April 29, 2009

Why Travel

Jay Griffiths talks of the Imperial psyche, men who seek to conquer, assail, claim and penetrate the wild lands and unkown cultures beyond their own borders. It's a bleak picture of cultural destruction, devastation and denegration. In many ways the modern travel market has not come far from the arrival of The Endeavour.

But I travel not to add countries to my list, or to claim my ownership of lands far away. I travel to learn, to understand, to discover. This is why I often go back to places I have already been to. Each visit is an opportunity to gain a few more nuances, to uncover detail and meaning in things for which I previously had only the most basic of outlines.

Coming back to the Scandinavian Arctic in the spring was a fascinating experience for me. I have now seen Sami cultural centres from Finland, Sweden and Norway - and been bamboozled by at least five of their minority languages. I have seen some similarities, some differences, some treasures and some tragedies. I met a Sami man who sold his reindeer ten years ago and now cannot afford to buy a snow-mobile. He works as a fisherman in the north. He is further away from his tradition than he could ever imagine, and returns to inland towns for the purpose of reliving his injustices through alcohol. Many Sami people have carved a niche for themselves in tourism, art or herding reindeer. But many have not faired so well.

Of all the layers of meaning that have tried to fill my mind this trip, the shaman's drum is perhaps the most special for me. The keepers of wisdom in Sami cultures were called Najd, which today we can recognise as a shaman. The Najd had a drum, a skin taught over birch frame and detailed with symbols that relate to everyday life in the Arctic. Sun, Moon, Reindeer, and so on. The drum was a device, not the divine. It allowed the Najd to initiate communication with the spirits and interpret their messages. The Najd was not necessarily powerful, but respected for his ability to make clear, to elucidate, to understand the greater depth of meaning that surrounds the world. Najd were gifted to make sense of their place in the world, and that of their community.

And that's why I travel. To make sense of the world. It doesn't matter to me why my neighbour drives a better car than I do or whether I should have thought more carefully about which degree to study in University. The brownian motion of a single life is trivial in comparison to the gentle flow of a river from the mountain to the sea, or the annual snowfall that feeds the glaciers high above the mountain, or the varying length of the winter and summer cycles that determine the life span of those glaciers.

As I travel I continue to see bigger pictures,a glimpse of glaciers and sometimes there age as well. At times the scene is grim and depressing, in fact a lot of the time. But there are always threads of gold woven through the most decrepid of global realities. Often I am treated to the beautiful charms and character of people in other cultures. It could be the natural calmness of a single person, the communal cooperation of a village, or the comfortable tolerance of an entire nation.

Above all the travel proves to me that I am so very very small, and how pleasant it is to be so very very small. In recognising the greater forces that are present in my world, and within the world, it becomes easier to accept the world as it is. My path of learning is not about expanding my own psyche, it's discovering that my mind exists within a much greater psyche. Knowledge is not within the mind, it's within the world, scattered everywhere like the viens of gold that hide beneath the soil or a fluid body of water that waits patiently below a lake's frozen layer of ice.

As I fly out of the Arctic Circle I can see snow below me as far as the horizon. Soon that snow will melt and the earth below will turn green, the lakes will turn blue and the rivers will flood with the melt. In the days to come men and women will take their reindeers and head north. Some will find a quiet place in the mountains for the calves to be born. Others will herd by forest rivers where the Sami can catch fish while the reindeer graze on new growth. The Sami people have eight seasons, each named according to what they do with the reindeer.

So far I have learned just one of their seasons. And that is why I travel. I see the similarities between the Sami seasons and the people of Kakadu. Learning about the Sami shaman I gain a deeper respect for the Indigenous elders, continents away in a world made very small through knowledge. As a writer I feel a kinship with the Najd and their ability to communicate truths in a world far broader than any one person. I hope to help others to see further, understand wider and care more deeply for the rest of the world that they have never experienced.

It's a mistake to think that travel is about travelling. Travel is about learning - about others and yourself as well. Because the more you learn about others the more you see we share great things, and the more you learn about yourself the more you realise you are part of great things.

What can I learn from paying $20 to visit a theme park? Not much if there are 100,000 other people being bused through the gate each day. That's not travel. What can you learn from parking a car at the side of the road in 6ft of snow and needing 12 Norweigians to pull you out? Everything. I learned what an idiot I can be, I learned that people walking home will stop to help even when it makes them late, I learned that a man driving a brand new Audi is keen to be helpful but has no practical knowledge on how to tow a car out of the snow, and I learned that a couple of locals in a mini-van can pull a tonne of rental car sideways across the road even though they can't speak a word of English.

Travel is about people. Travel is about learning. That is why I travel.

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