Monday, June 23, 2008

Travelogue 1: Thoughts On Travel

No way around it--travel is one of life's luxuries. I consider it neither a right, nor perhaps even a privilege, but rather an indulgence reflecting the affluence of our age. Nor does travel necessarily bring out the best in human nature, exposing one as it does to temptations heretofore unimagined. Throughout history, travel for pleasure, or even for education, was something of a novelty. But in all times, there were those who were curious to see what lay on the other side of the hill. So, I am deeply thankful that at this stage of my life, family and financial obligations have arranged themselves in such a manner as to allow me the luxury of travel, and to--as this picture illustrates--stand in a Street Called Straight.

I am best as a solitary traveler. I broke from my pattern last summer when I traveled for a time in a company of others, making friendships I hope to keep for a lifetime. But admittedly, a group touring Georgian monasteries is, by definition, something of an eclectic group. All things considered though, traveling alone allows you to stand back and really contemplate the new environment in which you find yourself.

This point was brought home to me while wandering the ruins of Serjilla, one of the "dead cities" in northern Syria. These were prosperous provincial towns of the early Byzantine era, abandoned in the 8th century or so. The sites remain in a remarkable state of preservation--mansions, storehouses, churches, monasteries, mausoleums, etc.--and as William Dalrymple noted, some of these structures need only a roof to be habitable again. These cities fascinated me, being something of an amateur Byzantinist. Theirs was a society like none before or since--Roman power married to Greek philosophy, and all baptized with the Apostolic Faith. Standing on that windswept hill, one could almost sense the life of this ruined Byzantine cityscape.

At that point, a French tour group came upon the scene. They were chattering incessantly among themselves, and resembled nothing so much as a flock of noisy guinea hens, clucking and pecking their way across a farmyard. Maybe they were able to appreciate the site, but it is hard to see how with all the commotion.

I do not understand escapist travel either: mindless cruises, hedonistic spas, self-indulgent gambling junkets and such like. Unless one discovers a way to leave your mind at home (which is apparently the whole draw of Las Vegas), there is no possible way to "get away from it all." What a colossal waste of time and money.

Travel does offer a different perspective through which to view one's own life. This does not mean that you simply replace your traditions, views, and values with those of the places you visit. Rather, travel provides a differing context in which to better understand your own life situation, your place in the world and most importantly, to contemplate those things of a salvific nature.

That's all very high-minded and all, but how do I explain my recent travels to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and inadvertently, Israel? Particularly in regard to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, I have several flippant retorts at the ready. One, to quote Kinky Friedman's 2006 Texas gubernatorial campaign slogan--"Why the hell not?" Next, I do not like to stand in lines, so I go places where tourists aren't. Finally, the mere thought that the Bush-Cheney gang might not approve of my travels in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine is just all the more incentive to go.

On my flight from DFW to Paris, I couldn't help but overhear a one-sided conversation in the seats behind me. A man in his early 60s--garrulous, talkative and a bit profane--determined to strike up a conversation with his seatmate, a man of his early 40s. The older man had been quite literally everywhere, starting with a tour of Vietnam in the 60s. He was now headed for--as he said, Slovania and Croatia. The younger man was not at all talkative. He was an engineer for some large Texas oil drilling firm, that was sending him to Toulouse to meet with French designers of a specialized drilling tool. He was almost moping about the trip (oh yes, an expense paid trip to France in the spring is perfectly dreadful!) By the time we were in the air, the older man was already on his first vodka tonic and carrying on what was very much a one-sided conversation about travel and places around the world. He asked the younger man if he was familiar with Slovania and Croatia, to which the man replied that he had never heard of them. Finally, the younger man, in an apparent effort to contribute something to this conversation, asked "Well, why in the world are you going to Slovenia?" The older man seemed taken aback, and momentarily at a loss for words. He paused briefly and replied, "Well, I've never been there." At this point, I leaned over my seat and said "that is exactly the right answer."

But the real reason I chose Syria has a lot to do with William Dalrymple, and his From the Holy Mountain. This book from the mid 1990s chronicles the plight of the ancient and now-beleaguered Orthodox Christian communities in the modern Levant. Dalrymple is simply one of the best travel writers around, and much of my explorations in recent years have been in retracement of his steps. Since my first exposure to his work, I have become Orthodox myself, which obviously adds another dimension to my travels.

Though taking root here and there, Orthodoxy remains something of an exotic hothouse flower in America. And yet, contrary to some, I am not at all pessimistic about Orthodoxy's prospects in our country. For it is a permanent thing, tenacious and resilient. I see pockets of the ancient faith that survive (and even prosper) in parts of the Middle East, in the face of a prevailing culture that is overwhelmingly in opposition, if not downright antagonism, to Orthodoxy. So there are lessons for us here as we strive for lives of authentic faithfulness. Our own culture, with its artificial divide between all things secular and the Divine, is no less antagonistic.

Other travel posts to follow...

Photographs, in order:
The Street Called Straight, Old City Damascus
Bazaar, Old City Damascus
The Final Judgement, Mar Mousa Monastery, Syria
View from Mar Mousa looking East
Church of St. George, Ezra, Syria


James the Thickheaded said...

My wife laments I am notoriously not bitten by the travel bug.. but we're doing a little. Would agree that when it comes to wandering... sometimes it's just simpler to do alone. Even if it's nearby, some folks just don't have the patience to put up with either the Bataan death marches on the one hand, or the exploration of nooks and crannies on the other.

Wasn't sure where you were going with the conversation between the two folks. Sometimes, it can be a long flight with a chatterbox and leave you longing for the safety of the inside covers of your book; sometimes there's is nothing greater than the joy in meeting a fellow wayfarer. Been both and suffered both.

Kirk said...

Ah, the long-awaited travel report! I thought you'd forgotten us. ;)

Interesting to see the sidewalk construction project on the Street Called Straight: a perfect parallel with the Main Street sidewalk projects which have become so fashionable in our small East Texas cities.

John said...

James--I know what you mean. Generally, I am not one to engage in much conversation in flight. But I was trying to illustrate the differing approaches to life. To the older man, travel (and life itself) was a great adventure. To the younger man, even an expense-paid trip to France was drudgery. Clearly, I identify with the older man.

Kirk, I know, I know...I am really dragging my feet. I seem to be having trouble getting my mind in gear to do this. Damascus has received a UNESCO grant to spiff up the Street Called Straight. It is tore up from one end to the other. Mainly, they are installing new underground utilities all around, and then repaving the cobblestones. It will be much improved once they are finished, but the merchants along the street are really hurting in the interim.

Carey G. said...

From the Holy Mountain is one of my favorite travel books. I enjoyed the Spiritual Meadow and have to really hand it to William Dalrymple for deriving such an incredible theme from Moschos' travels.

s-p said...

I live vicariously through your travel blogs. :) I LOVE the concept of seeing new places, I have a visceral reaction to packing a bag to travel, even overnight after moving every 2-3 years as a Navy brat throughout my childhood. I'll read your blog and take a nap in my own bed, thankyou.

Anonymous said...

I too loved "From the Holy Mountain".

And you are quite a good travel writer too, going by this post. Great thoughts and comments [I am a solo traveller also], and wonderful photos; look forward to reading more.