Friday, May 24, 2013

Armchair Travel

Ralph Waldo Emerson said -
Traveling is a fool's paradise... I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there besides me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”
I have recently been wondering why we travel for pleasure. Do we want to travel to escape from something (work, drudgery, boredom, monotony, etc)? If this were true, why do we start comparing everything during the trip with what we have at home? Why do we start looking for the same restaurants or things that we are familiar with at home? Why has traveling been always associated with romanticism? Is it just another 'grass is greener on the other side' phenomenon? Or is there really an innate desire to explore new places, the joy to lose oneself in newer locations, reenergise the mind and body, etc?

"Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe." -Anatole France
Wandering, it must be clarified, is different from travel. Wandering on a 6-month long trip to Northern India without a solid travel plan was my dream trip when I was in India. I never got around to it. My father traveled alone for over a month to Northern and Eastern India during his college holidays in the late 60s. Just a return ticket from Delhi was all he had. So could go essentially anywhere, stay anywhere, not make plans for the next day, extend stay at Konark, skip Agra or anything he chose to. He went to some of the usual sightseeing places, some of the other local places that interested him then, hitched a ride to the next town, took a bus or a train or just walk if you felt like it! Those were also the days when you could find cheap and safe dharmachatras, youth hostels, etc. True places and retreats are meant to be explored on one's own. As Herman Melville rightly said,

It is not down in any map; true places never are.
But everyone who has traveled comes back with several gripes. Something did not go according to plan, or the trains weren't on time or the view at the end was not what was promised in the travel brochure or the way National Geographic showed it! We try to escape from work or the mundane sufferings that we put up with in our daily lives but encounter the exact same problems in the travel. You fall sick, or the food doesn't agree with you or the shower nozzle at the hotel is not to your liking or you start craving for home made food two days into your vacation. The same places that everyone goes to during long weekends, not finding parking, high airfares, etc all work in tandem to spoil the fun. The best place to go to unwind may be the park right behind your house or the hike on a nearby beach, but discovering something that suits you is difficult. So a typical travelogue usually includes several complaints, annoyances, fights and dissatisfaction leading to the conclusion - was the travel worth it in the first place? What puts off traveling? I am stymied by the most mundane activities that it entails—choosing dates, buying maps, checking air or rail fares, and packing a suitcase. These things lead to tensions, frustrations, etc. According to me, traveling should not have a fixed plan; instead it should instead be a journey into the unknown.

Perhaps, the only thing that can beat travel is  Armchair Travel!

Art for art's sake

There is a fantastic article in the NYTimes today by a professor from Notre Dame. Here is an excerpt:

I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises.   For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students in which we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov.  We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages.  But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year.  The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.  

What’s the value of such encounters?  They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.  They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable.  They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater.  

College education is a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls. 

Ah...if only education was this way!

Article worth a read.