More often than not, when I informed people this summer that I would soon be leaving for Nepal, they asked me why. Why Nepal? Why leave Vermont? Why? After two years at Middlebury College, where travel, like exercise and flannel shirts, seems to be self-evident, I was taken aback. Why not, of course. To study to learn to adventure to explore to experience. Is that not reason enough? Nestled in the idyllic green mountains of Stowe, Vermont, where I lived and worked for the summer, I repeatedly encountered that most derisive of queries: why. I felt that inherent in that single word, whether spoken in earnest, in confusion or in horror, lay another, insistent question. Why travel?
For the first time, I sought to defend a passion whose worth I had always believed to be obvious. I travel because to read about the world is not enough. To know, to truly understand those places practices people beyond our immediate acquaintance, we must engage with them. As I see it, under the new demands of globalization we have an unprecedented responsibility to know the world that has been brought to our doorsteps. The “other” (a long-time favorite of social scientists and a frequent guest in my own academic essays) now routinely faces us from television sets, newspapers and computer screens, but our awareness halts there. The many “others” outside this insular, Western, American society approach closer and closer along with their worlds, and continued resistance to knowing them demonstrates a pigheaded denial. Cross-cultural learning, and ultimately understanding and tolerance, is not a choice, but a necessity. Travel, then, when feasible, is necessary as well.
Following the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight to India and statement that since the PLA’s arrival in Lhasa “the Tibetan government did not enjoy any measure of autonomy,” the New China News Agency criticized his “so-called statement,” responding that “Tibet’s political and religious systems were all laid down by the Central Government in Peking… In modern history the so-called Tibetan independence has always been a scheme of the British imperialists for carrying out aggression against China…” Such gross distortions of reality did and will proliferate under the influence of world powers like China. Statements such as these have and will become truth, picked up by media and parroted to the world. This new truth, once accepted by a group at large, becomes for all intents and purposes reality. Hegemony, in a word.
When I mentioned that unfortunately my itinerary would not include a stop in Tibet and someone responded, “Is that still around?” I witnessed the consequences of more than half a century of distortion and untruths. When, working as a waitress, I told a table about my upcoming trip and one woman said, “Nepal? Isn’t it all backwards over there?” I didn’t bother responding, but these incidents are why I believe in travel.
Do I travel, then, to combat hegemony and engender large-scale cross-cultural understanding? My goals are hardly so lofty. I travel to know and experience the world at an individual level. When I examine my motives, I find, underlying the basic urge to explore, the hope that in some small way I might approach this higher objective as well. My drive, however, remains personal: to study to learn to adventure to explore to experience. And yes,Why not?
**Many thanks to the beautiful, brilliant Emma Pask for listening to me when I first tried to articulate these thoughts, hopefully they’ve made some kind of progress since then.