Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Travel and the Christian

Extremely long post follows. And I'm happy to share the blame. ;-)

Preparing to leave for Indonesia, went for a final run in the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the evening. Note to self: pounding the footpaths in the blustery storm and drenching rain at night, embracing the shedding of inhibitive dryness, delighting in the washing away of the day's toilsome sweat and office dust...requires a change of dry underwear for a comfortable journey home.

After a hot bath, clear(er) lungs wanted clean food like cold juicy slices of roast beef, chunks of creamy goat camembert, hunks of brown bread, little piles of applesauce and dots of horseradish and a handful of mesclun anointed with red wine vinegar and virgin olive oil, all eaten neatly with quick efficient fingers, a thick white napkin over the lap and washed down with Signor Pellegrino's Aranciata Rossa.

And furious lightning threatened to crack open the thick blackness outside, and the rain still beat sharply against the windowpanes and the cold wind howled through the eaves, but we were snug and smug and warm with a gentle sweet Asti curling its way through our blood as the air filled with apple crumble baking in the oven. And someone sighed comfortably, stretched his legs out and wondered why anyone would ever ever want to leave the comfort of home for the sake of Travel.

(But it is not true that similar comforts cannot be found on travels; like the little ski trip we took in Finland, with a Finnish friend: very blonde, with the confident cheekbones of a Viking descendant whose girlfriend was even blonder with the height and figure that so outrivalled Pamela Anderson even the militant gay boy in our midst thought his professed sexuality a bit suspect (which is another story altogether). Where, after several days of blinding white cold, severe pine trees and icy wind that went straight to our bones as we flew down powdery runs, slalomming and outmanoeuvering snotty snowboarders, we cross-countried to a cosy logcabin whose enticing warm orange light shone like a beacon of hope in the bleak snow-covered countryside, in which we took off our rapidly drying ski jackets, had akvavit with smoked herring and lukefisk by the cracklingly hot fire and then tucked in the wonderful spit-roasted wild boar and bear and reindeer with sweet tart cranberry and lingonberry sauce and steaming creamy mash and sipped vodka afterwards with generous slices of blueberry tart and still after, café au lait for the road. More please. To quote the trash poetry wag,"So much snow, so little dough".)
What pushes and pulls and spurs men and women to traverse vast distances, with no hope or promise of such comfort, sometimes without a place of intended disembarkation, braving strange countries and people and tongues and diseases, risking headhunters and cannibals and horrible ways of dying yet unknown to and unsuspected by them even in their most sweaty nightmares?

Interestingly,"travel" is a word that owes its history to to the root word "travail" (trouble, toil, labour) and the Latin "trepalium" (a three-pronged instrument of torture), perhaps reflective of the difficulty of getting anywhere in the Middle Ages when, so etymologists tell us, the word first evolved.

Historically, motives for travel/tourism can be made to fall into the two general categories of pull and push factors.

Some pull factors might include:
visitation of family and friends: tearful reunions with loved ones, joyful renewal of bonds of companionship, kinship and blood, catch-ups and updates, hugs and kisses, dutiful visits home;

political travel: handshakes and smiles for the international media, carefully-prepared statements and speeches on trade and friendship, state dinners, government interpreters, boosting ties with other nations, maintaining relations between countries and states;

conquest travel/colonialism: a terribly un-PC motive for travel nowadays when people spit out "imperalist" and "slave trader" as insults, but in the past when conquest travel was all the rage, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Francis Drake, foreign lands claimed, indigenous people subdued and plunder seized, status of conquerors enhanced nationally, material rewards bestowed on them for their success and public holidays named in their honour;

commercial/business travel: weary seedy travelling salesman, centuries old ubiquitous overseas Chinese merchants, high-flying, frequent-flying contemporary investment bankers and business consultants;

exploration: Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Ferdinand Magellan, long sea voyages, circumnavigating the world, soft silk, white ivory, red rubies, deep emeralds, green jade, precious porcelain, precocious paper money, strange spices, holy men, royal caravans, Mecca, faraway islands, Chinese princesses and Malayan sultans, dying in foreign countries;

scientific study: sometimes, completely unintended like the HMS Beagle which completed extensive surveys of South America and returned to England via New Zealand, and which suffered to have on board a bored young man named Charles Darwin who had gone along for the ride;

artistic inspiration: leary Flaubert believed that travel served to enliven his writing; giggling Mozart gathered inspiration for his music on his freakshow musical travels; Tahitian women (and also medieval stained glass and Japanese prints) inspired Gaugin, as the Balinese chicks did many pioneering Singaporean painters;

educative tourism
: Thomas Coryat's "Coryat's Crudities" started it all, then in the 1800s, wealthy Brit young men undertook the Grand Tour as a sort of finishing school for their classical education learning about culture, art and antiquities. Nowadays students have exchange programmes and field trips abroad;

moralistic tourism: the fight for human rights, gender equality, animal rights, environmental protection, and all other variations of moralistic politics or as the French say, le droit de l'hommeism, travels to coincide with the meetings of key leaders for sensitive political negotiations, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, NATO, the focus of the global media on these events, the raising of profile of protestors at these events, the usual "Repent, Return to Christ" placardholders around the edges of the Mardis Gras;

pietistic/religious tourism: crusades, pilgrimages, Mecca, Fátima, Chaucer's travellers to Canterbury, King Arthur's Knights of the Roundtable, mass climbs of Mount Fuji led by Buddhist monks;

ecotourism: responsible travel to natural areas, conservation of the environment, promotion of the welfare of the indigenous population, white man's/developed man's burden, cultural awareness and respect, empowerment of the locals;

sports tourism: world championships, European competitions, ASEAN games, international tournaments, the Olymics, sports in different climates, landscapes and terrain;

sex tourism: young Gustave Flaubert in Egypt, dirty old men in Thailand and Cambodia;

adventure-seeking: spontaneous or planned, seeking new and usually dangerous exploits, expeditions and activities, Theodore Roosevelt going into the Amazon to hunt in areas "utterly unknown to topographers";

prestige: obscure exotic destinations;

pure consumerism: rational consumption with expectations commensurate with cost and an appreciation of that entirely functional index of potential pleasure, travelling voyeurism without the ideological baggage or physical discomforts that encumber traditional ideas of travel;

pure aestheticism: Victor Segalen's le Divers, everything foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous, superhuman, heroic, and even divine, everything that is Other, the feeling which le Divers stirs in us is l'exotisme, an aesthetic experience, a vision of the world...

ad nauseum

The current 1000 Places to See Before You Die mindset suggests that if you haven't travelled widely, you haven't truly lived.

Some push factors might include war, hunger, oppression, or
escape from alienation: having no real centre to life, feeling of alienation, work being boring and repetitive done purely to earn money, having no particular attachment to the job or the organisation, travel as brief escape from tedium and routine, soothing of nerves that makes alienation endurable;

escape from inauthenticity: perception of lives being unstable and inauthentic, seeking of authenticity and mythical structures on holidays, creating and recreating those structures which modernity has demolished and caused to vanish elsewhere, belief that in some other lifestyle, social class or country there is a more genuine way to live;

escape from own lifestyle: feeling no particular loyalty to any one way of life, tending to equivocate between a number of them, experimenting with other cultures and religions, trying out drugs or mysticism or some cult religion, searching for something that will strike a chord, complete immersion in the new place or culture - going to an ashram or joining a work camp, fully immersed but not permanently committed.

Side Effects of Travel
One of the widely acknowledged side effects of travel is decouverte; self-discovery both on the part of the tourist and the host. Through acceptance and exchange with others, one becomes aware of one's own rich resources. Understanding others promotes self-identification of one's gender, race, ethnicity, class and worldview.

Failure of Travel
To some degree, all expectations of the pleasure or satisfaction to be derived from travel fail. As a romantic escape from the industrial world, following the romantic images of untouched nature and untouched history, it is bound to fail because tourism has established itself as an industry. The journey out of the sphere of commodities has itself become a commodity. Like all industrial production, it has become standardised, assembled and produced in series. Since Karl Baedeker and Thomas Cook, guidebooks standardise the sights, the sights are being assembled to package tourists. Tourism business is about a dream factory, churning out dreams with emotive marketing and glossy brochures for would-be travellers to consume.

Travel as Social Construct
Perhaps in any case, all the perceived pleasure and satisfaction to be derived from travel and the value of tourism as a phenomenon and activity is merely culturally produced, as are certain representations of specific destination (eg. the Maldives as a luxurious relaxing beach destination).

As if acknowledging that pleasure to be derived from travel is a state of mind (and more likely because he was under house arrest for duelling), in 1790, Xavier de Maitre undertook travels around his bedroom, noted down as Voyage Around My Room, which was followed up with Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room in his favourite pink and blue jammies.

Should a Christian travel?
In some circles, travel for leisure (and sometimes business and missionary work) is seen as being representative of ungodly priorities, being irresponsible to the Christian community back home and utterly worthless.

However, there is no direct Biblical right or wrong in relation to travel. Travelling is not worthless or ungodly per se. People in the Bible travelled for all sorts of reasons: Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden, Cain was sent away for killing Abel, Haggah was running away from Sarah, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt because of the famine, Moses headed towards the Promised Land, Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census, Jesus travelled around the region preaching, early Christians fled from persecution etc.

As with so much other living out of the Christian life, it is not usually the action itself that is the issue, but the mindset, the worldview, the perception of God, others and self that is on view:

Why are we travelling? Are we running away from ourselves, the church or God? Is this a Sabbath from work and toil? Are we idolising another lifestyle? Are we searching for meaning in life?

How long are we travelling for and where are we going? We don't have to go only to places where there are Christians or good churches. It really depends what is most helpful for the individual's godliness. Some who find that without being surrounded by other Christians even for a short period of time, they quickly forget God. Others find that their relationship with God develops as they learn to rely on him for everything on their travels. In any case, being too long away from a Christian community is to stay away from the method by which God has ordained we be encouraged and in turn encourage others to persevere. And there is much danger in that.

What is most helpful for us? Travelling may present temptations to the Christian that he might not otherwise face at home. Will he have trouble being alone and lonely in a hotel room with free porn on the telly, or perhaps too bored, with too much to drink and surrounded by willing members of the opposite sex? Certain destinations known for its free sex, rampant drug use, or fashion idolising cultures may have different effects on different individuals so while one could live a godly life for years in the heart of the redlight district in Amsterdam, another might find himself stumbling on his first night there.

When are we doing it? Leaving co-leaders, fellow Sunday school teachers, music team members in the lurch by vacating our position? But no one is indispensible and it is likely that with enough notice, someone can be found to cover our responsibilities.

How much are we spending on it? Is it good stewardship of money, not in terms of percentage of salary but in terms of what it could have been used for in terms of the building of God's kingdom?

And all that hooha about the impact of tourism on local cultures and indigenous populations? It's an opportunity for them to hear the gospel, from us. A Vietnamese chap who was attempting to translate a sermon for me in a Hanoi church said he used to be a tour guide down in Ho Chi Minh. On one tour he was leading, an Aussie lady shared the gospel with him. He believed in Jesus and was saved.

Because being a child of God is who we are. All the time. And telling people the good news is our lifestyle. Because our inherent value system does not go on holiday when we do.


Labels: ,


At January 11, 2006 10:31 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a good essay! It is more comprehensive than that Matthias Media one at


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home