In the 16th C, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, published a travelogue about a journey through an imaginary land. It was a journey to an ideal society, a place More called, Utopia. We still use the word today to refer to idealised locations and scenarios. In More’s Utopia, which is also the title of his book, he writes, ‘He that knows one of their towns knows them all—they are so like one another…’. More admires this similarity, viewing it is a good thing. However, as we travel the globe today, do we want each destination we arrive at to be a mirror image of the place we left behind?
One of the joys of travel has to be the sense of discovering novelty. More’s Utopia is, at heart, about finding a new and different land, a place that could perhaps teach us something useful. In Arabic saafara (سافر), meaning ‘he travelled’, shares its linguistic roots with the verb safara (سَفَرَ), meaning to unveil. Travel, then, might be likened to an unveiling, the discovering of that which is new, that which was once hidden.
However, if the new places we travel to are almost identical to the areas we left behind, I have to question just how much discovery is going on. When I first began holidaying overseas, I used to get excited when I saw the occasional familiar brand: ‘Oh wow, they even have a McDonald’s here!’ Back then, familiarity was the exception rather than the norm.
These days, however, finding differences is becoming increasingly difficult. Wherever I roam, I tend to encounter the same fast food outlets, boutiques, and coffee shops. It’s not unusual to even find the same sequence of shops; for example, a Costa Coffee, within eyeshot of a Starbucks, going head-to-head for market dominance on a global stage. Walking through shopping malls in various lands, I also frequently encounter the costumes of acculturation: New York Yankees baseball caps, ripped jeans and branded t-shirts abound. The full flamboyant spectrum of the globalised teen-monoculture is on parade, from Istanbul to Ipswich, Abu Dhabi to Adelaide.
Globalisation and the creeping monoculture have, to some extent, dampened the travel experience. However, we are not there yet; we have a fair way to go before Thomas More’s dystopian vision is realised: ‘He that knows one of their towns knows them all—they are so like one another…’
Travel, however, isn’t only about exploring exotic locations and experiencing different cultures. The journey is also about discovering ourselves and those travelling with us. The traveller, metaphorically speaking, is unveiled. Liberated from the constraints of daily routine, and disinhibited by the anonymity of being a stranger, travelling companions catch glimpses of hidden aspects of themselves and each other.
So, while we are busy discovering that a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called a Royale with cheese in Paris, hopefully, we are also finding out something new about ourselves and our travel companions. This idea of discovery is reflected in a famous saying often attributed to Umar bin al-Khattab, Islam’s second caliph: ‘You don’t know a person until you live with him, travel with him or do business with him.’
Even if some of the world’s destinations are becoming a little same-same, travelling is still a great way of getting to know ourselves and each other. People often talk about ‘the university of life’. If such an institution existed, travel would be an advanced level course.
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.