He’s an image of pomposity, boastfulness, snobbery and self-delusion! While that might seem a harsh judgement of poor old Toad, it is somewhat akin to the reaction I have towards people who, like Toady and without invitation, feel obliged to cast before me the minutiae of their travel experiences, folk who seem to be in no doubt that accounts of their exotic journeying will be fascinating to all and sundry. ‘Travel buffs’, I label them. And if my dislike of their pretentiousness characterises me as a narrow-minded stick-in-the-mud, then, like Ratty, I am content that it is so.
Travel has become a boom industry of second-millennium Australia! Only this morning, on my hundred metre trek from the carpark to my Monday morning coffee, I walked past no fewer than four travel agencies, busy ones at that. The mantra of the industry is inescapable. ‘Travel broadens the mind’ screams the cliché! I am offered guided tours to ‘behold the wonders of the modern world’. ‘Go Wilderness! Get off the beaten track!’ another sign implores. Travel is so easy in this global village. For the young, student deals and rates are available, specially designed for those taking a gap year. Backpacking has become a rite of passage. For folk who have survived the rigours of the twenty-first century and made it to plump middle age, cruising the waterways of Europe is not a mere privileged indulgence. Such people are so deserving of pampering. And so it goes... The vicarious adventures conjured in the mind from reading books in what now seems like the ‘Dark Ages’ have been replaced by the ‘real thing’: the exotica of the global village now waits at the very doorstep of the homes of most western folk. And here the travel buffs are in their element, furiously ticking off the boxes that signify the far-flung destinations they have been to and moving on to the next, all the while flashing the stamps on their passports like military decorations.
Over time I have tended to stay in my foxhole, preferring to travel neither frequently nor extensively. Even so, I’m not so jaundiced that I do not retain a few fond and indelible travel memories. Sometimes at the end of a heated day, I find myself in a Crab Temple on Penang looking down the Straits of Malacca where the ships of the world are plying their trades. Night has long since fallen and our meal completed, we breathe in the silence allowing an on-shore breeze, thick with the scent of hidden flowers and hints of ginger, to wash over us with its warm tendrils. In our tea-cups a full moon floats, buttercup on dark Assam. It’s a personal thing. For me, it works. Returning in my mind to such places can usually soothe the stress of trying days. Surely memories have always been invoked in this way?
The captains of the industry tell me I should feel differently but I feel no compulsion to travel frequently. I have resisted most of the inducements offered by people whose task is to ensure that the ‘travel bug’ is communicable. Incessant titillation without satiation is symptomatic of the infection. And like a horde of modern-day Magi astride their camels, madly thrashing their whips and feverish under the onset of this contagion, the afflicted travellers come, following not one but five stars. However, unlike those wise and blessed souls of old, they usually stop over at the inn − never reaching the stable.
In my estimation, the fatal flaw in all of this is not insatiable greed or blind hedonism. It lies on a different and more compelling plane: it is a loss of a sense of proportion about our journeying. For mine, the peril is that the whole travel-compulsion thing can become a sort of snow-blind for another greater (and vastly more important) reality: that we are, all of us, travellers. Wittingly or not, flying, running, walking or sitting still, each of us is on a cosmic ride through time and space − a circumstance which, if it comes into our conscious minds, must inevitably raise questions: where are we? Where we are going? If, as the astronomers assure us, by merely standing on the earth’s surface, every passing second will have taken us thousands of kilometres from where we were the second before, the wonder of it all can scarcely be missed!
Travel buffs – the very words should be a source of such laughter in Paradise! What celestial irony is here! What a trick upon the lot of us – from jet-lagged sybarites to plodding killjoys like me. As sure as the seconds ticking away our allotted spans, we, and the world we say we know, are being carted through space at an incredible velocity. It all leads me to hope that this tour is indeed a guided one!