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What Is Travel? And What Is a Traveler?

by Scott Hartman May 13, 2016

“There are atoms and empty space. Everything else is opinion.”
-Democritus of Abdera

Travel is kind of like Life, except it happens someplace else. You wake up. You eat. You go out and see things, do things. And you meet people; some of them you get along with, some you don’t. Then you eat again and go to sleep.

‘Travel’ and ‘traveler,’ are there any more ambiguous words in the English language? Maybe ‘love.’ Ask one hundred people what ‘travel’ is, what a ‘traveler’ is, and I’m guessing we’d get about one hundred different answers for each. Travel and traveler aren’t so much words as they are patterns, abstractions, audio Rorschach Tests.

‘Travel’ and ‘traveler’ are a little fuzzier, spectrum disorders, prone to bouts of subjectivity.

What is travel? And what is a traveler?

While traveling around China for three months in 1985, I met a young Japanese man in Urumqi. We were chosen to room together by the management of our hotel, for no other reason than we weren’t Chinese. Though he spoke little English, I got enough out of him to know that he was traveling because when he returned home, he’d go to work, non-stop, for the rest of his life (metaphor was not in his vocabulary, I took his words to be the literal truth).

He was in Urumqi, not necessarily to see anything but to apply for another month on his Visa. Like all of us in China at that time, we got three months, period. I was there when he got his fourth month. He was elated.

Is that travel? Is he a traveler?

I think some background might be in order, my background, the source of these words. The source is important; not necessarily as gospel, or capital “T” Truth, but we have to start somewhere.

I was weaned on National Geographic and came to travel and travel writing through a backdoor: adventure travel. It was travel, certainly, but mainly because the peak being climbed or the river being explored was in another country. Most of these travelers had less interest in the culture or people, other than what they could carry for them, than they had in the mountain or the river.

Then I found Alexandra David-Neel, Wilfred Thesiger, and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, among others. Though adventure — physical adventure — was still a part of their mix, they leaned more to culture, more to people than things. Through them I began to define travel for myself.

But, what is travel? What is a traveler?

On the bus from Reykjavik airport into the city I met a woman I’d first noticed while waiting to board at La Guardia. She was, in fact, almost impossible not to notice. She was tall, statuesque in a Winged Victory of Samothrace sort of way, except that she had both arms and was wearing a spandex leopard-skin body suit. She was also wearing a boa around her neck; not a boa constrictor (though that wouldn’t have surprised me) but one of those silly-frilly boas, all fluff, no substance.

I was surprised when she got off the plane in Reykjavik; I’d imagined her continuing on to Luxembourg, a place better suited for spandex and boas. As we were the only two on the bus, I hauled my pack up to the seat next to her and, after the formalities, asked: What are you doinghere? She was in Iceland, she told me, for two reasons: “to party, and, to marry a Viking.” (For those interested, she got one but not the other.)

Is that travel? Is she a traveler?

Matador is, ostensibly, a travel site, frequented by travelers and composed of travel writing, travel photography, and travel video. ‘Writing,’ ‘photography,’ and ‘video’ are clear to me; they are objective. ‘Travel’ and ‘traveler’ are a little fuzzier, spectrum disorders, prone to bouts of subjectivity. (Note: “subjective (adj) – not impartial or literal; personal . . . imaginary, partial or distorted”; “objective (adj) – external to the mind, actually existing . . . uncolored by feelings or opinions.”)

But, what is travel? What is a traveler?

In 1992 I spent two months traveling through Rajasthan. In a desert village of mud huts, one of the most peaceful and sublime places I’ve ever been, the handful of us staying there were gathered under the stars, around a campfire, talking, sharing, and laughing. On the periphery, half in shadow, half in the light, sat a young woman, seemingly lost in herself. Sitting in the sand next to her I asked her to tell me her story.

She was eighteen, on her first international trip. Friends in London had shared with her their stories of India, and told her she’d love it; leaning closer to me, in a whisper, she told me she didn’t. I asked how long she’d been in India. Four months, she told me, with two months still to go. I suggested that one of the great freedoms of travel was not to be where you didn’t want to be; that love it or hate it, she would never be the same for having gone.

I’ve traveled to lose myself, to find myself; I’ve traveled for Silence, for Peace, for Time. The common denominator is movement.

Is that travel? Is she a traveler?

To another source we go, the word source, an etymological dictionary.

“Travel (v) late 14th C., ‘to journey,’ from travailen (1300) ‘to make a journey,’ originally ‘to toil, labor’ (see ‘travail’). The semantic development may have been via the notion of ‘go on a difficult journey,’ but it may also reflect the difficulty of going anywhere in the Middle Ages.”

“Traveler (n) tourist, voyager, sightseer, globetrotter, gypsy, wanderer, hiker, wayfarer.”

What is travel? What is a traveler?

Is it traveling through China on $37 USD a week? In 1985, somewhere in Gansu, I met a man who was doing just that. He never spoke of the indigenous people that he’d met, what he saw, or how he felt. He didn’t really need to tell me he was traveling on $37/week; his emaciated and sleep-deprived smile told me that, his Hepatitis-C-yellowed eyes merely punctuated it.

I didn’t envy his trip but I admired it. His actions defined what travel was to him, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought.

I’ve gone traveling for about every reason there is: to volunteer; to study; to ‘run away’ from; to ‘run to’; to attempt a first descent of an un-run river in Peru (like Mallory, “Because it’s there.”) I’ve traveled to lose myself, to find myself; I’ve traveled for Silence, for Peace, for Time. The common denominator is movement, R. L. Stevenson’s “great affair.”

I use the word “trip” to define my own travels; a product of the 60’s, I use that word in the Haight-Ashbury sense. Travel is a pill I swallow; Hunter S. Thompsons’ “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Most often I go simply to see what happens; less “Because it is there” than “Because I am here.”

On my third trip to India I met a man in Varanasi who had come to finish a travel book that he’d begun four years earlier. No sooner had he begun his work, than did he put it down. The self-inflicted broken heart that he’d come to India with had metastasized to his head and he was unable to continue. He’d carried a flute with him since his first trip over twenty years earlier, but had never played it. He began to take flute lessons.

And he began to go to the Ganges — every day, rain or shine — leaving for the river with stars still in the sky, long before there was a hint of light in the east. From his perch at Tulsi Ghat, he told me that ‘why’ he’d come to India revealed itself. Word-by-word, literally, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, a new book came to him. Flute was a large part of this new book, but it was, most of all, a love story.

So what, he asked himself, is love? The dictionary definition came up short for him. Love, he decided, was less definition than intuition; he closed the dictionary, looked inside, defined it for himself. And wrote from there.

Is that travel? Is he a traveler?

It’s not for me to say. That man is me.

To some I’m a tourist; to friends, many of whom go no further than poolside in Mexico, I am a traveler. I’m good with either, better with neither. All I know, all I objectively know, is this: My name is Scott Hartman and I’m a verb.

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