This the curtain-raiser for a series that Al-Masry Al-Youm Travel, which I’m heading, has recently launched. With a new voice every week, writers offer their reflections on the reasons why people leave behind familiar settings, friends, and perhaps even family members and beloved pets, to explore new places, away from home.
I jumped on the early train to Minya minutes before it started moving, after pushing my way through the crowd at Cairo’s main railway station, where the hustle and bustle begins in the early hours of morning and almost never ceases.
I’d barely slept a few hours. Insomnia, coupled with an obsessive thinking that usually precedes my trips–on planes or trains, highways or boats–had left me looking like a zombie, disorientated, and wondering why on earth I was traveling. Minutes earlier I had been scrambling to find the right platform through half-sleepy eyes and a self-induced haze, my mind clouded.
So why do we travel?
To escape. To forget. Or perhaps to remember the things we push back into our memories during the rattle of daily city life as we juggle family commitments and work, haggle to get things done, and try to meet deadlines that pass rapidly by as we try not to lose our sanity. Perhaps it’s to preserve those subtle differences that separate us from walking, talking machines.
Or perhaps we travel because we have to.
In travel, we’re separated–not only from what we love, but from what we hate, and what we fear.
Psychologist Eric Fromm once wrote that the deepest need of man “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness”–because, he says, this separateness creates anxiety, and “the world can invade me without my ability to react.”
But maybe separateness is essential from time to time, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded, by sights, sounds, ideas and people. In our vulnerability, we may realize who we are and what truly holds us together. We can start re-evaluating how we see the world. Our faith may be shaken or broken, or made stronger, depending on the outcome of the experience.
It’s a test of whether or not what we consider important has any meaning at all. Indeed, it’s a gamble.
And it is scary, because we may discover we’re holding on to an illusion, or on our return we may look differently on what we once considered of utmost importance.
Like any journey, toward the self or toward God, the truth can be too hard to handle. And once known, it can never be unknown. Done but not undone, like our past mistakes.
Perhaps travel, in that sense, is a mistake. Because opening your eyes, or Seeing, with a capital “S”, becomes a life-time sentence.
And so in deciding to travel, we’re torn apart by a desire to escape from our reality, and an equally strong desire to stay put and escape from the journey we’re embarking on–or at least from the memories, thoughts and questions it might provoke. The push and pull between the two forces decides what we do in the end.
Why do we travel?
To think. I took the window seat on that train to Minya, rested my head back and breathed. Thinking is different on trains, I thought to myself, as I stared through the window watching the cities, towns, countryside, and the world rolling by.
I pulled out my notebook to review my research for the assignment I was heading to Minya for, and to jot down a few extra questions.
I was traveling there to do a piece on sectarian clashes. Relations between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt are tense, and since the 1990s violence between the two has been on the increase. My visit would include meetings with church officials and members of the Christian community, and I thought about how this was another exercise in getting people to talk and open up, despite the possible security threat.
Assignments away from home have a different flavor. At home, conversations, interviews and communications are muddled with worries, plans unfulfilled and things to rush to.
Away, we listen. We wake up early every morning, full of a new-found readiness to discover. Distance changes the way we look at what time has turned mundane, including the work habits we have fallen into.
Sources become people, assignments become stories, and “quotes” take on a human shape –the shape of the zeal, happiness, sadness or indifference with which they are uttered.
We’re alone, so we listen.
But I never opened my notebook throughout that train ride. I just looked through the glass window.
As scenery moves quickly to the backdrop of the world, all loses meaning, except those things that truly matter. These stay.
And they fill you with both reassurance, and a measure of sadness, a nostalgia mixed with a longing for freedom. The freedom that comes with separation. The freedom that hurts and liberates. The sister of loneliness.
It’s freedom from the very things that own and move us, from the angels and demons of human relations and what ties us to each other and to the world. In solo travel, on the road, we’re just us.
Thinking is different on trains. In moving. In the departure. In the journey. In the return. Or the no return. In the solitude.
The problem is that I manage, consciously or not, to leave a bit of myself behind everywhere I go. In the train. In the destination. In the people I come in contact with. In the higher levels of thoughts, and in their lowest.
Perhaps that’s why I’m never complete in stillness. And my mind can never go blank, even during an event-less train journey.
Perhaps that’s why I travel.
Readers of Al-Masry Al-Youm are encouraged to contribute by reflecting on their own journeys and telling us why they travel, either by sending their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, or sending a direct message showing their interest to @AlMasry_Travel, by registering to the site and writing a blog or by leaving their comments. Also, my friends and readers of this blog, are welcomed to write guest blogs telling me why they travel and sending them to me here. You can leave them as comments on this post, and I’ll moderate and publish them.