Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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April 08, 2013 / The Peculiar Torment of Travel

What a strange word to use: “torment.”    

Very many years ago, PBS presented a series called River Journeys, in which various somewhat well-known people made trips along very well-known rivers, and reported on their experiences.  These were not sanitized trips, at least the parts shown on tv were not, but were instead of the river travel of local people.

A British man called Brian Thompson went up the Nile.  All those years ago, my own Nile journey was beyond imagining, and so I watched and listened greedily to what he had to show and to say.

His small boat slid past scenes of classic, archetypal activity—fishing, farming, cattle-tending.  People stopped doing these things to watch it go by.  Some children ran to the shore, and waved.  The light shimmered, the colors pastel in the heat.   He did not know the people who watched, and they did not know him.  Their full lives were lived out in all their wondrous detail, yet invisible to all but a few others.

“The torment of places of which you can never be a part,” he said on the television program.   Made dumb with instant recognition of this peculiar and central anguish of travel, I have never forgotten it, and I have since felt it unnumbered times in places from Iceland to Indonesia.  I can look but I cannot enter.  I can learn but I cannot know.

I can sympathize but not empathize.  

In the end, although we can have compassion for and delight in one another, we cannot be another.  We can relish and celebrate a marvelous or beautiful or enigmatic place, but we did not grow out of it.   Our home place is ours, and theirs is theirs.  Always The Other. 

Such is the torment of travel.

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