The Morality of Travel
I’ve said this before, that I question the morality of travel. Periodically the topic flares up again into a major conversation with friends with whom I have aired my views, as it did in November, and I have to rehash the whole thing. I was speaking to a Japanese woman in a coffee shop and admiring her for her ability to get tickets, hotel and tour fare for less than half of what airfare to and from Canadacosts me. Then almost as an aside, I added that whenever I travel, I only return to Canada and have very little interest in going to new, unvisited places because, after all, I believe that every place in the world is basically the same as every other place. So why do I need to go there? In addition, I am concerned with what I phrase as the immorality of traveling. But first point’s first.
First, every place in the world is basically pretty much like every other place. There is gravity; air; clouds; sky; wind; inhabitants; people who get married, have children, love their children, and eventually die; people who need to build shelters, eat and defecate. Sex is everywhere: in the desert and on the mountain, on the farm and in the city, in tents and mansions, on ships at sea and even in prisons. You’ve got heterosexual and homosexual fornication everywhere - in San Francisco bars and Vaticanclosets. We are a busy species. Everyplace is the same. The differences that we see - and many are so impressed with the differences of culture that make us each different from our fellows, that they use it to justifying their desire to travel and gain experience - are mostly cosmetic differences, and therefore negligible. From European aristocrats to Manila homeless, from Eskimos to Botswana Pygmies and Bangkokbar girls, people are pretty much the same. We are all human beings and belong to the Brotherhood of Man. We share the same senses and sensibilities and the same motives. No matter how different people appear, they only appeardifferent, and in our hearts we remain brothers - or maybe our cousins. But we are one family, anyway.
Travelers who insist on traveling to see, enjoy and experience our differences are immorally bent on casting humans as separate from each other. But I prefer a vision of humanity that unites us rather than segregates us from our brothers.
I like to recall the verses from The Upanishads: “Without going out of my door, I can know all things on Earth. Without looking out of my window, I can know all things in
It is only a poetic turn of phrase, of course, but that fact did not prevent a devout Baptist lady that I know in Hamilton, Ontario from taking great offense.
“How can anyone know all things in Heaven?”
“It’s a metaphor.`
“I don’t care what it is!”
Second, when I do travel, I regularly marvel at how the sites I see always look just the same as they do in books or postcards. Take Mt. Fuji for example, because it is a world famous site and because it is close to me. I can even see it from my apartment balcony on clear days. The first time I saw it up close I said,“Yep, that’s Mt. Fuji all right. Just like in the books.” In fact, the pictures in the books make it look nicer because they are cleverly cropped to cut out all the ugliness. Remember that the same is true of most photographs that you see. They are cropped, framed in a certain way, air brushed, altered and doctored any number of ways for a variety of reasons.
I have found the same is true of other sites I’ve seen in Canada and America, Europe and the Middle East. The pattern has been so consistent that I trust my conclusion and use it to frame my position on continuing to travel just so that I can boast that I went there. Do I really need to suffer the inconvenience of going to the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China just to see them? Or Red Square? Or the Golden Gate Bridge? And, I doubt very much that merely seeing them means that I experience them.
Of course, I understand that we can say that there are basically two kinds of people - those who leave home and those who do not, and that the former are more interesting than the latter. But I also understand that it can be said that for all the moving about that we do basically what we are doing is looking for a home. I mean, we leave our homes to try to find our homes. But I like my home, you know. I don’t like leaving it much. I have my books. I have my swords. I have my poetry and my music to comfort me.
Finally, there is the matter of the moral disposition of travel. What I have in mind is that the affluent travel to rudely gawk at places. People live in those places, and for them the sites are nothing special. People live in sight of pyramids, castles, canyons, monuments, statues, mountains and waterfalls. For them, such things are nothing special. But for affluent travelers to come, gawk, take pictures and spend a little money before leaving again seems downright rude and disrespectful. The argument that local residents want tourism because of the economic benefits of it is not a convincing argument. The moral corruption overshadows the pecuniary advantages - and I call them advantages, not benefits.