How to Travel Well

Why do so many of us, when we hear of some distant place, long to be there? When I was a young man in college, Africa drew me in like a vortex. I had never been there, but it was in my mind this timeless place where big game roamed the savannah, thousands of miles of virgin coast awaited discovery, and cultures ancient and new clamored in the streets, all wrapped up in one gigantic continent. And the crown jewel, the mystery of mystery, was the archipelago Zanzibar. Persian by inheritance, the name Zanzibar evoked within me visions of an ancient coast, teeming with merchants from Africa, Arabia, the Orient, trading wares and spices among its serpentine alleyways. The greatest show on earth, I was convinced, was on Zanzibar.

Perhaps Seneca was right, that “men travel far and wide, wandering along foreign shores and making trial by land and sea of their restlessness, which always hates what is around it.”1. We are dissatisfied with life and we want to see, hear, feel something — anything — new. We long for some assurance that the rhythms of our lives mean something. So we go out looking for a home, some place that would satisfy this longing. We hope that a secret beach in Thailand, a sanctuary in the Alps, or a busy market in Zanzibar, someplace untouched by our presence, could restore us.

But we are capable of destroying the very thing we seek. Our trips devolve into a nervous indulgence, scurrying from one site to another, gorging ourselves on ancient sites, museums and restaurants. Top Ten Beaches in the World! Experience the Real Africa! A Perfect Weekend in Lisbon! the articles declare, and we buy the whole lot. Like a selfish lover, we’ve traveled to extract pleasure only for ourselves.

It’s not surprising that we come home disappointed. We may have seen the right things and eaten at the right places, but we feel as if we’ve never really been there. We find our memories dissipating, forgetting where we’ve been, what we’ve done. Distressed by our condition, we flip through Instagrams of moments we can no longer recall, assuring ourselves that yes, we were there, and yes, we did that. Our travels exist only in the decaying memories of our phones and we are forced to admit, as Seneca concluded, “that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.”

“Who are the great travelers?”, Paul Theroux asked. “They are curious, contented, self-sufficient people who are not afraid of the past. They are not hiding in travel; they are seeking.”2 And what we really seek, I believe, is not primarily the sights, food, history, or even the culture. We seek something more valuable: a bond between the traveler and her destination, an intimacy that goes beyond things touchable, edible, visible. What we seek is friendship.

Travel as friendship

This means that we must talk to people. The best hours spent may be on the curb of a crowded street, deep in conversation with a street vendor, not in the museum or temple. The best meal may in someone’s cluttered home, not the Michelin establishment. “A man might spend his life in trains and restaurants and know nothing of humanity at the end,” Aldous Huxley warns. “To know, one must be an actor as well as a spectator.”3 Talk to your drivers, the wait staff, bored locals perched on shady benches. Take a cooking class or hire a guide — that way you get a local to yourself for the day. Get away and find the quiet places, where people live and play. Make friends.

I eventually did make it to Africa, with my roommate Paul. We had saved Zanzibar for last, and it was where I learned this lesson. We were a week in and reality had brushed away all romantic fantasies. The alleyways were filled with hawkers pushing tacky bracelets and CDs, not spices from some faraway land. And the beaches were crammed with overweight, leathery Italians, bright-red like lobsters in their tiny Speedos, not virgin in any way.

But one moonless night I set out alone on the quiet stretch of beach and stumbled into what looked like a fisherman’s rest house. It was a simple restaurant, a thatched roof sandwiched between two luxury resorts, lit by candles precariously balanced in grimy Coke bottles. Two sea-weathered tables, leaning in the sand, made up the dining area, completed with mismatched chairs. And a single-burner stove slapped on a butcher’s table served as the kitchen.

A teenager of sixteen — the chef — popped out from the kitchen. We began to talk, and as the night progressed I found myself more and more attached to this young man, who carried himself with a quiet and confident spirit. He loved to cook, and his dream was to work for one of the big resorts that flanked this tiny shack, the same resorts that had strong-armed his family out of their beach-side property — a business deal gone bad, I gathered. This patch of sand was all they had left, given in recompense. But there was no bitterness in his voice, only determination. Here was a man, I thought, that would never fail to rise from any hardship life dared throw at him. The waiter, a middle-aged fisherman with hands rough from years at sea, described how he would wake up at midnight to take his boat out to sea, fighting against the raging ocean, and how some days when the catch is going bad he would stay out day and night. Then the wind, growing stronger, howled through the shack and knocked the candles down. The fisherman took out his drums and began to play. That rhythm, constant and full, echoed into the night, mimicking the rhythm of the sea. Dinner was served. It was the best meal I had all month.

Until that night, Zanzibar had been about me, me, me. What I wanted to eat, what I wanted to see, and what I wanted to do. I had brought my expectations to this archipelago, and it was ruining the place. But walking home that night in the overwhelming darkness, with no light save the bright, pulsating prisms of the lighthouse, I felt happy and content.

I had learned something that day, the same lesson that I write to you about today: that this great undertaking we embark upon, this scratchy restlessness we indulge in, this refuge we run towards — it all begins with us, not with monuments and sights. That travel is a two-way dialog, a shared experience between the traveler and the people. That to travel is to make a friend.

Stone Town, Zanzibar
Nungwi, Zanzibar

  1. On Tranquility of the Mind ↩︎
  2. Fresh Air Fiend ↩︎
  3. Along the Road ↩︎
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