Invited to share her reflections on travelling, Ella Maillart wrote the following text for a BBC broad-cast in December 1948:
Why Travel ?
I am lucky. I have been able to satisfy my urge to travel by going five times to Asia after spending many a summer on board small sailing ships. When I started travelling I was eighteen; I was then instinctively obeying a strong urge. But today I can analyse that urge and see where it has led me.
It goes without saying that I wanted to learn a few foreign languages, and therefore I had to go abroad. Also, as soon as I reached Paris, London or Berlin, I enjoyed becoming another person – starting an unforeseeable chapter of my life, putting on new clothes, meeting new people, reading other newspapers, developing new interests. Sometimes being abroad meant a much less enjoyable pastime: patiently, tiresomely, looking for a job. At that time, this was of paramount importance to my purse; today I see that the lasting value of these jobs was to make me travel up and down the social shelves that build the rather watertight compartments of our so-called democratic age. Thus I gained direct knowledge of the life of the poor in big towns: I have lived the narrowing mechanism of its conditioning and feared it.
But from the beginning, I wanted to live my own life and patiently I shored up that desire against wind and tide. The usual channels of university studies or secretarial work did not appeal to me; and today I see clearly that time and again I cherished difficult dreams because only through a few hard-won victories could I find sufficient confidence in myself. And of course I needed much self-confidence if I did not want to be depressed by the gap existing between my weakness and my ambition.
Have you ever had time to ask yourself the question “Why do we travel?” And here let us eliminate all departures motivated by the need to gather or to impart information: Scientists, craftsmen, businessmen, politicians and missionaries being left to themselves, we remain with the adepts of that “pernicious habit” mentioned by Masefield in his Introduction to Marco Polo: “Wandering in itself is just a form of self-indulgence; if it does not add to the stock of human knowledge it is a pernicious habit.” How long it took me to overcome my guilt-complex because of this sentence, which I was too shy to correct !
But first of all, who do I mean by the “we” I use in the question “Why do we travel?” Humanity is made up of an infinity of different individuals. Therefore is might be true that each of us travels for motives exclusively his own. But now, for convenience’ sake, I shall only mention a few of the impulses that make people leave their homes. Certain travellers give the impression that they keep moving because only then do they feel fully alive: Going from place to place makes them feel that they are mastering their particular situation. Others, more complex in their reactions, are keen to see if natives other than us live better than we do, without heat in pipes, ice in boxes, sunshine in bulbs, music on black disks, or images gliding over a pale screen – all of which makes our life sapless, indirect, lived at second or third remove. Those who appreciate the ways of simple tribes, where every activity is direct and immediately understandable, are able to live among them, as Alain Gerbault did in Polynesia, or Peter Freuchen among the Eskimos. The others come back. I think it is Paul Morand who wrote: “One cannot go too far in order to feel the desire to return home.”
Travel can also be the spirit of adventure somewhat tamed, for those who desire to do something they are a bit afraid of. You can feel as brave as Columbus starting for the unknown the first time you decide to enter a Chinese lane full of boys laughing at you, or when you risk climbing down in a Tibetan pub for a meal of rotten meat, or simply when addressing a witty taxi-driver in Paris. But I often think that one of the main points about travelling is to develop in us a feeling of that solidarity, of that oneness without which no better world is possible. That feeling builds, so to say, the second movement of the impulse of travel. The Chinese master Chuang Tzu said: “If we see things from the viewpoint of their differences, even liver and gall are as far from each other as Ch’u from Yüeh. If we see things from the viewpoint of their sameness, all things are one.” For me during the first “movement” of travel it was normal to see chopsticks, turbans, wooden saddles, fermented mare’s milk; and they were reported on in my books. Nowadays I much prefer to note what emphasises the interlinked-ness, or the common background of all our thoughts – and I think that when the heart speaks, its language is the same under all latitudes.
When I look at something it is certain that for an instant I am one with what I see. Also I am sure that instinctively we wish to be “everything”, to possess it – why cut the rose or marry the man, otherwise? But shall we ever see the “ten million things” of the universe simultaneously in order to be the all in that way? I think it is in answer to that human urge that the Buddha said: “Not by any travelling is the world’s end reached. Verily I declare to you that within this fathom-long body with its perceptions and its mind lies the world, its arising and its ceasing and the way that leads to its cessation.” I am now convinced that to live is to travel towards the world’s end, to return to the unity we have lost; or at least, if we are unable to do so, to keep searching for signs of that unity.
To develop that solidarity I have mentioned, one must not travel like that charming family I met just returning from a round-the-world tour: I wanted to know how the South Sea Islander lives today, but was only given details about the different tennis clubs visited in these islands. No. We must develop a deeper interest and greater understanding of the people we try to meet here or abroad. Like us, they are passengers on board that mysterious ship called “life”. The sooner we learn to be jointly responsible on that ship – instead of blaming the staff – the easier the sailing will be.
Every time I took a long leave from home, I felt as if I were going to conquer the world. Or rather, take possession of what is my birthright, my inheritance. We want to feel that this earth is all ours, like our parents’ house when we were children. No sooner had I left school to cruise the Mediterranean than the following question preoccupied me – and it also kept me company during my later travels: “In how far does one ‘kill’ a journey by accomplishing it, by making it become real?” or “To what extent does the actual journey – taking possession of a new land – fulfil the promises of the dreamt-of journey?” Though he has never been to China, does not Arthur Waley know this country better than I do, who dutifully sampled many bugs and pubs, jokes and quagmires, not to mention the evasive governors of that great nation? And consider Rimbaud writing the Bateau Ivre, probably the densest sea-poem there is, before ever having seen the sea? Is not such abstract journeying more real than a concrete meeting with the earth?
I wonder why more books have not been written on this subject. I know one that is fascinating : Equipée - Voyage au pays du réel by Victor Segalen the archaeologist, writing about his expedition to the upper Yang Tse river. He describes masterfully how during the many days of painful progress only two moments were rewarding and sufficiently intense to plunge him into the fullness of the present moment. Today I have come to the conclusion that the benefits of the accomplished journey cannot be weighed in terms of such perfect moments, but rather in terms of how this journey affects and changes our character. Not only does travel give us a new system of reckoning, it also brings to the fore unknown aspects of our own self. Our consciousness being broadened and enriched, we shall judge ourselves more correctly. Having visited this planet, we shall react differently towards our neighbour, or our climate: I had to live in the desert before I could understand the full value of grass in a green ditch. Based on this experience, I propose the following definition: The true traveller is the one urged to move about for physical, aesthetic, intellectual as well as spiritual reasons.
It is true that one also travels in order to run away from routine, that dreadful routine that kills all imagination and all our capacity for enthusiasm. One travels so as to learn once more how to marvel at life in the way a child does. And blessed be the poet, the artist who knows how to keep alive his sense of wonder.
Yes, one also travels to escape from it all. But that is the great illusion: It cannot be done, since one travels with one’s mind. It is always our own self that we find at the end of the journey and the sooner we face that self, the better. When I crossed Asia with my friend Peter Fleming, we spoke to no one but each other during many months, and we covered exactly the same ground. Nevertheless my journey differed completely from his. Our mind “colours” the journey as if one wore individually tinted spectacles. It is really one’s mind that one projects outside and that ultimately deciphers the so-called objective world.
But first of all let us go into that idea of escapism. I want to translate the French writer Saint-Exupéry: “A certain cheap literature has told us about the need to escape. Of course one runs away in search of wide horizons, but a wide horizon cannot be found anywhere – it has to be rooted, substantiated inside us. Escaping never leads anywhere.” These words could sum up my life.
The wideness of the horizon has to be inside us, cannot be anywhere but inside us, otherwise what we speak about is geographic distances. Only when one is able to grasp wideness can one possess it – once one has found a means of expressing it. I can see now that a concept or even a feeling makes no sense unless out of our substance we spin around it a web of references, of relationships, of values, of sense-reactions. Until a child can conceive hotness, the hotness of the stove will remain for him part of a world of automatic stimuli. For the camel crossing the desert there is no wideness, only steps to be taken, and blisters, burning sands, the desire to rest. Or take an inveterate reader: Intellectually he may comprehend the idea of love but unless he dares committing himself to the Gobi desert of love, he will never know its reality, its barren stretches, its gushing oases. The timelessness of a concept has to be woven into the running warp of dying time, vertical power has to be wedded to the horizontal earth.
To enjoy reality, one must meet it in action. Passivity or contemplation alone cannot lead to a full life – though I know there are exceptions. Already as a child I tried to find out how to enjoy water and wind, sun and snow in their totality, in their reality (sun-bathing quasi religiously for months yielded nothing!) Later I tried to become one with these elements, to “root” them inside myself while living among seamen, mountaineers and nomads. I am fond of cats and sometimes feel related to them. You know how a kitten behaves in a new home? How, until it knows its domain by heart, it pokes its nose into every corner and climbs up all sorts of heights? So for me it had been normal to push the nose of my sailing boat into every creek of our large lake, and to point my skis down every possible gully in our mountains.
Why stop? Was not the Mediterranean waiting to be conquered? And the vastness of windswept Tibet? Going further afield became a necessity as soon as I was convinced that town-life would asphyxiate me. No. I was going to think for myself, or at least live my own life. One does not need much brain in order to undertake great journeys. The only things required are to want one single thing at a time and to have a huge appetite, the desire to swallow and assimilate people and places, with a pinch of concentration here and there. No special training is needed: Endurance comes by itself when you stick to what you want to do. Past habits must not act as blinkers. Having erased what we owe to the town-rut, we can try to acquire that which peasants and sailors enjoy as their birthright: The worthy carriage of head of those who have an unlimited sky around them for the best part of the year.
I will tell you what I did. I missed my final examinations because I had been too busy founding the first ladies’ hockey club of Switzerland. And later the urge to sail was paramount. My best friend was recuperating from a grave illness and was ordered six months of rest in the south of France. She was still recovering when I bought her a seaworthy three-ton sloop. Two months later, in January, we were living on board at Marseilles, happy and ready to sail for Corsica despite alarmed letters from our families.
Cruising for six months, we met many adventurous sailors. It became natural to nurse great plans. Exams were forgotten, a year passed. I found a job on an English yacht, the Volunteer, in order to learn how to navigate. Two years later we – a crew of four girls – sailed for Greece on board our yawl Bonita. On a larger ship, a converted pilot-boat, we went tunny fishing in the Atlantic, training for the South Seas. But my friend married, my hopes were crushed and the first part of my life – sailing – came to an end.
Once again I tried to think. I was not obliged to stay where I had grown up. My moorings in the centre of Europe were not suiting me, or else I did not know how to breathe in that musty air. A world war had maddened the continent, nonsense ruled everywhere – why be part of it? Why not search the world for more harmonious surroundings? Why assume I had to participate in a struggle that was not leading to a life worth its name? I was useless anyhow as I had learnt nothing except fitting out yachts. In the big house called the world, I might be able to find a corner that suited me better than my depressing room near the failing League of Nations.
Because I had not followed my father’s advice, I was obliged to earn a living – teaching French and English abroad, typing in Paris, acting in skiing-films, also going on stage. Later, in a small way, with my rucksack on my back, I started eastwards. I went to Berlin where I was writing articles, then to Moscow, the Caucasus, Turkestan… in an attempt to join those proud nomads I had seen in a documentary film about the Citroen expedition. I wanted to reach a valley that was not yet contaminated by our European ideas. There I was hoping to “substantiate” the wideness of Asia, to relate it to my life, thus establishing a living relationship between the stability of traditional Asia and my European restlessness. Could not escapism lead to freedom? By trying to understand the roots of both the Asian and European attitudes towards life, to transcend both and to reach a vantage point that would free me from my limitations. Lasting peace cannot be obtained as long as one is tempted by contradicting possibilities. Oneness is bound to be the ultimate truth: Only then can questioning cease.
During that long journey undertaken with Peter Fleming, I learned much by being cut off from the world for many months. While, through the power of his thought, Peter remained linked with his world, I myself, perhaps through the lack of power of my mind, became detached from the world. And, by the way, that is the main reason why I prefer to travel on my own: By his mere presence, even the most devoted of companions contributes to maintaining old ways and reactions, whereas I try to do away with my Western frame, wanting to become blank inside in order to let the journey ‘sink’ deep; thus any companion weakens the impact of newness. The drawback of travelling on one’s own is that within two or three days abroad, my inner plasticity makes me find everything normal. Being already adapted – if not yet adopted – I then miss that fascinating shock of newness, that subtle drug which is the “pernicious habit” mentioned by Masefield.
But to come back to the emptiness of northern Tibet. There we were, having travelled to the end of space as well as to what seemed to be the end of time. Nothing ever happened. We had no accidents, no bandits attacked us, we never suffered badly from hunger, no prison closed on us, and no airplane was sent to our rescue. I even thought: Though we had come so far, there is hardly anything worth writing home about.
Nevertheless, on a different plane, these were thrilling months. Detachment was slowly becoming part of me. It became normal to belong nowhere or everywhere; to feel that one is an eternal traveller… I discovered I was richly contented, away from my people and my friends – without a roof, without a wood fire, without bread. In winter at twelve thousand feet of altitude with two cups of barley flour a day, at ease in a reality that was a void.
Isolated explorers in the Arctic or in the desert sometimes discover that fullness which is latent in all of us. It is not true that we have to be herded together by the millions in order to be human. Europe was forgotten and I knew she could do without me; immensity, solitude were becoming part of me, related to me. They were unveiling a few of their meanings. For instance, the faintest track of an antelope acquired a new significance: It became filled with my longing for the water hole towards which we had been marching for ten hours. Man is a knot of relationships; he is fully developed only when he has become directly related to a number of people, feelings, countries, ideas. And I was becoming related to primitive life. Since this was my own choice, no grumbling was possible; I remained open-eyed, and became aware of real values. Mariners and mountaineers had already helped me to disentangle some of the superficialities that hobbled me. One must aim at grasping the essential quality of things beyond appearances, attempt to remain truthful to one’s highest aim and to one’s friends, while constantly trying to lessen the huge difference that exists between one’s thoughts and one’s acts.
Never I hope will the lack of a table, a sheet, a lump of sugar, a slice of bread or a friend make me feel miserable – they are not essential. But at the same time, having been without them, how I do appreciate them when I have them. That is the beauty of it: The less attached you become, and when no longer torn in two by the desire of something outside yourself, the more you enjoy life, the more fully you live the present moment. But to cease to desire, you must feel that fullness is in you – not outside yourself.
What goes under the name of spiritual problems of modern man became a fact for me when I saw that having had all I wanted, I was nevertheless miserable. Material security, welfare, humaneness were ideals that did not suffice me. At last, I know with absolute certainty that we travel to find ourselves. By placing ourselves in all possible circumstances that, like projectors, will illumine our various facets, we come to grasp all of a sudden which one of our facets is fully, uniquely oneself. Through this, having exhausted our particularism, we can go beyond ourselves. Then instead of tearing me apart, my gropings will become peacefully interlocked since I shall know myself. A window is not important in itself, but because of the light passing through it and the unique angle of vision it provides… showing the marvellous wedding of the changeless Light supporting the ever-changing scenery.
* * *
While still in my teens, having to burn my family “boats” behind me, I gave myself to the sea. And I had much pity for the life of the landlubbers. The sea meant “the good life”, the most sensible way to live. At sea as well, without noticing it, we learned to make up our minds, accepting the sometimes dangerous consequences of our decisions. Handling our own little ship and sailing through squalls with beautifully curved sails meant a clean life, away from the mean jealousies and misunderstandings of crowded places. To be constantly in the wind and on the water provided a more real life than anything else I could think of at that time. And my being was harmoniously active because my physical, emotional and mental selves lived simultaneously. Also, I must mention the joy of being utterly free from the land – having kicked the continent away when jumping on board, the joy of being alone and self-contained between water and infinite sky, the joy of intense peace of mind by good weather. This of course, in our antithetical world, implies its contrary: Fear and fight for shelter, blinding fog and dragging anchors. Yes, my heart was in love with the sea. And never could a man make it feel more wonderfully great than did the departure for a new cruise. But that life at sea could not be maintained - after ten years it petered out.
When living ashore, the high hills of Central Europe helped me to be patient. They mattered more than the rest of the land. Hard mountaineers and self-reliant guides were less artificial than town people. In their proud heads, their eyes were clear under a clear sky. The intoxication of ski racing, the radiance of the snowfields, made me forget the drabness, the misery of our industrial age. Up there it was easier to tend towards fullness, towards purity. But unless I married a seaman or a guide, how could I identify myself with sea or alp? I was not one of them. I had to find a third solution.
Nearly penniless, I went to Moscow – once more acting against the will of my people. If there was more justice, more dignity in the Russian way of life, I was ready to settle down there. After two stays of six months each, living exclusively among Russians, I felt sad and disappointed, at a loss – having exhausted the cheap satisfaction of doing something that was considered difficult. But then, after having visited on foot the most remote valley of the Caucasus, I started a new phase of my life. I felt that forbidden places were challenging me: Samarkand, Chinese Turkestan, the Himalayas and Tibet had to be reached. I started to will it. A life of quite unforeseen thrill, peppered with the sharp taste of risk, the pleasure of using one’s wit, the joy of realising what one had thought out, became mine.
Nevertheless, deep down in myself, I knew it was a stopgap activity. I still needed an acceptable answer to the question: Why live? Four times I started for Central Asia – I would not settle down in Europe – but always it was my own discontentment, colouring everything I saw, that I found at the other end of the journey. Each time local disturbances prevented my staying longer in Tartary and somehow, forced by circumstances, I landed in South India in 1940. There I discovered what I needed and could not name before I had approached it. For a few years I lived the stability of a traditional society: Built upon a metaphysical concept of the universe, it provides for the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of man and each one of them is given the degree of importance it needs. Linked to the eternal laws of the heart and of nature, inner and outer man stand up as a whole, whereas in the West most of us are lost in the crumbled frames of family, culture and gnosis.
In South India at last I had time to sum up, to weigh my travels in my heart – not in the balance of time and space. At the hour of my death what would the meaning of these travels be? They were important to me insofar as they had changed me, brought me nearer to my real centre. Slowly they had led me to what matters most. Only the inward journey is real. I found myself, which is the same as to say that I found the way to be freed from my preposterous ego. Now I know that there exists a path to the unchangeable centre – that core which is the same in all of us. And because of It, I can try with sincerity to love my neighbour as much as myself. Feeling no longer divided but concentrated, I can march with patience towards that one-ness which we all feel is the ultimate as well as the first word of life.
(condensed) © Ella Maillart, 1948