On the other side of travel: My voyage and “The Voyage” by Baudelaire

Painting: Loving Couple by Fernando Botero

Living in the travel-obsessed [Western] world, where for many, the globe has become noticeably smaller, it is fascinating to re-read Baudelaire's "The Voyage" from time to time. More than fascinating, a nice reminder of the other side.

I include myself in the new generation of "travelers" - though I do not quantify curiosity with number of lands visited or define desire by experiencing every single thing, preferring to live some and leave some other things to the imagination. I specifically do not like to "casually" bring up places I have visited in regular conversations or keep a mental directory of sights I have seen. This is not to say that I do not find myself doing it from time to time. It is difficult to resist joining the race when others begin running shamelessly ahead of you. They do it because traveling gives them the "right" to do it. Or so they think. Yet, I too must admit that I, more times than not, feel that each travel experience, each introduction to a new culture somehow gives me more "meaning" as an individual, makes me "better" somehow than people who have not "seen the world." Shameful, but true. The world opens your eyes (cliche, but true) and is perhaps the most direct way out of literal ignorance. On the other hand, travel is not anyone's salvation and it certainly does not transform someone who cannot be already transformed within the confines of their own home, the limits of their own city, borders of their own country. It does not lend imagination where there is none.

I believe there is a book titled "Wherever you go, there you are". I have never read it and do not know what it is about. But the title says it all.

I have recently returned from what I can only define as "the land of the senses": Colombia. An unknown land where I could never possibly regret going. Quite the contrary. I loved it so much that I would like to sit and think about it for a long time (how it tasted, smelled sounded, felt, looked), preferably uninterrupted by new distractions. Which brings me to my point. I do not think that traveling is always a good thing. By that I mean, "excessive" traveling. "Excessive" is relative and subjective, yes, but so is everything. I do believe that when things become possible, they lose part of their magic. So can excessive travelling make the world small. When travelling, you meet fellow travelers whom you imagined to be quite different. Ideally, the most open, knowledgeable, best people in the world. In reality, only few fit that description. The rest, somewhat self-satisfied, with clear traces of pragmatism under the guise of "rebellion" or "exploration". I found what I can only assume are the results of seeing "too much" of the world and not absorbing enough of it in any sense of the word.

I have seen very little of the world and indeed already feel - in certain moments - that exploration never ends. The point is not to travel endlessly and infinitely. It feels as though most travelers keep exploring, unwittingly searching for an end where no end exists. At some point, exploring seems like it should lead the way to understanding and not to more exploring. You can only know and experience so much before you go back to the start and know nothing at all. Piling travel experiences on top of one another at some point does nothing else except make one excessively involved socially while deeply indifferent intimately. Giving well-deserved time and attention to Colombia is as necessary as it is giving it to another human being. To ensure that not everything and everyone is replaceable. Not every new stimulation or destination is better. To ensure that you are not simply running from one land to another, from one partner to another, from one experience to another. Blindly, unfeelingly, senselessly.

Though I used to think so, in the constant battle between knowledge and imagination, it is not always beneficial for knowledge to win. Yes, ignorance makes one falsely blissful and resistant to new things. Too much "quantity" of knowledge and experience, on the other hand, makes one falsely superior, immune to new effects. Thus, equally resistant to new things. Except that, in this case, you literally go around the world to arrive at the same starting point.

Between Baudelaire and those who have made travelling a competitive sport, I must choose Baudelaire, though not entirely. Things that are consumed are just that, consumed. And consumption is good only to a certain extent, before it turns on you. I can say that I have not found "the answer" but neither have my fellow travelers. Roam as they may the entire world, they are far from it. I do love travel but I do not think travel is the antidote to a "regular life". Anything done regularly, including traveling, becomes regular!

As with every kind of love, travel should also be preserved while experienced, a constant and tiring but necessary balancing act. Love should not be quantified; thus, reduced. Not taken for granted. Experience runs the risk of making a once infinite desire, finite. As such, fulfillment of desires should be done with caution. Some things must be kept sacred and unknown. Some things must be relished before, during, and after. Some things are naturally forgotten.

Every time I travel I both gain and lose. I gain more than lose but lose something, nonetheless. I gain experience, lose innocence. Gain knowledge, lose fantasy. What in anticipation was large and unattainable becomes small and experienced in memory. In this case, the world. I repeat, I love travelling. It must be done and, later, it also must be thought about. Traveling does not "make" you. It is not an escape from you. It can only be a confirmation of you. Wherever you go, there you are. You must know that the person you take with you when travelling is the same one as at "home."

Here's hoping that the "Baudelaires" and the unrelenting travelers can one day see eye to eye, or the other side.

The Voyage
by Charles Baudelaire

To Maxime du Camp

I.

For children crazed with postcards, prints, and stamps
All space can scarce suffice their appetite.
How vast the world seems by the light of lamps,
But in the eyes of memory how slight!

One morning we set sail, with brains on fire,
And hearts swelled up with rancorous emotion,
Balancing, to the rhythm of its lyre,
Our infinite upon the finite ocean.

Some wish to leave their venal native skies,
Some flee their birthplace, others change their ways,
Astrologers who've drowned in Beauty's eyes,
Tyrannic Circe with the scent that slays.

Not to be changed to beasts, they have their fling
With space, and splendour, and the burning sky,
The suns that bronze them and the frosts that sting
Efface the mark of kisses by and by.

But the true travellers are those who go
Only to get away: hearts like balloons
Unballasted, with their own fate aglow,
Who know not why they fly with the monsoons:

Those whose desires are in the shape of clouds.
And dream, as raw recruits of shot and shell,
Of mighty raptures in strange, transient crowds
Of which no human soul the name can tell.

II.

Horror! We imitate the top and bowl
In swerve and bias. Through our sleep it runs.
It's Curiosity that makes us roll
As the fierce Angel whips the whirling suns.

Singular game! where the goal changes places;
The winning-post is nowhere, yet all round;
Where Man tires not of the mad hope he races
Thinking, some day, that respite will be found.

Our soul's like a three-master, where one hears
A voice that from the bridge would warn all hands.
Another from the foretop madly cheers
"Love, joy, and glory" ... Hell! we're on the sands!

The watchmen think each isle that heaves in view
An Eldorado, shouting their belief.
Imagination riots in the crew
Who in the morning only find a reef.

The fool that dotes on far, chimeric lands —
Put him in irons, or feed him to the shark!
The drunken sailor's visionary lands
Can only leave the bitter truth more stark.

So some old vagabond, in mud who grovels,
Dreams, nose in air, of Edens sweet to roam.
Wherever smoky wicks illumine hovels
He sees another Capua or Rome.

III.

Amazing travellers, what noble stories
We read in the deep oceans of your gaze!
Show us your memory's casket, and the glories
Streaming from gems made out of stars and rays!

We, too, would roam without a sail or steam,
And to combat the boredom of our jail,
Would stretch, like canvas on our souls, a dream,
Framed in horizons, of the seas you sail.

What have you seen?

IV.

"We have seen stars and waves.
We have seen sands and shores and oceans too,
In spite of shocks and unexpected graves,
We have been bored, at times, the same as you.

The solar glories on the violet ocean
And those of spires that in the sunset rise,
Lit, in our hearts, a yearning, fierce emotion
To plunge into those ever-luring skies.

The richest cities and the scenes most proud
In nature, have no magic to enamour
Like those which hazard traces in the cloud
While wistful longing magnifies their glamour.

Enjoyment adds more fuel for desire,
Old tree, to which all pleasure is manure;
As the bark hardens, so the boughs shoot higher,
And nearer to the sun would grow mature.

Tree, will you always flourish, more vivacious
Than cypress? — None the less, these views are yours:
We took some photographs for your voracious
Album, who only care for distant shores.

We have seen idols elephantine-snouted,
And thrones with living gems bestarred and pearled,
And palaces whose riches would have routed
The dreams of all the bankers in the world.

We have seen wonder-striking robes and dresses,
Women whose nails and teeth the betel stains
And jugglers whom the rearing snake caresses."

V.

What then? What then?

VI.

"O childish little brains,
Not to forget the greatest wonder there —
We've seen in every country, without searching,
From top to bottom of the fatal stair
Immortal sin ubiquitously lurching:

Woman, a vile slave, proud in her stupidity,
Self-worshipping, without the least disgust:
Man, greedy, lustful, ruthless in cupidity,
Slave to a slave, and sewer to her lust:

The torturer's delight, the martyr's sobs,
The feasts where blood perfumes the giddy rout:
Power sapping its own tyrants: servile mobs
In amorous obeisance to the knout:

Some similar religions to our own,
All climbing skywards: Sanctity who treasures,
As in his downy couch some dainty drone,
In horsehair, nails, and whips, his dearest pleasures.

Prating Humanity, with genius raving,
As mad today as ever from the first,
Cries in fierce agony, its Maker braving,
'O God, my Lord and likeness, be thou cursed!'

But those less dull, the lovers of Dementia,
Fleeing the herd which fate has safe impounded,
In opium seek for limitless adventure.
— That's all the record of the globe we rounded."

VII.

It's bitter knowledge that one learns from travel.
The world so small and drab, from day to day,
The horror of our image will unravel,
A pool of dread in deserts of dismay.

Must we depart, or stay? Stay if you can.
Go if you must. One runs: another hides
To baffle Time, that fatal foe to man.
And there are runners, whom no rest betides,

Like the Apostles or the Wandering Jew,
Whom neither ship nor waggon can enable
To cheat the retiary. But not a few
Have killed him without stirring from their cradle.

But when he sets his foot upon our nape
We still can hope and cry "Leave all behind!"
As in old times to China we'll escape
With eyes turned seawards, hair that fans the wind,

We'll sail once more upon the sea of Shades
With heart like that of a young sailor beating.
I hear the rich, sad voices of the Trades
Who cry "This Way! all you who would be eating

The scented Lotus. Here it is they range
The piles of magic fruit. O hungry friend,
Come here and swoon away into the strange
Trance of an afternoon that has no end."

In the familiar tones we sense the spectre.
Our Pylades stretch arms across the seas,
"To salve your heart, now swim to your Electra"
She cries, of whom we used to kiss the knees.

VIII.

O Death, old Captain, it is time. Weigh anchor!
To sail beyond the doldrums of our days.
Though black as pitch the sea and sky, we hanker
For space; you know our hearts are full of rays.

Pour us your poison to revive our soul!
It cheers the burning quest that we pursue,
Careless if Hell or Heaven be our goal,
Beyond the known world to seek out the New!