How we travel speaks about us as people. It shows who we are, how we see life, to what extent we strive to become. That’s why a journey’s biggest privilege is that it gives us the chance to rediscover ourselves as human beings. With each journey that we take we travel not only in a given space but also in a given time; I’m thinking of an interior time which, naturally, isn’t measured in chronological units like age is measured in years, but rather in personal growth: from me, the one before to me, the one after.
In the recent decades, the world travels a lot. Just like we can use a radar-type flight app to see thousands of planes crossing the globe in a given period , we could picture the huge mobility of people as a tireless throng. Why do we travel? In an era of the videocratic web, for many of our fellow men travelling has become a symbol of our accession to all sorts of hierarchies, a pretext to show off our social status and a must-do-type of “event” which has to be ticked in the agenda of a deceptive personal branding. Visibility confirms veracity. You post, therefore you are. On the social networks, the number and (financial) extravagance of one’s travels equals success in its most mundane and pragmatic sense. We should just add that there are enough co-inhabitants of this planet for whom the iconic aspect of wealth is more important than the actual travel experience itself. Unfortunately, they remain at the surface of things, on the surface layer of an experience whose vital organ is actually much deeper. For many people, though, travelling bears an initiatory substratum, it is not just a spatial movement, but rather the exploration of territories, of communities & environments and especially an immersion in one’s own self. At one end of the travelling habits I’d place the globe-trotters, these wanderers with wind under their soles, the hippies of the wild beaches, those who don’t think further than tomorrow, the bohemian travellers of the world who represent a particular minority of travellers; by physically moving across the earth and exploring all kinds of living, they unavoidably and riskily draw the itinerary of an ontological journey; to wander with the aim of seeing, knowing, understanding the purpose of your inner world, to adopt a minimalist lifestyle at least for a given time is a courageous way of defying conventions and denying the social pressure of climbing an ephemeral hierarchy. I have met such people and I believe they are truly free.
Most of us, however, travel within the limits of a desirable comfort. We plan our travels in detail, we are reluctant to too big challenges, we move with the warm caution of the typical tourist. But, as I was saying in the beginning, beyond its hedonistic-egoistic side, a journey may be equivalent to a return towards us. Culturally (and anthropologically) speaking, the most intense experiences happen where lifestyle and mentalities are very different from our own. By coming into contact with different people and communities, we’ll find ourselves in an unprecedented stance and it won’t be just Us facing Them, but more importantly Us facing Us: facing our own limits, anxieties and especially prejudices. In other words, by invoking the logic of a symbolic geography, travelling to spaces whose mentalities are different from the ones we live in may trigger within ourselves a fertile tension between two complementary perceptions: that of our own comfortably appropriated identity and that of the unusual, unpredictable and sometimes uncomfortable otherness. Who am I in relation to The Other? What separates us and what brings us closer? How did I think of Them up to the moment of our interaction? To what extent did my encounter with them change me? – these are just as many mirror-questions whose honest answers may help us grow as humans and as beings with every journey that we make.
Let’s remember us, the Romanians, after the year of 1989. It is iconic for the study of post-totalitarian mentalities to think of how we perceived the abroad by first putting it in relation with the travellers who were coming here for various reasons: volunteering, personal or institutional interest, curiosity. During those years, we as a nation lived an ambivalence of attitudes: on the one hand, we were keen on novelty, eager to interact, tacit admirers of the western civilisation and aware of the fact that we needed Europe; on the other hand, though, we remained cautious and even unfriendly towards the foreigners, tempted by protochronistic and conspiracy scenarios, quickly predisposed to aggrandizing our national ego.
Which was natural, after five decades of captivity and fear. From an anthropological perspective, the fear of everything that’s foreign, just like the feeling of hinterland hides an inferiority complex; it actually expresses an anxiety of openness typical of those who have lived for many years in closed communities. In a collective imagination dominated by archaic reflexes, the foreigner perceived as strange & misunderstood becomes a potential danger; in consequence, he is regarded with suspicion, labelled, he perceived through the prism of certain mental short cuts (as prejudices are sometimes called) as a primary defensive reflex.
The opening of the borders and the possibility to travel “abroad” have changed us fundamentally. “We are all different. Fortunately!” says one of the most inspired advertisements ever. By travelling we started to understand what makes us similar to and what separates us from others, to learn that this world is multi-shaped and diverse, that there are bigger sufferings than ours, that it’s not just the Romanians who were born poets, but also the Maya and even the Germans, that we are not the centre of the Earth, that there are thousands of languages spoken on this fabulous planet but that the humanity within us speaks through the unique language of the same values born out of empathy, solidarity, understanding.