Friday, August 22, 2008

Travel narrows the mind

The opening lines of G.K. Chesterton's What is America (1922), which I reread last night:

I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind.  At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like.  This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality.  Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men.  But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labor and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other.  In reality that is the moment of supreme danger--the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese.  Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously....

That travel narrows the mind first struck me when I was a low-budget tourist in Asia and Latin America in the 1980s. During those travels I met countless British, Australian, South African and American travelers who spoke condescendingly of tourists and their posh hotels, faithfully held onto their Lonely Planet security blanket, listened to English music on their walkman and hung out with fellow travelers. One experienced backpacker I met in Bahia, Brazil, was genuinely puzzled when I asked him what he thought of the local music (which you could only miss if you never took off your headphones). He had traveled across much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.