To the person who has the instinct, travel can be a whole way of life. Why is it that so many people can’t resist getting away from home to a new environment? Does it matter where we go, or is it just a question of getting away from it all? Writer Robert Dessaix lives in Tasmania, and is a broadcaster, translator, prolific author of novels, memoirs and travel books including Twilight of Love and Arabesques. He spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 23.
Mr Dessaix knows the buzzwords and the academic interpretations of tourism. Home, he said, is not just a place, it is all the things one finds deeply beautiful within oneself. Once outside the front door, the traveller’s mindset changes, but what is important is the emotional effect.
“I never rush, I play out a ritual. Travel is my ritual,” he said. It takes him years just to realise what he is doing. So leaving home means another pace in life, another sense of time.
“Twenty years ago, I’m in Melbourne, I leave home with just a small bag, walk to the tram, take the bus to the airport, choose the flight, and just take off. Everything is slow and interesting,” he said.
His 1996 bestselling novel Night Letters is about an Australian man, diagnosed with an incurable disease, spending 20 nights in a hotel in Venice, writing one letter each night about his travels through Italy. He quotes from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”
What is leisure, and how can you get some? That was another of the questions Mr Dessaix addressed. Look at leaving home another way: he called it “chasing time” not in any everyday sense, but as a dedicated pursuit of leisure time over years; “time falling past you and you can’t stop it falling, you go with it as it falls”.
Leisure is impossible at home, he said. “The reality is that time is my master, it holds me, breakfast, dog, task, lunch, dinner, TV, bed, book…”
In any journey a traveller can be an adventurer and can experience an intense passion for life. But where to go, exactly? There are many places worth seeing that people are mostly not going to see. Mr Dessaix’ ideal place is somewhere “behind anomie lines”, out of social control and subject to the whims of an unfettered self.
“Canada is nice and also Canadians, whereas you don’t want ‘nice’ on your travel. Comparatively, Uganda and Cuba are better choices,” he said.
Then there is what he called “the un-rigid factor” where flexible choice decides things. Sometimes he just can’t generate enough interest to bother with a place: “It isn’t a judgement, but a match … It’s like a conversation, you actually make yourself feel larger, richer, more interesting than you would be up to now, something you find yourself cherish.” The place you do choose to go to, he said, should make the ordinary into something extraordinary. And such an extraordinary journey makes him hungry for debate, too. “Is India behind the anomie line?” He wants to argue that it is.
Finally, he said, what the traveller really wants is not some paradise at the end of the journey: “How boring. The traveller needs to be hungry for something new. The traveller needs ultimately to be less concerned about the destination and more concerned about the process of getting there.”
Mr Dessaix tells his stories, and he travels, and he conjures up images of other curious worlds. To him, travel is an art form. Outside his front door, he seeks a different sky. It is not as if he sees travel as a subject to write about; rather it is a matter of being somewhere else where the self is able to hear another voice and see other images, and can interact with them. And it leaves an impression of profound inner ease as time spills over into different spaces, and windows of awareness open to the self.