Monday, 7 February 2011

Is it really better to travel than to arrive?

Or is it actually better not to travel at all but to stay right where you are and just imagine your destination? Is it possible to be an armchair travel writer? Instead of writing about our actual experiences and impressions, we could write about what we think we might see or encounter. Most of us have somewhere we’ve always longed to visit. Or even several somewheres. My own list seems to get longer every year; I’ve managed to get to some of them – Stonehenge, the Acropolis, Rome, Petra – but I keep finding new ones to add. And sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the expectation, and I almost wish I’d stayed in my armchair.
I always imagined riding up to Petra on horseback in the very early morning, across dunes stained with the sunrise. I didn’t picture my companions specifically, but they were always convivial; possibly even poetic and romantic; a desert sheik who only existed between the pages of E.M. Hull’s classic novel, perhaps. We’d ride into a narrow and shadowy ravine, our horses’ hooves clattering on the stone. Then, after several minutes of growing anticipation, we’d emerge back into the sunlight to see the spectacular Treasury rearing up in front of us.
As it happened, Petra was a huge disappointment. I was too hot, too ill and too bad-tempered to appreciate it. My main concern was the whereabouts of the nearest loo, which naturally took any pleasure out of the experience. And I was taken aback to discover it wasn’t out in the wilderness but part of a busy tourist village that had mainly grown up on the back of people’s Petran expectations. The history was fascinating, but I was too grumpy to enjoy it. And the guides and hawkers were all unfailingly charming and hospitable, but I was too grumpy to appreciate them either. I still wish Petra had stayed the poetic rose-red city of my imagination.
So perhaps we can invent a new genre? Armchair travelling stories. Post me your imaginary journeys to the places you dream of visiting. Or tell me how the reality fell short of them. Perhaps even how it eclipsed them. When I visited Rome, it was nothing like the quiet, reverential shrine to long-dead Caesars that I’d pictured. But it entranced and enraptured me just the same. 
I look forward to hearing from you.

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