What is travelling?

It’s a verb of motion, that’s what it is *. But why choose that verb over a hundred others? When are we travelling rather than simply going?

Here’s my answer.

Travelling, like writing, is about asking questions.

I’m going to Egypt, puts the emphasis on the destination, as if the goer and the transport mean nothing, contribute nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Going is almost passive; we all know that it’s the aeroplane that will be travelling and the goer is simply being transported. I’m going to Egpyt doesn’t beg any questions. You would never suspect that the goer is doing anything other than transporting himself to Egypt by conventional means for a holiday. I’d never ask the goer How are you going to Egypt? I just wouldn’t expect an interesting answer. By using the word going the goer is already pushing his journey into the mundane.

I’m travelling to Egypt, on the other hand, asks more questions than it answers. It puts the emphasis on the traveller and on the journey. Travelling seems to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate than going. I might very well ask the traveller, How? and I would expect an interesting answer.

Most importantly, though, travelling also begs questions of the traveller. It is hard to say, in all seriousness, I’m travelling to Camden, without thinking of what that means to you as the traveller and what implications the decision to travel has on your journey. You would ask yourself, How? and already the act is more active, more conscious and more deliberate.

I did this, in fact. Last Friday, I wanted to go to Camden to visit my friend Ben. Fine. I live in South London and I could have quite easily gone to Camden by public transport. But the idea of going bored me so I made the decision to travel. So my question to myself then was How? and suddenly I was part of the journey, not just passive cargo for a train or a bus. Cycling was out of the question because it was pissing it down with rain. Then it struck me that I didn’t know what it meant to travel 7.5 miles across London in the pouring rain.

We are in the situation today that we can transport ourselves vast distances without thinking about it. We can go 7.5 miles. A few hundred years ago going 7.5 miles would have been unthinkable. Travelling was the only option. So I wanted to reconnect with that time, I wanted to understand what 7.5 miles in the rain meant.

So I ran 4.2 miles (in the rain) and then walked the rest (in the rain). It was as simple as that. Now I understand (only a little bit: I caught the train home). If I had gone by public transport then I wouldn’t have been travelling. I would have forgotten what I was doing and I would simply have been going. I would, instead of travelling, have been reading or people-watching or something else, filling time, enduring the transport. But by deliberately changing my mode of transport and by asking myself questions, suddenly I was not going, but travelling.

And that’s the nub of the matter: travel always involves a question or a series of questions. If you don’t ask the questions then you are just going. That doesn’t mean that travelling must only be done at leisure; a commuter can easily travel just by asking questions, by becoming conscious of his activity. Instead of taking the same train at the same time he could walk or run or take an earlier train or a later train or a bus. But it’s not even just about the mode of transport. The commuter could transform his journey by talking to his neighbour on the train or by taking photographs of the journey or by writing a story about the journey – anything to become a conscious part of the locomotion. The traveller is constantly aware of his travel, for him the journey is as relevant as the destination.

This, I believe, is why travel writing is always interesting, because it seeks to ask and perhaps answer questions about the world or about the traveller. There is conflict in those travel stories: will the journey be a success? Will the questions be answered? All stories are questions. All journeys are questions.

And once you stop asking questions, once you stop thinking, you stop travelling and you are simply going or commuting or – worst of all – enduring.

So I always try to ask myself:
How can I travel today? How can I turn my transport into a journey?


* All right, all right – it’s a verbal noun, but who’s splitting hairs?

What do you think?