Article & book: The Camino de Santiago & travel snobbery

We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.

Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.

This is an entertaining article from Tom Allen about snobbery and the Camino de Santiago.  

Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”

True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general. 

Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.  

Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.

You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.  

As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.  

Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.  

Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However,  Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel.  Why do we do it in the first place? 

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put. 

In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”

Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.  

Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.

Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel.  The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.

By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.

When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually.  According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists.  More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.  

The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.

So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?  

Not necessarily.  In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.   

Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”  

Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion.  Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.”  The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd.  Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels.  He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it.  Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others.  While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them.  It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.   

Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way.  That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.  

Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.

For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”

Sounds like a good ethos to me. 

 

Book: Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad, or the new Pilgrims’ Progress
by Mark Twain

Published in 1869

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.

Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s first travel book and also his best-selling book during his life time.   A travel writing classic, it features in Conde Nast Traveler’s 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time and World Hum’s list of 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books.   

The details of the trip are well known.  In 1967, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Twain joined a group of 60 or so other passengers on a tour of the Mediterranean (“a pleasure excursion” and “picnic on a grand scale”).  The voyage was to be undertaken on the paddle steamship, the Quaker City.  Decommissioned following service in the Civil War, the Quaker City had been refitted “with every necessary comfort” including a library, musical instruments and even a printing press so that the passengers could print their own newsletter.  

Innocents ABroad USS_Quaker_City

The trip lasted about 5 months.  It took a fortnight to reach Gibraltar from the US and Twain reports (not without apprehension at the anticipated boredom) that it would take several weeks to steam back to the US from the Eastern Mediterranean; a long time to spend on a boat about 75 metres in length.   

In the remaining four or less months, the ‘Pilgrims’ packed in an impressive amount, taking in (among other places) Tangiers, Paris, Milan, the Italian lakes, Florence and Rome, the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol (for some Crimea battlefield tourism), Yalta and Odessa before heading to the Holy Land which was the ultimate goal of the trip.  

The only thing more impressive than the number of places visited by the Pilgrims was Twain’s output.  Twain’s $1,250 fare for the voyage was paid by The Daily Alto California.  In return, he sent the San Francisco paper over 50 letters which it published and which later formed the basis of the 600 plus page book Twain wrote after his return in 1868.    

Twain Innocents Abroad

From the outset Twain makes it clear that he is not writing an earnest and reverent travel book, calling it a “record of a pleasure trip” and he proceeds to rail against travellers, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places and also travel writers.

Twain is unsparing of Parisian barbers, tour guides, European use of soap, Turkish baths and, of course, ‘our friends the Bermudians’ as well as a great many other things he encounters.  He professes to be sated by walls of paintings and is sceptical of tourists who express wonder at the Last Supper and instead claims to be more interested in turnpikes, depots and boulevards of uniform houses because he understands them and is not competent to act as a guide to Europe’s art treasures for his readers (“I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”)  Twain’s humour is, for the most part, gentle and aimed at deserving targets.  Only occasionally is he biting or more cruel but his wit is invariably delivered with perfect timing.  

The innocents abroad: or, The new Pilgrim's progress. By Mark Twain. Uniform title: Prospectus Publication info: Hartford, Conn. : American Publishing Co., [1869] Special Collections Copies Material Location PS1312 .A1 1869ca RAREBOOK Special Collections SC-BARR-STThrough his observations and humour, Twain encourages the traveller to look for things which interest him rather than simply those things noted in guidebooks or travel books.  

Twain mocks different traveller types, from the Oracle who bores his fellow travellers with knowledge gleaned from guidebooks and passed off as learned, the Old Travellers who brag and “prate and drivel and lie”, the consummate ass who dresses in local fashion and feigns a foreign accent and the Vandal who inscribes his name on monuments.  He makes fun of their insularity, ignorance and innocence.  While his own innocence may be feigned, Twain also turns his pen on himself, confessing to be variously, a “consummate” and “egregious” ass.

He reserves special mention for travel writers who “heated their fancies and biased their judgment”, turning out “pleasant falsities” either to be popular or to deceive or who slavishly emulate other authors.  Twain is critical of his fellow Pilgrims who ‘smouch’ their opinions about places from those books so that they “will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as it appeared to them”, but as it appeared to writers of travel books.

Innocents Abroad is therefore an exercise in suggesting to the reader “how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.”   

Although referred as a travel writing classic, in its railing against traveller types, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places as well as travel writers, Innocents Abroad could in some ways be considered an anti-travel writing classic. With his repeated comparison of foreign sights with the US, Twain also gives the impression of someone who would almost have rather remained at home. Nevertheless, it is clear he is ‘pricking bubbles’ and ‘exploding humbugs’ of travel, not least those who slavishly adhere to guidebooks and express wonder and delight on cue. 

In common with other serialised Nineteenth Century books, at times Innocents Abroad seems a little lengthy, but is almost always enjoyable.  Twain meanders at some points of the Holy Land excursion when recalling his bible history, but even those chapters contain some excellent passages and anecdotes.

Some contemporary reviews of Innocents Abroad are available on line here and include WD Howells’ review for the Atlantic, and also a spoof review written by Twain himself.  

Innocents Abroad is available download for free in a variety of electronic formats at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive.

If you like the sound of this, you might also be interested in Labels by Evelyn Waugh.