Real Travel

The quest for authenticity. The discovery of wonders within.

| July/August 2001


Real Travel
-Joe Robinson

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Humanity
-Cindy Ovenrack

Dream Vacations
-Andy Steiner

(print only) Thailand On 500 Baht A Day
-Decca Aitkenhead

Please Stay Home
-Karen Olson

Let’s Go—Podunk
-Jon Spayde

Rough Guide To Your Own Backyard
-Chris Dodge

(print only) I Disagreed
-Christopher Reid

(print only) Globetrotter Dogma
-Bruce Northam

Road Reads
Utne Staff

Discuss Travel in Café Utne's:
It was midnight at the oasis outside Zagora, Morocco. I’d sent my camel to bed. He was hunkered down in the sand still very much awake near my home for the night, a tent used by desert nomads and a growing trickle of Western wanderers. This was once a prime caravan stop of the Tuareg, the masters of the Sahara known as the Blue Men for their trademark indigo scarves. These days the caravans come from the north, mostly France, which has turned this desert outpost into a base camp for adventure travel forays into the Sahara.

For now, it was just me and a wide-awake dromedary, craning our necks in the starlight. Who could sleep with a sky like that going on? I stood on a ridge of dune, gaping at the Milky Way. I’d seen foggy renditions of it, but never this foaming, whitewater river that seemed close enough to kayak. I stared, spellbound, goosebumps rising on my skin. The galaxy was no longer a concept. I was looking at it. The wonder sent me reeling through the inner reaches of outer space, as mythologist Joseph Campbell called it, seeing something I’d looked at hundreds oftimes with new eyes—the real reward of the road. Suddenly this scene was no longer alien. Sahara, dunes, insomniac camel, ghosts of Tuareg caravans, Milky Way, me—it was starstuff one and all. It didn’t matter that countless Moroccans had taken in that view before me. It didn’t matter that there were half a dozen Frenchmen in a tent a couple hundred yards away and that there would be more tomorrow. All that mattered was that I was here now, transfixed by travel’s version of the unified theory.

I’ve often been asked as an adventure magazine editor whether there are any exciting places left in a world that’s already mapped. The answer is: plenty, because the real adventure isn’t about boldly going where no man has gone before; it’s about going where you’ve never been. It’s not about finding the last dune yet to be trod upon by Vibram soles. It’s about the vast landscape of incognita territory within each of us, revealed through the magic of the journey.

This is the terrain that draws personal explorers away from cubicle, career, home, rut, and mutt to the distant shores of self-discovery. The call of the road is really about indulging our urge to know the world and, through it, our place in it. Ever since it grew out of privileged society’s Grand Tours of Europe in the 19th Century, tourism American-style has revolved around the idea of going somewhere to have other people do stuff for you. Real travel is about doing it yourself, as close as possible to the ground of where you are standing. Only then can we experience the journey, not just the destination, and uncover the surprises that lie behind the everyday surface of perception. Like my Milky Way encounter, the altered state of travel lets us see what is always there—but obscured by the filters of civilization. This opens up a whole new interior frontier, where we can venture beyond lingering fears, deeply held assumptions, and regimented behavior, where our identities are challenged and transformed. Strangers in strange lands become more familiar than the people back home. And our world suddenly expands—we’re connected to the global tribe, to the land around us, and to the wanderer within.

We were born to travel. From our brains to our big toes, natural selection designed us to move, discover, and seek out nourishment for both the body and our insatiably curious spirit. We may have forgotten our nomadic days, but our physiology hasn’t, which is why we get stir crazy when we’re cooped up too long.

Call it genetic manifest destiny. Studies show that the gene identified with exploratory and thrill-seeking behavior happens to carry instructions for building brain receptors that attract dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical in our bodies. Those with a high need for novelty, risk-taking, and stimulation have a long form of this gene, while the more risk-averse have a short form. But everyone, to varying de-grees, has a built-in biological urge to explore. Travel author Bruce Chatwin postulated from his studies of the traditional ways of Australian Aborigines and other nomadic tribes that we were built 'for a career of seasonal journeys,' not unlike that of fellow earthly species. Movement is at the core of existence, from the lulling motion in the womb, to the unfolding passages of our lives.

The world’s first long-distance travelers not trading or warring across antiquity were pilgrims, on the road to sacred mountains, temples, and shrines. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims in search of salvation trekked for months across India to the Him-alayas and Mt. Kailas, an abode of the gods and center of the universe. Some still do, finishing with a 32-mile circumambulation, or kora, around the mountain’s base, a practice that the pilgrim believes erases a lifetime of sin. Those who complete the Kailas trek are believed to have made a symbolic journey through the complete cycle of life and death—and to have been transformed by the power of this passage.

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