Tag Archives: travel

The Traveler Adrift

22 April 2015

From the shores of Lake Victoria, largest lake in Africa, it's a long, long way to anywhere.

From the shores of Lake Victoria, it’s a long, long way to anywhere—except the Equator (bottom sign).

To travel is to dive headlong into uncertainty. Familiar shores are abandoned. The lifeline is cast loose. Habits, styles, expectations: all must be trimmed and stowed away, if not jettisoned altogether.

The traveler is adrift on the sea of the world. She rises and falls with the waves; at times seeing with far greater distance and clarity than is possible ashore. At other times, in the trough of the waves of experience, only the immediate can be seen—and that, unclearly.

Space and time become fluid, evanescent. At one moment the world seems simple, unchanging, like gentle ripples on the surface of the waves. At the next, it surges and rages in complexity and upheaval: white foam breakers on the edge of a reef.

There are islands of shelter and comfort, of course, and from time to time the traveler washes ashore, soaked to the skin from repeated duckings and immersions in foreign wavelets. At such moments, the life of the island has its own allure, as the inhabitants tread a steady round of activities, safely snug and dry. A rest appears in order.

Lamu Town from deck of dhow, off coast of East Africa.

But after the traveler has been ashore for some time, he begins to notice the smallness of the island; the narrow circumference within which the safe, dry life is led. He finds himself down on the shore at night, reveling in the ocean spray on his face and feeling the pull of the tide on his feet.

To the islanders, the sea beyond is at best shapeless and meaningless. At worst, it is a danger. There are storms and crashing breakers, vague wave patterns that cause uneasiness in the mind.

Yet the traveler finds herself drawn ever more powerfully to the water’s edge. Its very uncertainty is a lure. She senses that there—beyond or between the islands—lie meanings and patterns that shape much that the island does. What causes the storms? Can the wave patterns be predicted? Are all the islands the same? What others are adrift on the sea, and why?

The islanders counsel him to remain. “Life is meant to be dry,” they say. “It is in the nature of things. But wetness . . .” At this they shudder. “Wetness means immersion.”

For awhile the traveler listens, swayed by the sheer number of those who believe in the island, and dryness.

But her nights are spent on the shore. Listening: to the wind as it blows across the surface of the shifting waves. Watching: where the moon sparkles and plays and leads a golden trail of enticement over unknown depths.

Is that a voice, distant on the wind? A glimpse of non-island worlds half-seen beneath the shadow of the waves?

How far could one go if one didn’t just drift, but swam?

How wide is the ocean?

The tide pulls. The darkness calls. And then . . .

The arc of a diver

Shoes on the beach

World murmurs softly

Just out of reach.

In the morning the tide returns and washes even the shoes away. And again, the traveler is adrift on the sea of the world.


West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) bobs at anchor in the background.

West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) lies at anchor in the background.

FLASHBACK: “The Way of the Road”

7 January 2015

Few people understand traveling. To most, it means a two week holiday of fun in the sun or a hectic guided tour of pre-arranged “sights” (if not just the car trip to Aunt Mildred’s). They can see neither point nor purpose to extending such an outing indefinitely. Traveling, they believe, is an interruption, a temporary shrinking from the responsibilities of real life.

Indeed, within the confines of their experience they are correct. A vacation (by which they mean traveling) is an interruption of normal life: a brief opportunity to let off the head of steam that’s been building up in the workaday world. It can be no more than that, for the end is always clearly in sight. Momentary thoughts of errands and unfinished plans come to mind involuntarily. Flashes of being “at home” occur. The scenes one views may change, but not the pattern of viewing.

It takes time to break patterns. There are patterns of sleep and of speech; patterns of worship, patterns of response, of caloric intake. All these persist, even in foreign lands.

Most persistent are patterns or habits of thought. The mind does not leave its ruts overnight, even though on a different road they may be less evident. It takes weeks and months to wear through those ruts.

New habits must be formed, new perspectives slowly and painfully arrived at. One critical feature in the establishment of a new perspective is the ability to travel with no fixed return in mind. This does not mean to travel aimlessly, but rather to let go the lifeline that pulls one ever “homewards.”

There is nothing easy about it. It means becoming a pilgrim, a sojourner. It means estrangement, physical and psychological, from the land of your birth. It means the slow realization that your destiny lies not in a particular piece of land, but around the next bend in the road.

It means isolation. It means painful knowledge that people of fixed abode can never share. It means risks surmounted, paradises gained and lost. It means uncertainty, insight and worn-out shoes.

It means vague impressions, half-formed conclusions, tentative theorems. It means infrequent showers, lumpy mattresses and periodic diarrhea. It means a bottle of wine in a hayloft. It means the cold wind howl of midnight on a cobblestone street. It means a shroud of dust gone to sweat in midday heat, the call of a loon in the gathering dusk, a rocky beach by firelight. It means all night train rides and intense conversations with someone you met yesterday and will bid goodbye tomorrow. It means loneliness, fear and exhilaration so pure it makes your hands shake.

It means discarding much that you’ve been taught. It means discovering what is true forever.

It means becoming someone new.

On the edge of the Sahara's Great Eastern Erg, Alex & Evan Gabriel battle a sandstorm.

On the edge of the Sahara’s Great Eastern Erg, Alex & Evan Gabriel battle a sandstorm.

Only then does the realization finally permeate that THIS IS LIFE. Right here and now, life is being lived. There is no hiding in routine. No blind acceptance of societal mores. There is life in all its starkness, all its multiplicity and conflict, all its uncharted illogical byways. And yes, there is life in all its unity.

Perhaps for many it’s easier not to look so closely, not to question quite so probingly, for without doubt, the voyage is uncertain and the risk is great.

Yet to travel is to explore the full circumference of life: to tread in the routes of the conquerors; to seek out the bypassed remnants of pre-industrial life; to sing the nomad’s song.


The traveler finds life in places of pilgrimage and profanation. He finds it among the energetic and the lethargic. She finds it in the change of seasons, in encounters in markets and cafes, in friendships formed and dissolved, crises faced, adventures survived.

In the process, the mind is freed from habit, from petty local concerns and the insistent demands of communication media. There is time (and great need) for reflective thought. Cultures can be examined and evaluated. Society’s lies and blind spots reveal themselves. It becomes impossible to evade the questions that workaday hustle and bustle strives so hard to evade: Have the generations lived and died in vain? What have the sages taught? What has God revealed? Who makes history? Why are we given life?

To travel is to question. Sometimes the questions are answered. Sometimes not. But never to ask, never to wonder . . . surely that is death itself.

This article was previously published in Great Expeditions (Canada), May/June 1983, and in Independent Travel Made Easy (Canada), 1989.