…) In both cases it is the overpowering sensory experience of being present that makes you fully aware of the person or ruin as it IS…

  3. But it DOES offer certain clues as to how it HAS been, which television just does not give.
    Take the pyramids. They might be missing their cover stones, but does telly give an impression of how magnificent and big they actually are, that standing at the foot of an actual pyramid would give?
    I think it’s easier to imagine away some tourists, extrapolate a smooth finish, than it is to look at the small screen and get the sense of scale. Also, I would think that you would also not get the smell of camels, the feeling of sand between your toes, on television (HD or not).
    Of course, books and reconstructions etc will be a good aid in making that extrapolation and that imagining.

    1. Perhaps it’s just the way my imagination works. I have been thinking about the Pyramids since I was a child… so that when I approached it in reality (admittedly, at the age of 22 when I was somewhat preoccupied with my hormones), it just seemed like a hill… The Pyramids are in a class of their own: they’re so immense that the mind moves them from the category ‘building’ to the category ‘landscape’… In Egypt, my greatest disappointment was with the great hypostyle hall in the Temple of Karnak. This was another place I had been reading about all my life. I was actually standing in it, and looking for it – the reason being that I had imagined the columns to be so much MORE massive… The issue is, I feel, that we are accustomed to buildings on a scale that the Ancients (barring the Pyramid, as already mentioned) could barely imagine… The critical thing about Karnak, for example, is just how massive it was at the time it was built. To actually even ‘approach’ that mindset, one has to use one’s imagination. Confronted by the reality of Karnak, the imagination is overwhelmed by the ‘realness’… and so the real Karnak is decidedly inferior to the Karnak in my mind’s eye…

  4. I think I’ll quote you from now: ‘travelling narrows the mind’. A great revision for the 21st Century. It describes how I feel about the travel fad now – how many people go to a place to take a photo in front of it, and contribute to ruining the atmosphere because they couldn’t care less about anything else other than proving they had been there (not even that they had properly seen the thing). More sadly, the brief encounter that these tourists have become their point of justifying a narrow view when they return home. Ironically, it seems to have replaced the old ‘cultural lense’/propaganda/bias phenomenon.

    On another note, while I agree with the disappointment that often comes with seeing a ruin in reality now that HD Discovery or BBC has a much closer look without the horrendous crowds, I think it also works vice versa in that many ruins or relics of the past that are skipped over can be absolutely breathtaking. My family and I experienced a similarly disappointing encounter with a shrine in Nara, Japan that was one of the highlights after walking for quite a while through the deer park: it was cheeply redone and its being among the ancient Shinto lanterns made of stone all over simply highlighted how badly it stuck out as a (small, but irritating) eyesore. Ironically, the stone lanterns actually mesmerized me much more as they lead our way through the huge park. It was like walking back in time, and it wasn’t difficult to feel the spirituality when they lit up at night, flickering silently amidst the darkness. As we wandered our way through the rest of the park, we came across many other temples and shrines. The best one is not found on most of the websites, is free, and has a spectacular view of the city and great original props. The Todaji temple that most people go to – surprisingly – was impressive enough to withstand the hordes of tourists.

    An even more impressive find was in a local little street in Fukuoka, in the south of Japan, when we stumbled upon what we thought was just a little local shrine. It turned out to be the main shrine that held all the festival props and carriages – hand made of gold. There was almost no one there, since the locals have likely seen it every year with every festival, and the tourists aren’t aware of it’s existance.

    1. I couldn’t agree more about the tourists who insist on squinting at their holiday location through the lens of a camera…! It’s as if they’re afraid to see anything with their ‘naked eyes’… Your point about it replacing the “cultural lense” is an excellent one… Your fascinating experiences in Japan resonate with mine elsewhere… you’ve evoked it very well…

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