Lonely Planet Writer

The freedom of travel

Freedom is almost synonymous with movement: fast cars, migrating birds, wind - if it moves, it's a metaphor for freedom. And so it goes that travel is also associated with freedom and its partner-in-crime, escape. But escape from what?

Image by tinou bao

Travel is an escape from the everyday. The everyday is that which I no longer see, feel, interrogate. Things in my daily life become so common to me that they disappear. The colour of my desk at work I cannot recall, the smell of my shampoo I do not notice, etc. Everything familiar becomes hidden to me. I become numb to the world around me, just as prisoners become numbed by the walls of their cells. My routines are the walls of my cell. To alleviate this daze I purchase new clothes, books, seek out new cafes, take on new hobbies, but these too are quickly absorbed by the everyday.

So how do we get outside of the everyday?

In Christian countries during the Middle Ages, special days (Saints' days, for example) were marked in the Church Calendar with red ink to distinguish them from normal days (the everyday). As a consequence these celebratory occasions were called Red Letter Days. The last Tuesday before Lent (Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday) was particularly festive, often resulting in roles/rules being reversed: fools becoming lords, lords becoming fools. The freedom from the everyday in these holy days is still visible in the UK, Australasia and Canada where a vacation is called a holiday.

Image by Prefeitura de Olinda

There is still something sacred about travel. Arriving in an unfamiliar culture I find wonderment in everything, from the smallest details to the largest vistas. But it is the festive feeling that dominates. Where at home I found the common things boring and international diplomacy intriguing, while travelling I find politics trivial and the lives of the locals important.

Image by Bohari Adventures

This sense continues for a short period when I return home. Places and people I knew before I left are both familiar and strange. They have become uncanny, or what Freud calls unheimlich (unhomely). It produces a distance between myself and my life. And this is the true freedom of travel. It allows me to interrogate my situation. As Marcel Proust writes: 'the only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes'.

Further travel philosophy reading: the sublime of travel.