Join the dots and make a picture, win a major prize !
As the caption always read in the children’s comics puzzle page I used to love, I’m a great one for connections. Searching a page of scattered pinheads for patterns drove me crazy but the lure of the (never-won) prize was of less importance than the discovery of hidden forms. It’s hardly surprising that his has spilled over into a lifetime of travel, and I wonder how widely this affliction or condition is felt. Perhaps it’s a form of synaesthesia, where a person can hear a word that overwhelms them with colour, or may be able to see the wind passing.
People I’ve known have most certainly travelled specifically to see a particular thing, a painting, a mausoleum, a relative’s gravestone, the end of a continent. This feels very much like one of the original drivers of travel, that of the pilgrimage. A great deal of adrenaline-driven travel is highly focussed in this way, (the longest bungee jump, the steepest black run), as does the conspicuous consumption of passport stamps or rejections.
A co-travel blogger has written beautifully about the delights and discoveries on river cruises on for example, the Danube and the Volga, but with a nod to relatively recent history, they are very much set in the present. I would love to know how she herself felt about the horizons through which she travelled. I would have been telescoping in my mind through to the Viking riverboats carrying men and women abducted from European shores for sale into slavery, the holds packed with amber, furs and tusks of walrus or narwhal to trade in Constantinople (known to them as Micklegarth). Their return journey freighted down with silver Dirhams from Arab traders to exchange with the Sami, and carrying fine fabrics and perfumes to mask the noisome elemental odours of their own home lives.
Others are rather less discrete in their pursuits, hoping for immersion in an experience, usually but not always of other cultures, perhaps the sensations of a jostling colourful bazaar or the shared grime and ecstasy of a festival, the engaging quietude of an ashram or retreat, the feeling of common purpose in taking part in vigils or cleansing rituals, perhaps with thousands of others helping each other to realise dreams. It has to be said that there has inevitably been some sort of dilution of these experiences, perhaps through historical influences, perhaps through widening awareness as communications have transformed our worlds. These can be hard to relate to even close friends; ‘you had to be there . . ‘
I recall a telling moment of clarity at a Roman site in Morocco; by chance we had picked up an extra passenger on the ferry from Spain. It turned out he knew a vast amount about the occupation of this area, near Meknes, regarded as the bread-basket of the Maghreb. He gave my group an absorbing walk-through of the remains of Volubilis, most of which I had been unaware, the connections, changes through dynastic upheavals and climate, the range and volume of trade. I asked my younger brother (travelling with us), what he thought of the experience; a moment of reflection, then he said simply ‘You can hardly expect me to be impressed by something requiring slavery to build it.’ Things lost in translation.
And yet, our inner interpretations will often lead us to perhaps the most romantic of reasons for travel, that of abandonment; of leaving behind hidebound preconceptions and expectations to discover, without fear or favour, what we can about the relations between our external experiences and (as far as we can), our deepest emotions and intellect. These are the hardest to share and the impact may only ever be seen in the eyes. This, to me is where we join the dots. . . . .
‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes’ – Marcel Proust 1871-1922 French writer
As one converted to the scientific method and discipline, I find the idea of experimental design especially helpful to describe where I am heading here. A properly set up experiment really has no expected outcome (that’s just in the mind of observers). The experimenter should be noting exactly and simply what happens when . . .
In this sense I would encourage any traveller to play a little game with themselves anytime they go to a new place; try and find out by imagination or enquiry whatever connections of any sort that may exist between this place and the last place you went to. It’s a version of the ‘six degrees of separation’ !
I cannot, in all honesty promise any degree of success, revelation, pleasure or pain, but it will make you very much more aware of where you are now. My very favourite writer, Barry Lopez, recounted the experience in a short paragraph from Arctic Dreams I include here by way of example. It probably needs reading more than once.