The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth thrown into the face of mankind. Claude Lévy-Strauss ( 1908-2009)
The late French anthropologist raises an interesting question. Why is it when we travel to different countries we rarely see those images we find on tourist brochures?
In Lévy-Strauss philosophical style, could we claim that people travel because it is a subconscious attempt to stop time? When we visit different lands, does time stay at point zero for as long as we start to become familiar with the new landscapes?
Having traveled all my life since I was eleven months old and lived and worked in many countries, I have noticed that there are four ways of conducting a journey: geographically, spiritually, culturally and with the help of history.
With our imagination we can even travel and become caterpillars for a precious moment.
Traveling with the help of geography is the most simple no-brainer way of acquainting oneself with a foreign destination. In this mode of travel, all one has to do is sit back and let the eyes and brain do the walking.
Another form of travel is spiritual, which happens when we yearn to be in other places. We can travel to such places with engines that are nothing more than semi-daydream trances. This form of travel is also one of the swifetest. We can reach speeds of speed of light in thought and, with the help of imagination, picture known and unknown lands and plants.
Even though we can reach the outer reaches of space with the blink of an eye, this form of travel can encourage you to to visit new and unknown lands. When I was twelve years old, I loved to read National Geographic maps. Once I found one of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. I was fascinated by their hugeness and desolateness.
Northwest Territories in northern Canada was about the size of Europe in the 1960s and had a population of 25,000 inhabitants! How could so few people live in such an empty place? Could it be like Finland? I never stopped traveling spiritually to northern Canada throughout the years. About forty years later, in 2006, I visited the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Even though I have never traveled with the help of geography to this part of Canada, I felt as if I had returned home. But how can I return “home” in a land that had never felt the weight of my footsteps? The only conclusion I could arrive at is that spiritual travel exists.
Taking into account that traveling with the help of geography is easy, the final phase of this type of travel is with culture. A good example of this type of travel is having the ability to transgress and form part of a cultural situation.
Whenever I want to travel culturally, I pay a rural hamlet or town in eastern Finland a visit. Korpikoski is one of them, located near the city of Mikkeli. The hamlet has a small coffee shop, country store, gas station and a restaurant that is open during summer. The forest and a semi-asleep asphalt road that hug and connect Korpikoski with the outside world are added spices to the folklore of the area.
There is nothing fascinating about the hamlet except that it is beautifully commonplace. Even though this may have been the case, it was behind its ordinary appearance where its beauty rested and where you wanted to remain for a long time.
In a similar fashion, the cultural traveler could also feel perfectly in place while enjoying an afternoon tea at one of the finest hotels in London. Instead of humble walls and the candid folklore of Korpikoski, you are now being patronized by impeccable service amid architecture and decorations that are truly astonishing and luxurious.
The real enjoyment of cultural travel is that one can enjoy Korpikoski in the same as the London Dorchester Hotel. The diversity and folklore of both places is an exhilirating experience. The trick is to enjoy and fit in both places.
Traveling with the help of history is the final form of sojourning I will talk about. Since we are unfamiliar with places we never visited because they are tucked deep in time, we must turn to history to be our seeing-eye dogs in such travels.
I once traveled decades in time and met my grandmother Aino in the eastern Finnish town of Mikkeli right after the war. It was an odd dream because I hadn’t been born yet. Nobody told me the exact date, but I gathered it to be a few months after September 19, 1944, when Finland signed a difficult armistice with Moscow.
Even if the people in the journey spoke and hovered around silence, the night, candles, buildings and expressions on their faces told you that a nation was busily healing from the wounds of war. The lights that exposed years of carnage had begun to turn themselves off; the rage and metal, which roamed and searched for flesh, took a breather over the war-torn landscapes of Finland and Europe.
Even though I was happy to see my grandmother again, it was a relief to know that I visited 1944 as a tourist.
*This column was originally published in the summer 2009 issue of New World Finn.