Sunday, 7 November 2010


Size like time is relative, and depends on the perspective of the occupant. I have noticed in travelling that there seemed to be two types of people, those content with where they live, and those who have passports in a state of disrepair. This does not seem to depend on where you are, but rather on a restlessness that seems to compel the travellers to move on every few years. Part of this seems to be that a traveller will explore their (temporarily) adopted home, perhaps more thoroughly than the occupant. How many New Yorkers have bothered to ascend to the top of the Empire State building? I suggest many visitors do. For the steady homebody, there is no compelling need to explore, to constantly look for the new. They are cursed with satisfaction. Their home is just the right size, and they shudder at the thought of the smaller or larger alternatives.

I remember meeting an old inhabitant in a pub, the sole pub in a small country location which barely could be called a village. When I told him of my home city, he sounded dubious, wondering how dangerous it was. He had barely travelled beyond the small and scarcely populated coast, but was clearly content with the limitations. I had similar conversations with friends from my own city in talking about Asian cities. My friends thought the size and population was overwhelming and clearly dangerous, although my own experience was that I felt safer. In fact, after living in very large cities I felt uneasy in smaller places, with almost no one on the street.

Early man appears to have had a very long time living in roving bands of hunter gatherers. The city dwellers are very new, and seemed to have started in the Middle East and China, where the urban tradition has a continuous lineage. No doubt the new city dwellers decided they felt more comfortable with the increased numbers rather than roving in a small band of rural hunters.

The restless travellers may be a reversion to those early hunter gatherers, constantly seeking the new game. We settle down, explore where we are, and then look for what is over the next bridge. Familiarity has made our home shrink, so we look for the edges, and set off to explore again. We forget the stress of modern travel in the need to find the next apartment, the new local restaurant and check out the vagaries of the local bus system.

Travellers never take holidays in the same place, or if they do are vaguely dissatisfied with the familiar. The homebodies have a camping ground or a holiday home where they and their family have happily settled, taking comfort in the familiarity and complaining if there is development changing their surroundings.

The comfort of the familiar is tied to the size. The size is not important, for it is the right size to those who live here. Those who move from the country to a city slowly lose those ties and settle in. The travellers seem to be more urban. I cannot think of any of my family in recent generations who have lived in the country. We are mostly travellers, and even if we settle into one place, find the need to travel for work or holidays. Our local world becomes too small.

For me, there is a huge comfort in knowing that within my lifetime I will have the opportunity to travel outside planet Earth. The first pioneers are selling seats, and there is talk of the first hotels in orbit. With hotels, will inevitably come the first settlers, who will be travellers in a whole new sense.

And yet, when I talk to many about the chance to go somewhere truly immense like leaving planet Earth, they shudder. They talk of the dangers, the new technology, the risk. And, they quietly pack the car and drive off to the family beach house, in the comfort of knowing that it is unchanged from last year.

Are we as travellers the descendants of the hunter gatherers, or are we descended from those who broke away from the traditional hunting grounds for the adventure of building a new city? And having built that city, did the travellers become restless and form a new settlement? I think the ancient Greeks were travellers. They founded colonies all over the Mediterranean, and travelled to Britain and Africa and China. The Romans, still considered that all roads lead to Rome. They sought to duplicate the Roman model in cities they founded, with temples, a forum, a gymnasium and an amphitheatre. The Greeks seem to have adopted local customs as well as maintaining their Greek culture, as can be seen in Egypt with the Ptolemys. While the Roman Empire was always larger than the Greek sphere of influence, the Romans felt the need to impose Roman customs and Latin, so they had the familiarity of home.

The new Romans, from the United States, impose their culture so that on their travels there is always the comfort of a McDonald's or Starbucks coffee. American television is ubiquitous and Hollywood still dominates large and small screens. And yet, American travellers have reached the moon. But travelling through the United States, I found many of my family never had passports, much like Sarah Palin. American culture filled all their needs, and the concept of looking at St Petersburg or of travelling to Samarkand was alien to them. Those who were compelled to travel to unpromising locations like Iraq or Afghanistan did so by creating their own encapsulated pieces of home culture, complete with fast food, entertainment from home and living in isolated camps to pretend they were still at home.

Perhaps the traveller impulse was met by their ancestors in their often epic journeys to the United States. I hope not. There are still travellers, designing the new spacecraft, drawing the plans for the space hotels and even those listening for the messages, which will give them a goal to travel to. 

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