Travel was once about pilgrimage. It is again
Sunday 07 September 1997
After all, our word "travel" comes from the Latin meaning "work", and "trouble" is its etymological first cousin. From the earliest days the need to travel has usually signified disaster and upheaval and the need to get away from something fast - whether it was Romans escaping from Goths, Goths escaping from Huns or Huns escaping from who knew what.
And look at our oldest literary heroes, characters like Achilles, Penelope of Troy, Odysseus. They were always depicted far from home, engaged in foreign wars or struggling on epic journeys, tearfully wondering if they were ever fated to return to the places to which they really belonged. The best thing that could happen to anyone in those days was to die at home in bed surrounded by their nearest and dearest.
Even today, visitors to the developing world get a feel of what "travel" means for the majority of the world's population. It does not mean ice- creams or operas in Verona.
More likely it means the Chinese soldier posted indefinitely to a remote desert village two thousand miles from from his wife and children. Or the families of Indians sweltering for days in oven-like trains, weighed down by baggage and heading for unknown, hostile cities. Or the Egyptian children clinging to the roofs of buses, or the Sudanese peasants travelling on foot to escape from famine and war, the Montserratians fleeing from falling ash, the Rwandans fighting for space on rickety trucks as if their lives depended on it (because their lives did depend on it).
So effectively has travel been associated with hardship and suffering, in fact, that it has been institutionalised by the world's religions as a valuable penitence: all good Muslims should travel to Mecca before they die - but no amount of 20th-century air conditioning will shelter aged and infirm pilgrims from the brutal climate of one of the hottest desert cities on earth.
Come to think of it, even modern-day tourists with their cameras and guidebooks tend to spend a hefty proportion of time paying their respects to the dead. The pyramids are nothing but the world's most gigantic tombs; the Taj Mahal is a monument to Mumtaz Mahal, the dead, dearly beloved wife of Shah Jahan; the homes of our ancestors - from Confucius to Elvis - are preserved, sacrosanct places for tourists to touch the greatness of their idols. And every church and cathedral in the world is at least touched by the silence of death.
The fact that travel is not only about buckets and spades and cocktails at sunset will not come as a particular surprise to many people. But if you have a vague idea that one day you might fill a rainy Saturday afternoon by visiting a small churchyard in Northamptonshire, you will not be wasting your time.
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