Traveling At The Speed Of The Soul

Illustration: Irshad Salim, May 2008

Nick Hunt in Noema: Returning home after being away for any length of time is strange. The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who journeyed 70,000 miles across much of the 14th-century Islamic world, wrote that “traveling gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” I’d venture that all travelers, whether they have been away for years, months or only weeks, know something of this estrangement. What gap year student hasn’t returned from their rite-of-passage journey to find that the “gap” now lies between them and their former life? This peculiar dislocation — a kind of out-of-body experience — might wear off after several days, or it might last much longer.

For me, it lasted for at least the same period as my absence. During that time I tried and failed to slot back into my old life, but everything seemed misaligned. The familiar sights around me had become foreign. One of the most confounding things was that my mental map of London — a city I’d learned street by street in the era before Google Maps, cycling for hours each day with a battered A-Z map — had completely vanished, as if the data had been wiped. I constantly found myself lost in neighborhoods I had known for years.

This cartographic distortion was accompanied by a temporal one. Travel, as has often been noted, has a warping effect on time, elongating it in some ways while compressing it in others. Like Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the bigger the journey and the greater its gravitational pull on the trajectory of your life, the more the temporal field around it seems to become dilated. It can feel like you’ve been gone for a lifetime and have changed irrevocably, and yet when you return, time has apparently stood still. George Orwell described something like this in “Homage to Catalonia” on his homecoming from the chaos of the Spanish Civil War: 

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood […] the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

Of course I hadn’t come home from a war, but I was struck by a similar sense that, during the time I’d been gone, the place I’d left had been in a state of suspended animation. Nothing had changed, and yet, confusingly, nothing was what I remembered. It was a geographical version of the “uncanny valley” effect, in which ostensibly normal things take on an alien quality. It was as if my body had arrived but some other vital part of me had not. I seemed to have dropped it on the road to Istanbul…

More here.