Every act of travel is a journey into an intimate landscape, but that response of intimacy is earthed in the pilgrim, not in the tourist, writes Peter Owen Jones.
This time last year I was walking towards Hartland to meet Satish and sleeping in churches and barns. The year before last I was sent on a tour of the planet by the BBC for a programme called Around the World in 80 Faiths, and the year before that I spent some time alone in the desert in Egypt and lived for a month with sadhus in India.
So this year I thought it was hightime I took a holiday. I booked a flight to Santorini, Greece. I thought I would sort out a room when I arrived. I took the train to Gatwick Airport from my nearest station, found the check-in desk and waited my turn in line. But the nearer I moved to the front, the more uneasy I became and just before it was my turn I slipped under the barrier and walked back through the airport to the station and took the next train home.
On the platform I met someone from my home village and confessed what I had just done. He looked me in the eye and declared that he would rather be dragged through the latrines of Glastonbury on the fourth day than get on an aeroplane. I returned home, unpacked my shorts and headed off to the nearest beach, where I lay down on the shingle and watched my plane fly off before falling asleep for three hours. I still donâ€™t know why I did it but it gave me a window to think about the notion of why we need to get away to relax, and the more I considered it, the more perverse and insubstantial it became.
There is something deep within most of us that is continually drawn by this distance, and the history of humanity bears this out in the slow exodus from Africa. What our ancestors knew was that over that hill there had never been a human being before, and for hunter-gatherers that meant untouched foraging and hunting where they were guaranteed to be the first to the food. Maybe it was this that drove us on into the far reaches of the tundra, and over miles of ocean in boats no bigger than tables. The risks were so extraordinary that our ancestors might as well have been going to the moon, and we can only admire their incredible tenacity and spirit.
And still within us there is that urge to explore beyond. Do you remember doing it as a child? I do, and what is important to remember is that whilst as adults we may think we know our surroundings, children know that they don’t. I still remember the thrill of setting out one morning from my home to go beyond the furthest place in the fields behind my house that I had ever been before, to go into what were for me the unknown woods and fields. What perhaps the computer age has taken most from our children (and I notice it in my own children) is the calling to explore. Yes, the internet does give us the world at our fingertips, but it is a world without skies!
What drove the purpose of travel after human beings had found so much of the planet was trade, and that remains true today; it is the act of making money that forms the framework for world travel, whether that is business travel or tourism, and in any event there is, as far as I can see, barely any space between them now. We are effectively charged to visit most countries it’s called a visa. And when we do travel, we are not guests but tourists, and as a result we have chosen to pay for accommodation rather than accept true hospitality.
Within the Islamic faith there is a decree that the traveller is to be housed and fed for three days without charge, and, believe it or not, Christians too are supposed to offer the traveller food and rest. I now feel that with each new hotel we build we lose another drop of the milk of human kindness. The idea of luxury – of paying to be pampered – has been so very damaging to all of our humanity. Take a good long look at so- called luxury: it is cold, so cold. Those long lines of loveless (palaces) strung out along some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
The guest room should be the most important room in all of our houses.
Then over the hill, again in the distance, there in the folds of the hills is paradise. Paradise is a very powerful and beautiful idea within the human heart and psyche. Pilgrims are in fact journeying always towards it, with each step the world becoming brighter, more vivid and more mysterious.
For those of living in beautiful rain-soaked England, paradise is presented as a tropical beach with coconut palms gently leaning over the white sand beside an aquamarine sea. And there just above the beach is that little banana-leaf-roofed house where happy people live far away from the land of winter.
Have you been to paradise? Have you been to that beach?
I saw it as a child in so many books, and as a man I went there. You’ll find paradise on the island of Tanna in the Vanuatu island chain, a four-hour flight from the east coast of Australia. Tanna is the most southerly island, and it has a live volcano. What I loved about visiting the volcano was the total absence of any health-and-safety notices! The winding and rutted track led up through increasingly vegetationless land, where sulphurous smoke was leaching through the soil. And then to the rim of the crater, which every three minutes would shower lava high above us.
Captain Cook was the first European to visit Tanna, mooring his ship in Resolution Bay, where the entire male population of the island lined up on the beach and mooned at him. (He chose not to go ashore.) At one end of Resolution Bay lies that village – there, just behind the sand: small houses with roughly thatched roofs. There is no running water and no sanitation, there are no young people left (they have all gone to the main town on the island or further afield), and the poverty can be measured in flies.
When we in the West travel we take the West with us – we take our houses and our cars and our televisions and our discotheques and our shoes and our cameras. We carry all of that wherever we go, and we sometimes transplant what we think we need in somebody else’s garden. The Japanese have built an airport on Tanna, and a German company has built a hotel. Not that any of the men and women living on the island could ever afford to fly or to eat in the hotel’s dining room.
I’m not so sure we are exploring, really. I think we are still simply looking for food and hoping to trade. And as long as we are doing that, yes, we will see the coral and we will drink in the bars, but we will miss the miracle of intimacy because we are not being intimate with what we are looking at. We are taking pictures and moving on; we are looking but we are not seeing. In truth, wherever we go we are immersed into the intimate strands of where we are, making every act of travel a journey into an intimate landscape. But the response of intimacy is earthed in the pilgrim, not in the tourist. The traveller perhaps journeys towards the pilgrim.
We now live in a world where we still have to travel to find food, and more and more of our lives are made what they are by journeys that other people have made on our behalf: the journey of the orange, the journey of the laptop, the journey of rice and peanuts. Very little of what we have comes from the land that surrounds us. But in that sense, with everything now brought to our door, why do we still travel? Whatare we looking for and hoping to find?
The idea of a holiday is really so very strange: the notion that we could find rest and peace and excitement and new colours and new seas. It is the same sun that sets in Santorini as sets in the UK, and the sea is one sea simply called by different names. We travel to get away from our lives here – our ‘being us here’. We travel in part still in the search for paradise, but also because when we take ourselves to a new place, somehow a little bit of what is new sinks in, and when we go away, the relief and the release can be quite incredible.
I would just ask for some breathing space now. There is so little time in our society to reflect on what we have created and what we are creating. We have become totally enslaved by money and held to ransom by ‘the markets’ and it is as if all of us have surrendered to that way of thinking. And this is where we need a completely new political language – a language that is fluent in intimacy and awake enough to know that each act is an act of creation.
So, as I said, I didn’t get the plane. I stayed home.
One of the greatest illusions we still buy into is that paradise is there beyond the horizon. If you spoke to all who visit the South Downs, where I live, you would learn that they come here to find for a while what it is I go to Greece for. So we are leaving to find ‘it’ and in so doing have forgotten we are already part of ‘it’ – it’s here we live in ‘it’. But for as long as we are content to buy into the illusion that it is elsewhere, we will never realise it here. And if our lives are so dull, so mundane and so bound by the demands of money that we have to leave just for a weekâ€™s release, then something is terribly wrong with the manner in which we are living.
It is a madness that a Spanish waiter will go to Padstow to stay in a small hotel for a week and be waited on by a man who is leaving the following week for Spain to be waited on by him. What is going on?
We will never see the beauty of somewhere else until we have realised the beauty of where we are. If we believe we have to travel to a hammock in Mexico to find peace, the truth is we will never be at peace where we are. And until we can see the rain as wonderful, we will never appreciate all the finery of sunshine. Are we not in danger of being imprisoned by the very system that we are told is there to keep us free? Free on what and whose terms?
The travel industry offers us happiness paid for by misery. One week’s excitement in exchange for forty weeks of drudgery.
Of course I applaud the idea of someone staying in a hotel or a community that is centred and living on ecological principles, and the more of these, the better. In a sense that’s my greatest hope – that we go away and experience something of a greater humanity to all life and return with a heart full of fine intentions and changed by the experience, which is one of the greatest gifts of the pilgrim. We need a new political language, but I don’t expect that to come from the politicians. It needs to be spoken by all of us.
What is missing is the act of taking care of the traveller: a culture of hospitality that has been so broken by our collective surrender to the mass market. I am a Christian and for me there is a different type of mass – it is a beautiful word called ‘communion’, and the true pilgrim is journeying towards a conscious state of communion.
I feel that the experience of the state of communion is where we are changed, and it is the journey into communion that we have all begun. Resurgence is a magazine about the new communion – the state of communion. The green revolution that is coming cannot just be about the way we treat the planet: it has to offer not only a new political language but also a new social paradigm. Part of that invites all of us to become better hosts, taking better care of each other.
As I said, the guest room should be the most blessed room in our homes.
This article is based on a talk given by Peter Owen Jones at the Pilgrim or Tourist? Resurgence event in October 2010.
For details see www.resurgence.org/ take-part/resurgence-events/summer- camp-2011.html