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A Life Philosophic

The ungrateful traveller

The less-crowded exterior of Wat Phra Kaew

Last week I went to Bangkok. Returning home, the question on my mind was how did such an astonishing statement become so mundane? Just one generation ago, people grew up in world where air travel was impossibly romantic. Now, any moderately affluent person can get on a plane and go anywhere.

But think about it: I flew non-stop for 6,000 miles across seven time zones in the world’s largest passenger airline. In 12 hours I travelled further from my home than the vast majority of humankind have done in their lifetimes. Little than 72 hours later I did the same in reverse. Most of us retain some sense of the wonder of all this. For example, a few days ago, when Carl Miller from the think-tank demos landed in San Francisco, his first thought was “Wow, air travel is genuinely amazing. I’m on the other side of the world.”

But although I know how lucky I am to be able to take advantage of the jet age, I don’t always really feel this fortune. That’s why I almost felt guilty at how unexcited I was to be going to this unknown-to-me Asian capital. True, this was a work trip and I only had one jet-lagged day to explore the city. But still: a day in Bangkok! If anything, shouldn’t that make me even more eager to take it all in?

My coolness can’t be explained by an overdose of air miles. I may have flown more than both of my parents and all of their nine siblings put together but I’m hardly a member of the global hyper mobility club of frequent flyers. I’ve had many more years without a single long-haul flight than ones with.

However, I don’t think sheer ingratitude explains it either. There are good reasons why not every trip to a far-flung place sets my pulse racing. In my experience, the most memorable travel involves eye-opening or widening encounters with people, culture or nature. Some of my most vivid travel memories include the alpine scenery in Val d’Aosta, passing the time in the early hours of a bitterly cold morning at a 24-hour White Castle fast food restaurant in Indianapolis, tracking chimpanzees in Kibale national park in Uganda, and being offered food and drink by an elderly woman who assumed we were pilgrims because we were walking the Jakobsweg in Austria.

A lot of travel seems almost designed to make such experiences unlikely. Sightseeing may be worthwhile it rarely brings any sense of intimacy. Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok, for instance, was a remarkable building, but I walked around it in a crowd that made the Sistine Chapel look half-empty. At the same time, going off the tourist trail hardly guarantees an interesting time. You wouldn’t recommend a visitor to Britain to go to Slough in order to see the “real” England, even though that’s exactly what they would see.

Travel is best if and when it provides opportunities to widen our horizons, or see and sense wonderful new things. Modern travel doesn’t always do this, in part because globalisation has made many big cities more alike than they are different. Visiting my father’s home country, Italy, for example, no longer guarantees I’ll get a better Italian meal than I would in Bristol, where I live.

In Bangkok, however, I did enjoy a very enriching global, cross-cultural encounter. I was at a workshop in which Indian political philosophers presented papers and Chinese ones responded. It took place in the anonymous surroundings of an international chain hotel which could have been anywhere. And because I was there to record podcasts, people anywhere will soon be able to listen in to the key ideas being shared.

There are now innumerable other such resources to give us windows into other cultures. We can invite the word into our homes any day, just as we can travel the world without needing to challenge our world-views one iota. Travel is no longer the surest way of broadening the mind, if ever it was. When ideas travel so freely, we have less reason to do so.

I hope I never take my opportunities to see more of there world for granted. But to be able to travel is a privilege which is valuable for the opportunities it provides, not in itself. Because so many of those opportunities can be taken without moving, and because moving doesn’t always offer up those opportunities after all, although I am grateful whenever I have the chance to travel, I think it’s fine that the prospect does not always thrill me.

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