From Ibn Battuta to Jack Kerouac; seafarers to minstrels; tourists to pilgrims – the tradition of travel has deep roots. And yet, as Proust put it: the real voyage of discovery is not about seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. This Blog adds to the view with a collection of poems and insights from all sorts of traveller. First, let’s explore the roots …

In old Arab poetry love, song, blood and travel appear as four basic desires of the human heart. Islam is a religion with a journey at its heart and the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, has given rise to a tradition of literature about preparing to travel, the journey itself, the destination and, what the pilgrim takes from the whole experience.

There were Muslims of the desert; the warlike nomadic tribes fighting for survival in a hostile environment and, those of the rivers and sea. This second group is the merchants and peddlers along the trade routes for whom openness, compromise and exchange mean good business and, are necessary for survival itself.

In Ibn Battuta, the 14th century scholar and traveler, the Muslim World gives us the traveler par excellence – a literate frontiersman. Setting out on a Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Battuta journeyed for 29 years, covering 75,000 miles through 44 countries. Near the end of his life the Sultan of Morocco insisted that he dictate his experiences and so was completed his Rihla – a classical Arabic term for a journey. This tradition of literature coming from the Haj continues right through to Malcolm X. The travelers are all close observers of their journey.

Even Islamic architecture gets in on the act. Muslim civilization was always on the move – a nomadic existence. Large groups of pilgrims, armies, scholars and traders were all criss crossing their known world. Caravans became a way in which nomadic tribes could travel safely – in a group. And, soon enough a whole range of buildings were strung out along the trade routes to help the travelers on their way. Caravanserai were built to offer a sure source of water, accommodation, storage and space for commercial transactions. In the cities, the Khans fulfilled the same role and then, the bazaars and souks were the shopping malls of the day with baths as a place to rest and recuperate. Islamic gardens complete the loop as a place for uplifting thought. In fact, where the Bible sees gardens as places of temptation, the Koran sees them as places fro reflection and spiritual experience. Muslim travel literature and poetry reflect this architectural landscape as a rich source of metaphor and general narrative.

Christianity has its pilgrimages too. In the passage of the Bible, the Journey to Emmaus, the point of the story is in the journey, not the destination. Chaucers Canterbury Tales is a 14th century story of a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas a Beckett. Religious characters such as a monk and a pardoner journey alongside a knight, a sailor, a miller, a carpenter. This tale has similarities to Boccaccios Decameron; a tale of a journey undertaken to flee the Black Plague. And, in the 17th century we have Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress which centres on a journey from the city of destruction (this world) to the Celestial City, that which is to come.

Ballads played their part in developing the journey narrative throughout Europe. The Troubadour tradition during the Middle Ages (100 to 1350) only faded with the Black Death. Dante called it rhetorical, musical and poetical fiction. There were many styles – mainly lovers tales though Viadeyra was all about travelers complaints. Then, we have the gypsy tradition with the romani people.

Islam and Christianity had their journeys, so too the Jews. Dwelling-in-travel or, nomadism was a key characteristic of the Jews as they searched for lands of refuge. This process featured mythical and historical events such as the Destruction of the Temple and the Exodus from Egypt, the return to the Holy Land after the Babylonian Exile, the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and then the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century. However, the first real Jewish travelers book the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, a merchant who visited Europe, Asia, Jerusalem and Baghdad. With Nicholas I and the Russian Rail system, the train and the third class train car becomes a feature of travel literature; Yiddish, Jewish merchants and the horse traders. This has a parallel in Kiplings portrayal of trains in India and the mix of Sikhs, Muslims and Sepoys.

Anti Semitism through history triggered constant streams of migrant Jews criss crossing Europe and then, on to the New World. In addition, Jews were great traders and with their presence throughout Europe and along trade roots, they offered a range of transactional services for cross border trade. Finally, the move to Return to the Promised Land provided a third impetus for the Jewish traveling tradition and all of this triggered a literature to match.

So too with Chinese literature. However, due to the vastness of the Empire there is no exploration across borders but the tracking of the exotic of far and distant provinces. And then there are the individuals who set out to explore, understand or, shed fresh light on current circumstances …

First, there are those from fiction. With Swift’s Gullivers Travels, notions of the unknown are explored on two levels – an adventure into the unknown and, a satire on the politics of the day. These stories were all about travels into several remote nations of the world. Written in 1726 and revised several times, they were “universally read from the cabinet to the nursery. Voltaires Candide is of the same genre as is Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Then, as the world opened up, the appetite for tales of distant and exotic places increased so much so that a new genre emerged – the Travel Liars – those who invented the places they are supposed to have traveled to.

Robert Louis Stevenson is famous for Robinson Crusoe, that fictional character who sets out from Hull to build a new life and ends up marooned on a desert island. However, Stevenson was a prolific writer on travel themes, and David Daiches bluntly states that “the trips he describes in an Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes were made simply in order to be written about when they were over – mere travelogues.

And yet, with the Amateur Emigrant, Stevenson sets a fresh perspective for the genre as a whole as he tracks the crossing of multiple, interconnected boundaries. Telling the tale of traveling to America on one of the Emigrant ships, he crosses from one country to another; traveling steerage, he is moving social mileau; he moves from being single to being married and finally, the notion that by changing place you can change your fortunes is explored. This was, and remains, a major preoccupation amongst those who leave their roots behind to settle elsewhere – for a better life.

History is full of Adventurers who were larger than fiction itself. Take, Sir Richard Burton – who spoke 25 languages and 15 dialects – translated 17 volumes of the Arabian Nights, wrote a Collection of Poetry on Uruguay and, translated the Kama Sutra. Best known for his travels in Arabia and excursions into India, Burton’s life was lived out in a ceaseless quest for the kind of knowledge, he called it “Gnosis”, by which he hoped to discover the very source of existence and the meaning of his role on earth.

Born in 1821, Burton packed more into his life up to 1891 than many can even imagine. This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, an erotic way called Tantra, a Hindu snake caste, Sikhism and several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism. In fact, his endless wanderings and his name – Burton is a Gypsy or Romany name – were taken as a sign of Gypsy blood.

Burton is one in a long line of wanderers. Doughty, with Travels in Arabia Deserta; Gertrude Bell in Mesopotamia, St John Philby and Lawrence of Arabia – all had that restless quest in their make up. And then, the incomparable Wilfred Thesiger and his travels across the Empty Quarter of present day Oman and Saudi Arabia.

But perhaps the greatest of all poetic travelers has to be Lord Byron. For it was he who combined the poetic muse, the political commitment to a just cause far away and sheer popularity to the greatest extent. Many of the great Victorians such as Disraeli, Lord Tennyson and others speak of his death in much the same way as people recalled where they were when Kennedy or Lennon died. And with Byron it was as much the wandering spirit that attracted them. He had declared himself “born for opposition” and Shelley had dubbed him “pilgrim of eternity”. Leaving Britain in 1816 he never returned – dying in Greece in 1823.

There were others who sneered at the pieties of Established society; none more so than Baudelaire with his journeys into the very Spleen de Paris in search of “rhyme booty” and metaphysical inspiration. The compulsion to run, to live life to the full, to fly even, in Baudelaires travelers is part of his search for unknown insights – even those driven by drug taking.

… mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-la qui partent

pour partir; coeurs legers, semblables aux ballons.

This theme of recording reality in all its guises is very much a part of the work of Verlaine and Rimbaud. And in Rimbaud we have someone who, with the Poetry world at his feet at 19, takes his leave and moves off on a journey that will take him to obscurity. Suddenly, this proto punk poet; this veritable god of puberty (Andre Breton); this spirit of the highest rank in the body of a vicious and terrible child (Jacques Riviere) – took himself off for Africa and a career. The wanderings of the Drunken Boat (Bateau Ivre) are well known, but his wanderings about Africa in search of business deals are not.

By 1888, aged 34, Rimbaud’s life could not have been less decadent. As his Biographer Graham Robb observes, “He offered warehousing and banking facilities, guides, camels and mules, accounting and general expertise.” The prince of verse had become the market access expert and, he drove a very hard bargain. He exchanged money at 2% when the market was satisfied with less than 1% and sold notepads to people who could not write.

This abandonment of poetry has caused more consternation than the break up of the Beatles. As Rene Char puts it, Rimbaud was the first poet of a civilization not yet born. And yet, so distant was the elder Rimbaud from his poetic roots that, when asked her view on Rimbauds writings, a colleague could reflect that he had: “written some fine things: reports for the Societe Geographie and a book on Abyssinia.” In Delires II, Une saison en enfer, Rimbaud makes his view plain “every being seemed to me to be entitled to several other lives”. It is a sentiment that many travelers share. To travel is to re-invent oneself.

Perhaps the greatest travel book ever written is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a masterpiece of the inner journey that accompanies any day-to-day travelogue. The context is the Congo on what was then known as the Dark Continent of Africa. Marlowe, the central character, goes in search of Kurtz who he is to replace in a Trading Station deep in the interior. The narrative takes us close up to the details of the colonial enterprise – bleeding the country dry in the name of an ideal, to civilize the natives. Conrad uses strong irony to depict the impact upon Africa. At one point he records a French frigate off the coast “in the empty immensity of earth, sky and water there she was, firing into an empty continent.”

And then, as Marlowe discovers Kurtz he is dying. When he utters his last words – “Oh, the horror, the horror”, literature sounds one of the great insights into the human condition in the midst of a tragedy so often found in places devastated by famine and war before and since. Later, in a memorable passage, Marlowe returns home to Europe and reflects upon the gap between his new level of experience and that of his roots.

“I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other… to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intrudes whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I was so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.”

It is a reflection experienced by many travelers on their return.

With St Exupery and his tales of the pioneering days of establishing airmail links between Europe and South America, we enter a new dimension of the travel theme. Aside of the wonderful passages describing scenes from the air, we enter into all manner of insights into the human condition. Then, with Le Petit Prince, a deceptively simple tale for children, we explore meaning itself. Here, a boy prince has fled a vain rose on asteroid B-612. On his interplanetary travels he encounters other characters; all adding a further twist. For example, the drawing of an animal in a box opens up a dialogue on what is real and the idea that true meaning is to be perceived by the spirit rather than mere factual evidence.

Then, we have the darker side where the journey takes a sinister turn. Russian literature features the road in various guises from the 17th century. For a long time travel inside Russia was as restricted as outside and, then the Road east meant the gulag, labour camps and a painful exile. As Osip Mandelstam puts it, “and the night comes on, that knows no dawn”. In the terrible years of the Yezov era, Akhmatova spent seventeen months in the queues outside the prisons in Leningrad – waiting for news of her son. One day somebody “identified” her. Then, this woman with blue lips standing beside her broke from the torpor normal to those in such queues. “Can you describe this?” she asked. “I can” said Akhmatova. “Then, something like a smile slipped across what once had been her face.” There can be no better testimony to the value of poetry in such circumstances.

Exile is a theme that permeates the journey literature. Interestingly, first wave immigrants are often notoriously unsentimental, leaving the search for roots to their children and grandchildren. Nabakov’s Speak Memory and much of Joseph Brodsky evoke all manner of emotions tied up with exile from a vastly changing homeland. Prior to leaving the Soviet Union Brodsky was criticised as a western oriented writer, possessed by “abroad sickness”. Living in Europe and then the States, Brodksy became a bi-lingual poet, adding the language dimension to the journey. This has deeper roots. For example, Poland was wiped from the map of Europe from 1772 through to 1918 and it was said that it existed solely in the Polish language. The same has been the case for Armenians and other marginalized ethnic groups whereby language becomes the glue that

James Joyce’s Ulysses sets up another type of journey. On the 16th June 1904 Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus set out from the Martello Tower at Sandycove to traverse Dublin and set us all a puzzle – how to cross Dublin City without passing a pub. Joyce’s stream of consciousness style concentrates on every detail and, as such opens up fresh perspectives about what should be left in, not out, when you record a visit to any place. His narrative demands of us to leave out nothing just because of the censor within us. As Telemachus set sail in the Odyssey, so too Joyce’s narrative and, for many, it sets the pattern of exploring any city on your travels. As Tennyson puts it – to suck it dry until the lees is left.

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957) opens out this sense of freedom. This journal of spontaneous road trips around the States over a seven year period became the defining work of the Beat Generation inspired by jazz, poetry and the drug culture. It is written in a careless style, full of hope and open to the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Characters appear and disappear, events happen without meaning and the book became an anthem for young people throughout the world in less than ten years. It was, as the New York Times put it “the most important utterance of Kerouac’s generation”.


We turn to song and, as the 60’s spawned a raft of US and UK based bands and folk singers from Liverpool to Hamburg and beyond. Dylan crafted several anthems based on journeys and Springsteen opened up the throttle to blast out of town on Thunder Road. However, few matched the incisive lyrics of the troubadours of the dispossessed singing in French. Brel, Ferre and Brassens all had tales to tell. Even the underated Jake Thackeray, that bard from the North of England offered humorous, often incisive tales from the journey of life steeped in this rich francophone tradition.

With writers such as the inexhaustible scholar-gypsy Bruce Chatwin, journeys into exotic places register experiences that authenticate life in all its diversity and ambiguities. As he said of the ex-Chamberlain of King Zog of Albania, “People of his kind will not come again”. After all, as Jospeph Brodsky insisted: “poetry’s ‘job’ was to explore the capacity of language to travel farther, faster.”

Here is Chatwin with a lament on the Afghanistan known to Robert Byron and trampled by Russian troops. “We will not sleep in the nomad tent, or scale the Minaret of Jam. And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms … Nor shall we get back the smell of the beanfields … or the whiff of a snow leopard at 14,000 feet.”

Many such journeys lament the change of pace with the modern world. Hubert Butler of Kilkenny, that Anglo Irish voice of European standing, traveled widely. Fluent in Russian, he observed that nowadays travelers only saw the airports of Siberia. He contrasts this with the journey made by Anton Checkov in 1890. The passing of great cities without noticing them, while small villages were indelibly engraved. Here he spent the night at the ferryman’s hut waiting for the storm to abate and there, in Tyumen, he ate a sausage that was like sticking your teeth into a tar-smeared dog’s tail. Checkov spent time completing a census of Melihovo, interviewing many of them. He knew the choreography and the pace of the place intimately.

South from Granada, by the great Hispanisist Gerald Brenan, is a gem that is a benchmark to judge against. For Gerald Brenan went off to live in the obscure and empoverished Andalusian village of Yegen back in the 1920’s not for some romantic of publicity seeking lifestyle but because it was cheap! Off he went with his 2,000 books sent by muleback, to record and learn – in between visits from celebrated members of the Bloomsbury Group – from a local culture largely untouched by outside influences. How much Spain has changed since then!

Anybody who has seen places like Shanghai, Dubai and now Mumbai over time will sympathise. The Shanghai of the Bund looked out onto a swamp which is now the immense Financial District of Pudong. Mumbai rachets up the pace with every passing year. And Dubai, soon to be the home of a skyscraper one kilometre high (with a temperature difference from top to bottom of more than 10 degrees) was mainly sand even as recently as the 70’s with shipyards devoted to wooden Dows. Writing in the 1990s, Wilfred Thesiger, who had lived with nomads and made the Empty Quarter his own, had this to say about the modern age:

“too many people are living second-hand lives, instead of creative lives. What I think is damaging isn’t the loss of identity or the loss of purpose, but the loss of interest in life caused by the machine age. Aeroplanes and motorized transport rob journeys of any sense of achievement.”

Ryszard Kapusinski, the Polish Journalist who died in 2007, brought alive broken, warring Africa and the corrupt contours of several dictatorships. By his own account, he covered twenty seven revolutions, rebellions and coups throughout the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

His writings do not pick up on the spectacular imagery of major events. He understands places and people undergoing violent transformations through the observation of everyday details from ordinary lives as they experience the wars and revolutions that he covered. As Kapuscinski makes clear, “only on the road does the reporter feel like himself, at home.”  For the road is the source, the vault of treasures, the wealth of the reporter.

Known for his reportage, Kapuscinski wrote poetry as a means to distill his experience. In the Forward to his poetry collection Wrote Stone, Kuprel and Kusiba comment: “the external journeys to faraway places become recast through the poetic form into a journey of the human spirit.”

His last book, Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski highlights just how important the journey is for all of us. Other cultures are mirrors in which we see ourselves. Herodotus is a vivacious, fascinated, unflagging nomad, full of plans, ideas, and theories. He was always traveling. Even at home (but where is home!), he has either just returned from an expedition, or is preparing for the next one.

Another travel writer who Kapusinski admired, Riccardo Orizio, adds another dimension to the genre. In his book Lost White Tribes, Orizio looks deeper than the ambient culture traveling to remote places to discover those forgotten peoples who live in a time warp. He tracks the tales of the surviving Confederates in deepest Brasil; Poles in Papa Docs Haiti who are the descendants of those who had traveled for Napoleon. It is an approach that slows the journey down to the pace of those cast aside or in exile along the way.

Now, it seems that television has been taken over by travelogues. We have Palin and his wanderings; Bill Bryson and his travels in England and elsewhere, any number of comedians on present day India and countless more on roads less traveled. Much of this is magnificent and the images are superb and enticing. And yet, we should beware. T.S. Eliot in an essay on Virgil (1944) provides a fresh perspective on the need for travel. Eliot cautions against provincialism; not in terms of place but in terms of time. “One should beware those for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property which the dead hold no shares.”

Perhaps this is why Poetry – which slows us down – can play a key role in recording a journey – all of our journeys. As Ruth Pradel reflects, “poems and journeys go together. Both move. Both take a bit of time and effort. Both let you reflect on other things as you go… they get you to new places.”  Travel, for each of us can provide the greatest of metaphors, stretching our vision and understanding of the world we live in or, aspire to.

As Eliot emphasized, “a poem exists somewhere between the writer and the reader”. The following aphorisms, poems and songs may take you to that place in between and just may help to flesh out the contours of your own journey as you go.

So, as Baudelaire urges the traveler in us: “Dites, qu’avez vous vu?”


3 Responses to “It’s a long story …”

  1. John Methuselah Says:

    Overhelmed by a land of a myriad sensibilities and poems reflecting senses deep within. It’s an exciting journey into history and imagination and life with all its packages.

  2. Raghu Says:

    I came upon this by accident, and am spellbound! Thank you for this amazing effort.

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