Why on earth do we go there? And what is travel?
Curiosity is an integral part of being a traveler, as opposed to being a tourist.
Tourists, illustrated guidebooks in hand, go to see what they expect to see. One merely has to go there, verify that it is exactly as described, and emerge unchanged. Many such guidebooks are filled with lavish illustrations. St Peter’s Basilica is sectioned in polychrome anatomical detail like an orange, its burnished, art-encrusted surfaces exposed in lurid detail. It virtually dispenses with the need to visit the real thing at all.
But to tour, to treat travel as if it were merely some form of visual checklist of places and events described in some guidebook, is to miss the point of travel altogether.
I’m standing on an ancient rampart on the periphery of Istanbul’s old city, taking in a sight that few visitors per year to this fabled city ever see. It’s easily Istanbul’s most extensive ancient structure, but few tourists ever catch more than a fleeting glimpse of it from a bus or taxi. I’m speaking of the Byzantine land walls of Constantinople.
Built in the 5th century by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius, it’s still a sight to behold after one-and-a-half millennia. When viewed from the Ottoman Yedidule fortress that anchors the wall’s southern end, the immense limestone bulk marches inexorably northwards, punctuated by crumbling towers. So much of the history of Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known, was written on these walls. My plan was to walk as much of its 5-mile length as practicable.
With nary another visitor in sight, I traced the line of the walls on foot, reading the echoes of history in indentations, inscriptions, scars. I found the remnants of the Golden Gate, once the most famous city gate in the world with its glowing doors of beaten gold, long sealed up by later superstitious rulers. Remnants of a slum once occupied by Roma people, cleared by the Turkish authorities as part of a sanitation drive in 2008. The exact spot where the Ottoman besiegers breached the once-impregnable wall in the great siege of 1453, where one great civilisation came crashing down and another rose from its ashes. Why did I attempt this pilgrimage? Not because of anything that came out of a guidebook, but out of simple curiosity.
A ride on the Staten Island Ferry, rendering expansive views of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, is one of the city’s best free attractions.
What is travel? It’s simply to go and discover for oneself. Not to verify the expected, or to tick off one of those “100 places to see before you die” bucket lists that mushroom on the internet in profusion. They may gush about the Alhambra or the Great Wall of China and give a step-by-step account of how best to approach and appreciate these monuments; but their breathless and ecstatic manner belies the sad fact that these great sights are nothing more than nodes on a checklist, to be ticked off one by one.
For first-time visitors to New York City, especially the budget-conscious (myself included), a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, rendering expansive views of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, is one of the city’s best free attractions. Most visitors however, on disembarking on Staten Island, simply turn right around and get back on the next ferry to Manhattan. But my internet research had turned up an unusual sight on Staten Island itself that precious few visitors ever see. “For the intrepid only,” cautioned one blogger. I simply couldn’t resist it.
On Staten Island, at the unpromisingly-named Arthur Kills road, there is a unique sight.The unprepossessing road brings you to a small bay edged with scrap metal yards.
An hour-long bus ride brought me through an autumn landscape of cinnamon and scarlet trees, past pretty timbered houses, and a picture-perfect historic village. At the unpromisingly-named Arthur Kills road, there is a unique sight. The unprepossessing road brings you to a small bay edged with scrap metal yards.
But the main draw lies in the bay itself, known as the ship graveyard. The water is dotted with dozens of defunct naval vessels, quietly rusting into oblivion. Here amidst the birdcalls and marshes, the steel cadavers rise from their watery graves, as copper-red as the surrounding foliage, their crumbling masts a haunting and perhaps prophetic vision of the end of our time. To me, it was totally worth the long diversion.
And so, if I may submit my own small list, here is some advice for the would-be traveler:
Leave the guidebooks at home. They’re useful for planning a trip, but never have I packed anything less useful (and more bulky) than a guidebook. If you need a map, they are always plentiful at your destination. And the more lavishly illustrated the guidebook, the more likely you are to follow a well-worn tourist path. And if you seek information while at your destination, you can always talk to the locals.
Speaking of locals, making friends with the indigenes is one of the great joys of travel. If you’re interested in different cultures, befriend someone who is immersed in it.
Be unafraid of getting lost. If you have the time, losing your way can be a rare pleasure. You may find new ways of seeing when faced with the unexpected. When visiting Kyoto’s famous (and dismally overcrowded) Kiyomizudera temple, an accidental detour led me to discover the unfrequented back way. My reward? A stunning view of an entire hillside blanketed with identically-shaped grave steles, rising like a miniature granite Manhattan.
In Kyoto, a stunning view of an entire hillside blanketed with identically-shaped grave
steles, rising like a miniature granite Manhattan.
Embrace the ugly. If tourism is centred solely on pretty monuments to the exclusion of everything else, then travel embraces both the ugly and the beautiful. My detour to Arthur Kills was a case in point. As they say in fashion, the ugly can be beautiful; the pretty, never.
So, as countless lyricists and poets have exhorted, in travel as much as in everyday life, throw out the guidebook and take the long way home down the road less travelled. It might just be the journey of a lifetime.
Alan is an architect with Kuching-based practice Integrated Design Consultant. He has a morbid fear of getting lost, which is why he tends to overplan his travel itineraries. Things invariably go wrong, and he often ends up often lost and bewildered, which is fine.