The anthropological joy of travel

If all goes according to plan, next month my family and I will be travelling abroad for the first time since Spring 2019.

Despite finding a great deal of enjoyment in it, travel is not something I’ve ever reflected on very deeply – it just obviously is a lot of fun, and surely there’s little more to be said about it than that? However, perhaps because of the constraints placed on my movements during the last eighteen months of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found myself wondering why travel holds such a strong fascination for me. And I think the answer is not what initially came to mind.

The first and most obvious reason I thought of is that travel is usually connected, at least for me, to holidaying, which typically means going overseas to do fun activities, see sights, and just generally get away from it all. But clearly this isn’t what travel always has to be like: sometimes it can be within the country in which one lives, and be work-related or for some other non-recreational purpose.

Connected to this is the second facet that came to mind, namely the aesthetic dimension of travel. Since the places that we travel to are often chosen for a holiday, some kind of visual-sensory appeal is usually involved: beautiful scenery, nice food, perhaps great art and architecture also. This aspect of travel certainly has a powerful allure; travel books and friends’ social media postings that present the beautified and carefully selected highlights of a place instil in me a reckless desire to splash all my earnings. But again, this isn’t inherent to enjoyable travel: sometimes the places we go to aren’t beautiful in a conventional sense at all. A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Ethiopia with my wife. Much of the country is indeed beautiful, but one would be hard-pressed to describe its capital, Addis Ababa, as such. Regardless, it was a fascinating and occasionally enthralling place to be.

The reason for this brings me to what I think is the underlying appeal of travel – for me, at least. This is the anthropological joy of seeing human beings in all their breadth and diversity; the encounter with cultures, societies, and ways of being that differ, to greater or lesser degrees, from one’s own. It may sound like this entails travelling far from home, but it doesn’t: there are parts of the UK only a few hours’ drive from where I live that would allow for such encounters. But of course, in a modern, technologically-advanced country such as the UK, the culture has become enormously homogenised over the last century, meaning that the kind of joy I describe is easier to come by through travel abroad. And it is there that we most readily perceive what Helmuth Plessner called the ‘unfathomability’ of the human being through the various ways of being that it adopts. Some of my fondest memories are of being abroad with my wife – in Africa, Asia, America – and having encounters with peoples and cultures that illuminate the near-infinite ways that human beings can be.

Of course, the very means by which I am able to travel abroad with such ease – the globalised capitalist economy – also constitutes the principal force that flattens and homogenises cultures across the planet. Recognition of this fact is the tragic tinge that accompanies travel, at least in the modern era. And here we must hope that the unfathomability of human beings includes a strength for cultures across the globe to resist such pressures.

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