by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison
Durham: Duke University Press,
Hardcover, 168 pages
Travel, with its opportunities for hardships and exploits, is the crucible that forges the mythic hero across cultures.
Odysseus sailed across the wine dark sea to fight a war and then sailed back again to reclaim his wife and his kingdom. Along the way, he encountered a beguiling mix of exiles, monsters, and any number of fellow travelers all in various stages of their own journeys. The Odyssey is but one notable example of the ancient epics and myths that reverberate with motion. Travel, with its opportunities for hardships and exploits, is the crucible that forges the mythic hero across cultures. If myths decode our psyche into narrative coherence, then travel was and is embedded in our understanding of what it is to be human.
Today, we travel willingly, as vacationers, adventurers, explorers, and unwillingly, as immigrants, refugees, and exiles. We also travel as tourists, although many of us are loathe to identify as such. In their book, Reclaiming Travel, Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison query why and how we travel and when we cross that indefinable line into tourism.
Although the authors are themselves seasoned travelers, their book is decidedly not a memoir, but rather a wealthy and varied study of travel writers from Herodotus to Mark Twain, interspersed with a smattering of film and postmodern philosophy. In a series of chapters richly laden with anecdotes on map-making, photography, translation, and borders, Stevens and Ellison shepherd us through three thousand years of travel history. For much of this period, the vacation and its corollary, leisure, remained the exclusive privilege of the upper classes, as epitomized by the Grand Tour of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.(Now, as the authors humorously point out, the Grand Tour has transitioned into the semester abroad.)
A series of changes in the nineteenth century converged to open up travel to thousands of middle-class Europeans. Photographs enticed travelers to foreign locales, companies sold them round-trip tickets and directed them to friendly hotels, trans-continental railroads carried them across borders, and hand-held cameras allowed them to commemorate the whole experience.
The emergence of middle-class travelers also gave rise to the tourist—that uneasy specter that lurks inside all of us. Few people have kind words for tourists—Jamaica Kincaid wrote in her 1988 book, A Small Place, that “A tourist is an ugly human being”—although we may all differ as to how to define that elusive breed. Tourists, Stevens and Ellison suggest, yearn for authenticity, yet are neither willing nor capable of recognizing it, and in fact, they prefer a pre-packaged experience. The examples they consider range from the banal, such as the so-called “living history exhibits at museums, to the horrific, exemplified by the South African Emoya Hotel and Spa which allows tourists to live in a fabricated shanty town, complete with imported wild animals to roam the streets.
Most readers of Reclaiming Travel will shudder at such descriptions. Those tourists, we proclaim, could not be further from us–surely we think, react, and certainly travel with authenticity. But the authors ask us to consider how we can travel with authenticity when we can’t even live with it. They suggest that the false sensibilities of tourism mirror our entire pre-packaged virtual reality; both are kitschy simulacra of the real world. When we live our lives through Facebook and Google, when we cease to pursue lives of meaning, of adventure, and spontaneity, are we any better than tourists in our own lives?
“Meaningful travel begins at home.” Travel, unlike tourism, destabilizes the subject and the object. How can we do something as simple as get lost when our phones inform us and anyone else in our networks of our precise coordinates at all times?
Lest the book wax too didactic, Stavans and Ellison remind us that the travel they champion is but an ideal. The book allows for enough play that readers won’t feel scolded for their touristy pasts. At times, we all just need to stop in the airport shop and buy flag magnets for our co-workers. It is only when we live our entire lives without seeing, without examining our impact on the places we visit and their effects on us, that tourism can allow for cultural chauvinism, much as unchecked patriotism veers into nationalism. Stavans and Ellison invite us to aspire to be travelers, to lose our centers, to welcome surprise and the occasional discomfort, and to remember above all that “to reclaim travel is to reclaim the capacity to wonder.”
Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn
Stavans and Ellison invite us to aspire to be travelers, to lose our centers, to welcome surprise and the occasional discomfort, and to remember above all that ‘to reclaim travel is to reclaim the capacity to wonder.’