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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Transformation Through Travel

I don't always blog about human cruelty though at times it might seem so.  Today I am blogging about a hopeful human activity as described in a book that I received for review from The Bookplex.

                                               Travelers: The Meaningful Journey

Judging from his book, Régent Jean Cabana, the French Canadian author of Travelers: The Meaningful Journey is a scholar, a philosopher and a bon vivant.  He calls himself a Traveler.  By this he means those who travel on a long-term basis as a lifestyle.  Although he conducted a formal study of Travelers which included in-depth interviews and focus groups, this book isn’t dry and academic.  Cabana also writes about his own life and outlook with a changing perspective that is by turns suave, convivial and wise.  He can be a dependable guide, yet he can also be unpredictable.

Cabana defines Travelers as radically different from tourists who rely on guidebooks to shape their travel experience rather than taking chances, and watching for opportunities to contact the local people in order to learn from them directly about their culture.  

Some of his concepts can be difficult to pin down.  I finally concluded that “finding your rhythm” is most akin to the Navajo belief in hozho which is called “walking in beauty” in English.  Cabana likes using the word “passage” for travel.  I would associate this word with “rite of passage” which is an experience that is intended to be transformative.  Transformation is Cabana’s central goal, and he believes that it’s the goal of other Travelers that he has encountered.

He also talks about “hitting bottom” which I connect with the process of overcoming addiction.  In the context of this book, “hitting bottom” means a time of reflection and self-examination.  I read in this book that some Travelers imagine that they will find people in Third World cultures who are purely traditionalist and uninfluenced by Western aspirations.  It seems to me that they are seeking iconic representations from the pages of National Geographic rather than the real individuals who actually live there.  When these Travelers “hit bottom”, they should consider re-examining how they view people in the countries through which they are journeying.

Cabana himself respects diversity.  He says that “tolerance” is one of his favorite words. “Liminality” is one of my favorite words.   It is the state of being an outsider.  I think that Travelers are supremely liminal.  They leave their cultures of origin because they don’t feel at home there, yet they can never permanently connect with any other culture because they are continually moving on.  Some readers who value a sense of belonging may find this very sad, but I have always appreciated the unique viewpoint of those who live on the margins of our societies. 

This book contains some observations about theology.  I would characterize Cabana’s approach as pantheist.  He believes that the divine is everywhere and that we are all one while still being distinct individuals. 

If Travelers: The Meaningful Journey can be said to have a flaw, I think it’s a failure to give enough credit to those of us who stay at home.  As a rather cautious individual with very limited financial resources, I content myself with armchair travel through books.  A book too can be a journey.  Like the Fool of the Tarot, a reader steps out blithely into the world of a book without knowing whether the consequence of this experience will be a metaphorical fall from a precipice. I would also like to point out that if you live in a major city or its environs, you can encounter people from other cultures and learn from them.  You needn’t travel to another continent to discover cultural diversity and be changed by it.  Travel is not the only means of transformation.


A Digestif of Chateaubriand

Cabana discusses the phenomenon of "reverse cultural shock" which means that you no longer feel part of your own culture when you return home from extended travel.  As an example, he quotes the author François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) as having said that he felt more alone in France than he had been away from France. 

The work by Chateaubriand that Cabana is quoting from is  René .  According to the Wikipedia Article on Chateaubriand's Novella , it is about a fictional young man who settles among the Natchez of Louisiana as Chateaubriand himself did for a while. René  can be found in a combined edition with Atala translated into English according to Worldcat.  It was originally part of a much longer work called Les Natchez  which is available for download in French at The Internet Archive.


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