Saturday 6 March 2010

Travel broadening the mind. Or not.

I wanted to write a piece about my wonderful holidays and the fun we can have without flying. I wanted to concentrate on how I have it so much easier than anyone else. Never having flown, I don't have to stop flying. I don't have to give up the keys to the world. I don't have to choose to take the train instead of flying, and spend days on a journey instead of hours. When I was a child, my family took holidays in the UK, and once I started holidaying myself, I followed in their footsteps. Now I'm aware of the damage of flying, I've chosen that I won't fly on holiday.

But first I want to do my best to lay to rest a damaging cliché; one that I feel fuels the middle-class sense of entitlement to fly at will.

Travel does not broaden the mind any more than buying exercise equipment makes you fit. It is thinking that broadens the mind.

I have met any number of people who easily disprove that old chestnut. I've drunk in pubs where I could hardly hear myself think above the Hooray Henrys braying about their trips to Cuba, the Caribbean, African and Asia. They showed no evidence of having learnt anything on their travels- nor of finding themselves, or (more's the pity) losing themselves. I've listened (endlessly) to people returning from gap years; their accounts of drinking and sleeping their way around whichever continent they descended upon. They sound extraordinarily similar to other friend's descriptions of their weekends, just a bit hillier and rather longer. Maybe those people's experiences abroad will make them more rounded, more compassionate and wiser. Or maybe it is age that will do that to them, as it does to most people.

It is important to remember, when discussing travelling, that throughout history travel has been restricted to a tiny minority. It is even more important to recognise that it still is.

Only an estimated 5% of the world's people fly- which is the sole reason that aviation produces only 3.5% of global CO2 emissions. Even in Britain, flying is generally restricted to the better off, with poorer people taking very few flights. And whilst it's important not to conflate travel with flying- they're not the same thing- they do at present overlap strongly.

So, if we wax lyrical about how personally beneficial travel is, how it leads us to learn about ourselves and other cultures, how it stops us stagnating, teaches us about politics and the environment, do we risk suggesting that those things aren't experienced by those 6.3 billion people who don't fly? Of course not, that would be a terrible and ludicrous thing to suggest. But asking the question suffices to tell us that there are other ways than global travel to experience those things.

I feel very strongly (and I suspect it is because I haven't travelled) that broad mindedness, a capacity to learn and to be awed and compassionate are states of mind, not a function of travel.

Not being insular is achieved by communicating, by listening wherever you are. It's taking the opportunity, when working alongside a Polish agency worker, to learn a few words of Polish, and to listen to her experiences; it's learning traditional skills from an elderly neighbour.

Last year I spent National Dawn Chorus Day in a tent in a wood, waking in the dark, almost deafened by the sweetness of the birdsong. It was an astonishing, life-affirming moment. And I could have had exactly the same damn experience by staying at home and setting my alarm clock. It's not the travelling, it's making the effort to open your senses and experience things.

So, now I've got that off my chest, on to the wonderful future we can have without flying. I don't fly. I have amazing holidays: I relax utterly, I see beautiful things and I have the time of my life. I spend summer weekends camping by our glorious Norfolk beaches. Hours basking in the sun, swimming with seals; or hours drinking in steamy over-stuffed tents, waiting for the rain to stop so we can go to the loo. Both have their pleasures, though I admit to preferring the former.

I spent last March in a yurt in the Lake District- that really was lovely. In June, I went to the Shetland Isles. It took 26 hours by train, bus and ferry and emitted 0.26 tonnes of CO2. It was the wildest, starkest and most alien place I've ever seen.

In future years I hope to visit France, Italy and Spain. I'd love to go to Sweden, Morocco, Croatia. Wherever I go, I shall travel solely for the pure selfish joy of the experience. I won't dress it up. And my own selfish joy is not reason enough to justify the environmental or human damage done by flying. So I won't fly.

But, wherever else I go, I shall keep visiting Norfolk's beaches and loving them; and I shall keep my eyes and heart open wherever I am.

Pictures: View from the Road to the Isles train; Waxham Beach.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great post, it was an interesting view considering Jon's previous post.
    I think that it's not as simple as choosing to holiday in places one can reach by other methods of transport to air. What about those whose families live in far flung places that could not be reached easily or effectively other than by air? I have to admit to not having flown for some years but as you rightly said, it's an expensive deal and certainly this year I shall be visiting a place I've always wanted to go to: Northumberland, so once again, no air travel for me.
    I also agree that experience is what broadens the mind rather than the travel itself but certainly there are some experiences that can only be achieved through air travel and if it's on your bucket-list... Or maybe we should be cleansing our bucket-lists :)
    Again, many thanks for an interesting post