Want to rid yourself of cultural prejudices? Just travel.
Advice from Mark Twain hasn’t lost its import: going out into the world, we’re confronted with essential qualities that allow us to live together and to form bonds.
In 1867, Mark Twain traveled to the Middle East and several other Mediterranean countries, both in Europe and Africa. Due to both the conditions of travel at the time and for the trip’s symbolic value, and also for the effort involved in crossing the ocean to arrive on another continent, the trip didn’t pass unnoticed in the writer’s life.
Professionally, he took advantage of the journey to exercise the journalistic skills which he’d by then well mastered. Earlier, in 1860, he’d made a similar journey, when the Sacramento Union newspaper paid for the texts Twain had written on his trip to Hawaii aboard the steamship, Ajax. As a result of the enthusiasm with which readers received Twain’s writings, another newspaper, the Alta California, hired him for a similar trip. Also by sea, this time his journey led from San Francisco to New York with a stop in Panama.
The trip in 1867 was somewhat more special. Twain was free to write without restriction in the ironic style for which he was well known. On board the Quaker City, the trip was one of the first in history to presage what we know today as tourism. In fact, it might be considered an inaugural point, if not of travel literature the tradition of which goes back much further than Mark Twain, but of the literature of tourism, inseparable as it is from the modern way of traveling so common in the 20th century. Dozens of places may be visited on the same itinerary, often at some distance from one another and with the importance of any one being never fully delved into.
“An Excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, Crimea, Greece and Places of Intermediate Interest” was the description used to promote the trip. Twain joined some of his compatriots on the journey and made some of his most acute observations (especially on the customs of the countries he visited), but also some of his most lucid notes on the primary benefits of traveling. Twain wrote:
"I have no fault to find with the manner in which our excursion was conducted. Its programme was faithfully carried out—a thing which surprised me, for great enterprises usually promise vastly more than they perform. It would be well if such an excursion could be gotten up every year and the system regularly inaugurated. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime."
Especially in the final lines of this paragraph we see that, for Twain, travel, above all, allows us to see that which is obvious and which we too often forget. Culture, identity, borders separating one country from another; all of these are accidents of history, the products of specific circumstances and in no way “natural” phenomena. To some large extent, this is liberating, as it allows us to see how absurd it was to think that one culture is better than another, that one language is superior, or that one country is preferable to others. Although often cloaked in solemnity and importance, this is still just a line and perhaps a few words in the immeasurable book of time.
Understood this way, we may cease concentrating on the accidental and then look for the essential. Not the language of a person, but the person him or herself. Rather than seeking cultural barriers, we find meeting points which allow us to be with others. We see not borders, but the details of the common and shared territories in which we find ourselves.
Twain’s chronicles of the journey, including the passage cited above, are gathered in a work entitled The Innocents Abroad.
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