The Most Interesting Country in the World: Part 1

“So what’s the most interesting country you’ve been to on your travels, David?”

Well, which was the most interesting?

If you travel often, you’ll recognise this tired impossible question. Tired and impossible to answer, that is, because the very idea of “travel” is absurd. Indulge me.

If Person A is in Place Z at Time 0, and then “travels”, he becomes Person A in Place Y at Time 1. Agreed? Good.

Now suppose that Person A is mortal: he has only 10 time units of life. Does it matter that at Time 4 he is in Place W? Or could he instead be in Place H? Or Place B? Does it matter at all? No matter what he does, he will still be dead at Time 10.

But what if he remained his whole life in Place Z – wouldn’t that be boring?

Well, no, not necessarily. All places, like persons, are changing with time. Place Z at Time 0 is not the same as Place Z at Time 10. You could say that Person A at Place Z at Time 0 is actually at place Z-0, when he moves to Time 1, he moves equally to Place Z-1.

There is nothing new or radical here. As Heraclitus put it, two and a half thousand years ago:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Not the same swan.

But this is a truth that makes the very idea of “travel”, as movement from one place to another, absurd. If, as Heraclitus suggests, I can travel without moving, then frantically launching myself across the planet is not uniquely “travel”; travel is simply the difference between today and tomorrow.

What is the difference between today and tomorrow?

First glance answer:
Today I am packing my bags in London; tomorrow I shall be on a beach in Mogadishu. Or: today I am at work; tomorrow I shall be relaxing with friends. Or: today I have to finish the finance spreadsheet; tomorrow I have a dentist’s appointment.

Truthful answer:
Nothing. Nothing, that is, except for the fact that one day I will run out of tomorrows. Twenty-four hours will run equally through tomorrow, as they do today. Twenty-four hours in London is exactly the same as twenty-four hours in Mogadishu. The same hours, the same minutes, the same seconds: the same day. Or, to put it another way: the same fraction of my life until death.

That might be the objective truth, but our first glance answer is a powerful instinct. Our instinct is always to look forward to the beach at Mogadishu, to seeing friends, to the dentist’s appointment (or at least finishing the spreadsheet) – but this too is absurd.

What does it mean to be looking forward?

It means that you are valuing today’s hours at less than tomorrow’s (or Tuesday’s, or next week’s, or When I’m a Grown Up’s). But we know that is absurd – the hours, as we have seen, are the same, the same fraction of life.

No matter how much you want to be in Mogadishu, or how much you want to see your friends, there is nothing you can do to make tomorrow come sooner; just as you can’t do anything to make tomorrow drag out over three days. Tomorrow will happen tomorrow and only tomorrow.

Time is indifferent. This hour here and now has the same value as an hour in Mogadishu or with your friends. You cannot put an arbitrary value on an indifferent hour, whether you want to or not. There is no ‘best’ way to spend your time when time is spending you. All you can do is be conscious of this sand sliding through the hourglass and make the most of every conscious second.

It is absurd, complete nonsense, to talk about one hour being ‘better’ than another. There is no ‘best’ hour, only an indifferent, amorphous spread of time between now and your death. And of course, you can’t buy more seconds on the clock. There is no rich man’s clock with a thirteenth hour. Time is indifferent to your travails.

The inevitable end to an amorphous spread of time.

So why are we talking about travel?

You’ll have noticed that we’re not talking about travel, we’re talking about an attitude to life. We started with travel – and I consider this to be an article about travel – because travel can often inspire a conscious attitude to the absurdities that we’ve discussed (the idea of “travel”, the instinct to look forward to tomorrow, the idea that there is a best way to spend your time).

Often when you travel, your mind opens wide and experiences are sucked in. That is what it feels like to have a conscious attitude to life. That is what we are looking for. That is what we can use to laugh in the face of absurdity.

Laughing in the face of absurdity.

A Quick Warning: travel is one easy way to feel this attitude – but it is by no means a guarantee for it. A dullard in London is still a dullard in Lagos: the only difference is his sun burn.

Why are we conscious when we travel? 

Because the simple act of jumping on an aeroplane throws us outside our comfort zone. Outside our comfort zone, our survival instinct pins our ears back, bugs our eyes, raises the hair on our skin. We don’t know what’s around the next corner – a tiger! – a snake! – a Tiger Snake!

If leaving our comfort zone is the surest route to consciousness, then you can see the problem with staying at home. At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.

Or is it? In truth, at home our comfort zone is much more nuanced. If you will allow me to resort to infographics, I shall proceed to illustrate.

First, here is an infographic of your apparent comfort zone when you’re at home. The blob in the middle is you, the bubble around you is your comfort zone and ‘consciousness’ is what floats beyond the bubble. In order to reach it, we have to burst that bubble (stick with it).

The sofa of complacency.

Next is an infographic of your comfort zone when you are travelling. Consciousness comes easily because everything is new and potentially threatening.

Tiger Snakes.

But the reality is much more nuanced. There is no one comfort zone. There is a comfort zone for everything you do, from cooking to chatting up Tiger Snakes.

Easy consciousness: make omelettes while cycling.

In truth, consciousness is more easily reached than you think from your sofa. It just takes a little imagination – and a dollop of bravery – to get there.

But there is a further benefit to breaking your comfort zone at home: the more bubble you have to burst to get to consciousness, the deeper your learning. If a concert pianist had stopped as soon as he felt comfortable with Greensleeves, he wouldn’t have made it. He kept bursting that bubble, from positions of greater and greater comfort in relation to Greensleeves. Serial travellers run the risk of keeping their comfort zones small, burning off the buzz of easy consciousness.

Travel, then, is by no means the only way you can access this attitude of consciousness – you can use meditation, music, maths, Matalan – anything that draws you in. And what you’ll find in this attitude is the infinity of everything.

Note: We are slowly rolling around to the main argument of this post. Apologies for the lengthy premise, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by jumping straight into unsubstantiated conclusions.

So what is the infinity of everything?

As far as humans can ever experience, everything is infinite. The complexity of interactions and the fourth dimension of time, when combined with the five senses, language, thought and the simple three dimensions means that everything can be experienced in an infinite number of ways, an infinite number of times (if only we had infinite lives).

You don’t need to go to the Algarve (or the polar ice caps, or the Amazon) to experience something new. Something new is happening on the back of your right hand, right now. The cellular activity of your epidermis is infinite. You could (and people do) dedicate your entire life to such investigations.

If you are infinite, it follows that other people are infinite. The man sitting opposite you on the train to Hayes is as infinite as a camel driver in Cairo, as infinite as a Michelin-starred chef in Paris, as infinite as a Japanese polar explorer. In fact, on a practical level, you are more likely to be able to delve into his infinity and actually share something because you also share a common fluent language with the man from Hayes.

And yet people (myself included, often) tend to dismiss the exotic of their familiar surroundings. We are gravely mistaken, because the truth is that the more you know of something, the more fascinated you become with it.

Think of two secondary school kids reeling off reams of data on Premier League footballers. The most boring topic known to man – and yet their eyes are alive with the thrust and revelation of shared depth. Yes, the Premier League is infinite as well, and the more familiar you become with its infinity, the more fascinated you become in its nuance, in its depth – in its apparent mundanity.

As with the Premier League and our man from Hayes, so too with Jiskairumoko, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and the collected works of Françoise Mallet-Joris (to pick three random topics from Wikipedia).

The exotic of the familiar: A Ginsters.

The infinity of everything – so what?

The infinity of everything is an attitude, an attitude to absurdity that will help you defeat the Looking Forward to Tomorrow demons. If everything is infinite, then everything is infinitely interesting. Whatever happens today is as interesting as whatever will happen tomorrow.

The infinity of everything will help you confront the absurdity that, even after all your efforts, the seconds will indifferently pass until you die. If you confront that truth with an absurd smile, then you will have won a moment of freedom.

That freedom will only come when you realise that tomorrow will be no different to today; no better, no worse. It will only come when you realise that there is no different to here; no better, no worse. The only difference between today and tomorrow; between here and there is that you are here, today. Your attitude to life must take account of those ineluctable facts; you must make the most of here and today.

Making the most of a hill, a lover and a sunset.

Beware society’s hierarchy of experience!

Unfortunately, despite all our efforts here towards equality of experience, person and place, society still likes to imprint a hierarchy on everything, even travel. Everyone acts as if a desert safari in the Empty Quarter beats camping in Oxfordshire. When we do this, we are wrong.

I feel the pressure of this hierarchy as much as anyone, but by now, we all know that one place is as good as another: time passes equally (and death encroaches equally) whether you’re in Shanghai or Salcombe. What matters is your attitude to the passing of time and your attitude should be the same whether you’re in Teignmouth or Timbuktu.

So if you take one thing from this article, please take this: it is absurd to hope that travel in far-flung climes will be somehow ‘better’ than travel closer to home – even AT home. We are all rushing through life at the same incredible speed: one second per second and the way we spend those seconds has got nothing to do with where we spend them.

Everything is infinite, so the more you see of a place, the more you realise how little you have seen of it and the deeper you fall down the rabbit hole.

Preparing to go down the rabbit hole.

That is why, when I’m asked, “What’s the most interesting country you’ve been to on your travels?” I can easily reply: Britain.

(Coming soon: Part Two, in which I leave my desk.)

What do you think?