Tony Wheeler: why travel is more important than ever
Last week, TV host and traveller Phil Keoghan provided his take on the importance of owning a passport in advance of National Passport Day (17 September) in the US. For another perspective, we turn to Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler, a man with more than a few stamps in his passport.
‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page,’ said St Augustine. I’ve spent most of my life trying to read as much as possible. I’ve always wondered if Mark Twain’s excellent observation that ‘there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them’ applied to his travel companions or the people he travelled among, but travelling has taught me that I like nearly everybody.
Take Iran, a country not on everybody’s ‘most friendly’ list. I spent a couple of weeks there in 2004, and I can’t remember the last time I was treated with such hospitality. The Iranians like to picnic, and every time I walked through a park I seemed to get invited over to join somebody’s picnic. Perhaps it’s because tourists are pretty unusual there, but an awful lot of Iranians want to talk to you, and a surprising number of them speak English and want to practice it. They also like to drink tea, and I never visited a tea house without a waiter or a fellow tea drinker coming over for a chat. While dining alone in restaurants, I’d regularly get invited over to join another table. By the end of my visit I had a collection of photographs with Iranian families who wanted me to join the family snapshot. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘so this is what life is like on the Axis of Evil.’
Or take France? Snooty, aloof and they make fun of your inability to speak their great language, right? Well, I lived in Paris for a year in the mid-’90s, and I started every morning with a jog around my neighbourhood, concluding with stops at the newsstand to buy a paper and at the patisserie to buy bread (the best bread in the world, as long as you eat it within half an hour of buying it). After a week of that regular morning circuit I’d become a fixture, somebody to be greeted with a cheery ‘bonjour, Monsieur’ and a quick French lesson. Aloof? Snooty? Forget about it!
Take rich and poor. Somehow we in the developed world, the first world, have gotten the idea that it takes money to be happy. Tell that to a group of islanders from the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu who party like there’s no tomorrow. Go to a village dance on the magical Indonesian island of Bali, and you’ll begin to wonder why anybody ever bothered to invent television. Take a trek in Nepal, and it’s clearly obvious how proud your Sherpa camping crew is of the beautiful Himalayas and the excellent job they do in guiding you along the mountain trails.
Take religion. Of course, it’s interesting to come into contact with other people’s religions, whether it’s Buddhism in Thailand, Hinduism in India or Islam in any of the Arab countries, but it can be a real surprise to run into some of the earliest reminders of Christianity in Syria. ‘Didn’t you realize this was one of the places where Christianity started?’ your Syrian hosts may explain. Or go to Ethiopia, where monks painstakingly produced illuminated manuscripts centuries before a quill pen was ever dipped in ink in a European monastery.
Travel is full of pleasant surprises, but it’s also enormously important for many other reasons, ranging from economics to global relations. International trade and business become more important every day, and you won’t even comprehend the market, let alone make the sale, if you don’t know the marketplace. It’s through travel, first and foremost, that we meet and understand the outside world. We can read all about other countries in papers and magazines or see them on television, but it’s remarkable how different places turn out to be when you actually visit them. The media feed us scare stories about those in other countries, but the reality is that most people in the world are searching for the same things we are – a better life, a better future for their children – and they’re only too ready to lend a hand to a fellow human being. Today, travelling to other countries is more important than it has ever been.