I am attending the Australian Festival of Travel Writing this weekend at the University of Melbourne. I have never been to an event such as this before and I am finding it extremely useful as I feel as though two important life narratives; travel and education have come together. In my case, they have never really been linked except that a love of independent learning and learning for its own sake led to a love of traveling and traveling for its own sake.
There is a lot of wisdom at the festival. And this I find this very attractive, especially if it is a wisdom that manifests itself in a love of life and knowing that a love of life requires one to make uncommon choices. There are so many traps out there that prevents people from traveling, in the broader sense of the word; traveling geographically, traveling intellectually, traveling culturally, and traveling socially. Fear and cynicism, class based prejudice, the fear of leaving ones comfort zone of pyrrhic successes. And these limits on traveling are not unique to traveling; one could apply them equally to any sphere of achievement or at least, the fear of achievement. Achievements based on a love of life are always the greatest successes, and if one doesn’t love life, one can never be truly successful (well, at least not a success that is true to oneself).
A personal project that I have been working on in my spare time over the past few months involved locating, digitising, tagging, and putting into neat little country boxes(on Flikr) all the photos that I have taken on my travels since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And there are a lot of them, about 5000 photos taken in 40 counties (41 if you count Australia). And some of the countries like Germany, Thailand, the UK, and the US I have visited up to 9 times.
I have wanted to do this project for quite some time as I had difficulty remembering how many times I had visited particular countries and I was not sure how-many I had visited in-total (not that ticking-off countries is what I originally set out to do).
And in reflection, I suppose I am fairly typical of my (x) generation. The world opened-up considerably after the fall of the Berlin Wall with many former Communist-block countries lessening restrictive visa requirements and welcoming snoopy visitors. I was in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) a couple of months after the fall of the Wall and since then have been to numerous ex-Communist countries like Hungary, Vietnam and the Czech Republic. Also, an important factor to consider, is that in all the time that I have traveled, airfares have remained pretty constant (and even become cheaper). My first air-fare to the UK in 1989 cost $2200 economy fare, not too dissimilar to what it costs today. And average wages have increased 3-4 times in this time in tandem with the Australian GDP.
I am perhaps the last of the generation to do the coming of age ‘big-trip’ in my early 20s. For many Australians before the 1990s, it was not possible to travel from Australia regularly through-out ones’ life because the costs made it prohibitive. The ‘big trip’ involved saving for many months or even years to get the money together to buy the plane ticket and then have enough beer money once you arrived. And pretty much the only country in the world where Australians could work (and in particular, young working-class Australians) was in the UK. I am not sure if this is still the case, but the importance of the UK to my own personal development and mobility has been extraordinary. It is crucial to have special working visas and discounted fares for young people to explore the world in their 20s. The individual and country grows immensely because of it, as does the world and the sophisticated interpretations of it.
When I was younger, I also visited many countries over the summer months whilst studying at University. These were primarily in Asia which is geographically close to Australia and relatively inexpensive to get to and travel within. I mostly traveled the ‘hippy-trail’ opened up in the 1960s and 1970s by the baby-boomers; well-trodden and documented by Melbourne’s own Lonely Planet travel books.
India possible changed my thinking about the world more than any other county. Australians, like Americans and Canadians, are ‘Modernists’ (if I can be so reductive and general). We can’t be anything other than Modern and I have never quite understood how one could live their entire life in this otherwise wonderful country and be totally oblivious to the stifling level of conformity imposed upon us by our restrictive and somewhat unresponsive Modern industrial system. We have perhaps lost much more than we have gained (although we never really had it to start with and the more I travel, the less unique the Australian Way seems to me…well, at least from a Modern perspective). India opened me up to alternatives. It is a cultural superpower. It is the most culturally rich place I have been anywhere on the planet and I am sure India can take a crude Aussie Modernist like myself (with his victorious flushing toilets), in its stride.
More recently, I traveled quite a lot for work, but this was for collaboration with fellow ‘Modernists’ so was focused, instrumental, ‘de-territorised’ and I am not sure I gained a lot from it from a travelers perspective. Still, a few stolen days here and there either side of a conference or workshop are always welcome and I am lucky to have had this privilege in my career so far. Still, I have met many academics and business people who travel every-other-week and it doesn’t seem to impact upon them in any enlightened or positive way. Perhaps they approach the world and its magnificent, diverse cultures in the same way they approach other aspects of their lives (ie banally!). I prefer to change my eyes not my cities.
And speaking of such, the World according to Craig is not just about going somewhere and seeing something for the first time, it is how you experience it as a whole person in a different and enlightening way that makes the process worthwhile for you and others. In other words, it is not where you go, it is what you take with you that counts. If you are an Aussie Modernist, you probably aren’t going to get too far away from Hong Kong or Singapore. And you may even think that they are the ‘same-same, but different’. But with the right amount of prodding from some of the World’s great authors; Kapuscinski, Hess, Rushdie, Eco, Gregory David Roberts, Murikami, and Calvino you might just discover yourself and a whole world in the process.
We never travel alone, on a winter’s night there is always Herodotus and we are always the midnights children of the historical narratives that as we grow older, we inextricably absorb into our subjectivity.
And what have I learned so far? The world never gets smaller, only people get smaller.
This is a picture of me at the Berlin Wall, August 1990. I am presently updating my personal archive and in the process digitising my analogue travel pictures and putting them on Flikr. Hardwork! Many of these I have placed on the Flikr stream on the bottom of the side-bar on this blog, but I am only done the first couple of years. Only about 20 more years to go!
It took me a while to get here, but I finally arrived in Tasmania. LA was a blast, but the 15 and a half hour plane ride over the Pacific exacerbated my world-weariness and soul-lag. I spent a few days in Melbourne eating steak, going to the beach, and catching up with friends. I have returned to this city a hundred times each time with a new set of eyes so that it gets even bigger and more complicated. It is a city that breeds ‘normal-o-paths’ but then again, so does London. The normal-o-path never knows the boundaries of their own thinking; except that there is something that is not-normal. Nothing is normal; inquisitiveness and the will to enter worlds bigger than ones self has nothing to do with geography. Normal has a long history; if the day-to-day is about forgetting each previous day then there urgently needs to be a stronger conceptual power to escape the intellectual tedium of short-term practical, empirical, and positivist thinking. If we don’t; then we will cook the planet like a steak; cook it up minute by minute, unable to connect the minutes so we cook like frogs on low heat in a saucepan; frying our narrow Google brains of facts with no narrative (remind me to cut back on the flyer-miles!).
Tasmaniais at the centre of the world. It is where institutional Green politics was invented in the 1970s. More on this later…