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16: Questions of Travel: Journeys of the Body, Journeys of the Mind

One of my favourite writers, Bill Bryson, has a thought-provoking passage near the beginning of his book about Australia, Down Under, published in 2000.

Through the technological miracles of television and commercial travel, Australia seems so accessible now, even homely. We might easily remember the theme tunes of Home and Away or Neighbours, or know one or a dozen young people who’ve spent a gap year in Sydney or Brisbane, or recall with fondness the sporting exploits of David Campese or Ian Thorpe, Evonne Goolagong or Greg Norman.

But the technology distorts the reality.

A friend of mine, one of those people who sees right into the empty heart of most new technology — whether it’s a smartphone or a fancy new car — mostly prefers to use his sixty-something-year-old legs to carry him around. He runs for exercise and walks for pleasure. He once said to me, “When you’re in a car and you see a sign, ‘Next town: 5km’, you immediately think, I’m there. When you’re walking, though, that same sign means one hour.'”

Australia is a faraway place, and just because such distances have been condensed by the marvel of modern innovations doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Because Australia is so far away from anywhere, it is truly unique. Bryson’s book outlines all the horrible, uniquely Australian and slightly hilarious ways you can die there: “It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures — the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish — are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

But it was his reflections on the origins of Australia’s people that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it a couple of decades ago. Our own little lives are so short that it’s hard for us to think about the span of centuries, never mind millennia. But the story — or theory, because nobody really knows for sure — of how the Aboriginal people first got to Australia is mind-blowing.

Bryson writes:

At some undetermined point in the great immensity of [Australia’s] past — perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe — it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbors in the region, and whose presence in Australia can only be explained by positing that they invented and mastered ocean-going craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else, in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.

Thirty thousand years in advance of anyone else, they were travelling across vast oceans. Thirty thousand years is a long time. It’s only three thousand since the pyramids and the passage graves of Atlantic Europe, two and a half thousand since Socrates and Aristotle and Plato, two thousand since Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar.

Reflecting on this now, though, one of the most striking things about all this is the urge to travel.

Tens of thousands of years before the invention of agriculture, or the first urban civilisations, people were fashioning boats strong enough to take them across vast and inhospitable oceans — no doubt killing very many of them en route — to find another land to call home.

Yes, it was almost certainly driven by survival instinct, a voyage starting from a life gamble: either die where we are, or roll the dice with all our lives and see where the sea takes us.

If we believe in souls or spirituality, in any sort of transcendent plane of existence, if we’re to believe that there is an energy that transmits across the generations above and beyond the very real limitations of our own gravity-bound bodies, then there must be some core part of us that is driven to move.

To move, to move on, to leave behind, to seek somewhere new — all of those urges might be within all of us.

Elizabeth Bishop, the poet, has a lovely poem called “Questions of Travel” which includes the lines:

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

The poem later makes reference to Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, who once declared that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

And maybe he was right. War and carbon emissions and all the countless problems of colonialism, all can be traced back to the inability to be happy with one’s lot in the here and now.

But maybe “problems” is too negative a term to be entirely accurate. Because there is something glorious and necessary too in our desire to go, to move, to find a place where we can see the sun the other way around.

Maybe this has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to deal with in this pandemic year. Along with the uncertainty facing so many livelihoods, and the new awareness of our mortality, we have been asked to stay at home, to restrict our movements, to stay still for the greater good.

It is a big ask, and it can’t go on indefinitely without losing something priceless and core to our being.

As vaccine rollouts continue to progress, and the understanding of everything around the virus improves — from how it spreads, to who is most at risk, to breakthroughs in how the illness can best be treated — many people will be allowing themselves to look forward to a time when they can travel more freely again.

Until that happens (and our collective desire for travel is so ingrained that it is certain to happen), maybe the best we can do is not merely to sit still and try to calm our mind with affirmations and incantations and mindfulness meditations.

Travel with our minds

Such pursuits can be valuable, of course, but another choice we have is to travel with our minds.

To pluck a book from the shelf, and sink into it, and find ourselves within just a few focused minutes, plotting revenge against the bore in the next bed in a World War II hospital ward, or on a desert planet in another time or another dimension, or accompanying a band of outlaws around the Australian outback.

Stories are more than just stories. Stories make sense of our world. Stories bewitch us. Stories can save our lives.

They take us on a neverending journey into countless places and perspectives we can never hope to experience in the objective, external reality of our own day to day.

We are privileged if, at any moment, we can reach for any one of a million travel guides, give ourselves over to them for a few minutes and allow them to bring us to some new shore of some new land.

When we can’t travel in our bodies, we can console ourselves, at least, that we can still travel in our minds.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.