Do you know that one George Harrison song which almost sounds like it's been composed for the age of Covid-19?
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven.
For the farther one travels,
The less one knows. The less one really knows...
During the past months, most of us have been spending more time in our homes than we usually would. Well-crafted travel plans got cancelled. As corona numbers in Iran were soaring high, I had to call off one of the group journeys we were supposed to host in April. Now, as we're near the end of summer, the possibility of international travel seems more distant than ever before (at least during my life so far).
I've never been impressed by official travel warnings. I have been to places most people would never even dream of going – Afghanistan, for instance. Some of them turned out to be the most beautiful and hospitable countries I have ever visited.
I always like to tell this story from my overland trip to India in 2010: When I set off in Germany, people warned me of traveling the Balkans ("too much criminality"). In Bulgaria, I was warned of going to Turkey ("Turks are bad people"). Once in Istanbul, which I loved, I was told by Turks to avoid travel to the Eastern Kurdish provinces ("full of insurgents"). I found those areas incredibly friendly and also safe. In Eastern Turkey, some tried to stop me from going to Iran ("crazy mullah country"). But lo and behold, Iran topped it all in terms of kindness towards strangers! Iranians, however, were shocked that I wanted to travel to their restive neighbor Pakistan. In Pakistan (where the cover photo for this piece was taken), some were disappointend that I wanted to visit "the enemy" India.
You can see what I'm getting at.
But today suddenly the whole world has turned into one big risk zone. The prospect of not being able to travel to places I cherish, maybe for years to come, brings sadness. There's also fear that if I do, the very things I value most about travel might never be the same again: Intimate human encounters, people opening their doors to me, being fed by strangers and traveling on trains and busses as the locals do.
Cross-continental travel for me began when my mother first took me to India with her. I was four. 25 years later, I feel grateful to her for having taken me along on her journeys. Ever since, "Fernweh" – the yearning to see distant places – has been ingrained in my DNA.
However I also admit that, more recently, life has made me discover the joys of staying at home: I am married to a Turkish woman who is more of a "homey person." One of the things I admired about her when we first met in 2012, was how mature and open-minded she was, despite the fact that – at the age of 22 – she had never left Turkey! Until that point I had always imagined that maturity and open-mindedness were qualities exclusive to people who have traveled.
"Reisen bildet" is a dictum we love in German: "travel broadens the mind." I always felt that the German eagerness for backpacking and individual travel, which is wonderful, is in part a reaction to the darker chapters of our history. It comes with an accentuated open-mindedness, as well as displaying high tolerance and curiosity towards other places and cultures. However at the same time, it means never giving much importance to one's own cultural roots or "German-ness."
But let me come back to the lyrics of the Beatles song. As George Harrison recalls in his autobiography, he was inspired to write this song when he received a letter by a Cambridge University scholar who suggested him to put into music some verses from the Tao Te Ching. The original passage in Robert Henricks' Tao Te Ching translation goes like this:
No need to leave your door to know the whole world;
No need to peer through your windows to know the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Therefore the Sage knows without going,
Names without seeing,
And completes without doing a thing.
So could it be that my narrative of having matured through backpacking was an illusion in my mind? My answer today is: Yes and no.
It is true that we take ourselves wherever we go. If travel is a means to escape from who we are – isn't it telling that we call short trips "weekend escapes"? – from our inner discomfort, a dull working life or a tough relationship; then it really might not take you much anywhere. If however, it is an extension of your inner search, a conscious embrace of unity in diversity paired with self-observation, then travel indeed turns into a pilgrimage. It becomes a quest, more than a holiday. A getinside, more than a getaway.
Don't understand me wrong. I don't mean to discount the need for a good holiday with a decent amount of self-care laziness (I also like spending time on beaches once in a while). But there can be much more to travel.
Now, I was among those people who were rejoicing when airplanes disappeared from the skies during the first months of the pandemic. I still believe in the "Mother Earth is taking a much-needed break" narrative.
But at the same time I remain aware of the merits of travel, in my own life and for the society I grew up in: It was through travel and cross-border exchange programmes that European nations long-hostile, such as Germany and France, became friends again. Open borders and intiatives like the InterRail network built the intercultural muscles of my generation. It was thanks to the brilliant zis-Reisen foundation, which grants German youth aged 16-20 travel stipends to explore a place they choose, that I got to travel to Syria on my own when I was 18 – a journey that deeply impacted the trajectory of my life.
Rather than burying travel all together – which won't happen, because the need to move is something quintessentially human – we might want to reimagine the way we travel. How can we move around the globe in more sustainable ways, paying attention to the lands we walk on, to the people and cultures we encounter? Can we ask: What gifts would I like to carry with me when visiting a foreign place?
Such gifts don't have to be material, they can be the gifts of listening, of genuine interest and attention for someone else's life reality. I learnt this from Zilong, a dear Chinese friend who, on his long cycling pilgrimage, knocked on stranger's doors and asked them if he could pitch his tent in their backyard. His "superpower" was deep listening. Sometimes his hosts would cry when he left their place, because they felt transformed by his genuine presence. That's what turns travel into pilgrimage, a spirit we've been trying to cultivate on our Anar Journeys.
By the way: As I'm writing this essay, I'm planning my first long bikepacking journey of pedalling 900 miles (or 1,500 km) from the north to the south of Turkey. Spending hours over maps with the thought of being on the road again, not knowing what experiences it will bring, is pure delight. Yet, I choose to remain aware not to fall into escapism, knowing that my inner journey is what eventually matters. A journey that's probably the bravest one to take, because it can lead into some very uncomfortable terrain.
If Covid-19 has gifts for us, then this is probably the greatest one: The opportunity of time to introspect and look at ourselves more honestly, so we can infuse our lives with soul and depth.
Reference: Lao Tzu (translated by Robert Henricks), Tao Te Ching, Chapter 47.