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Come to Your Senses (The Sydney Morning Herald)

The following article contains quotes from Tony.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 1st Match 2014
Written by Lance Richardson
Link to the article

There is so much more to travelling than just what meets the eye, writes Lance Richardson.

The earliest use of the term “sight-seeing” I’ve been able to find was in 1824, when Reginald Herber, an English clergyman, travelled through the northern provinces of India and wrote in his diary “Morning rides, evening sight-seeing”.

After that it didn’t take long for the word to accrue the mark of stigma: a decade later, in 1835, one journalist complained that the Welsh ruins of Tintern were “profaned by a sight-seeing crew”.

By 1883, a duke had declared sight-seeing “boring,” and as we edge into the modern era it becomes truly banal, used as a synonym for travel in a foreign country that tends towards “tourism”.

Still, it’s a strange word if you stop to think about it: we never go “food-eating” at a restaurant, or “smell-smelling” in a florist. What else would you do with a “sight” except “see” it? And is that all travel is really about, visiting sights to see them with your eyes?

James Holman never thought so. An author and adventurer in the 19th century, Holman travelled at least 400,000 kilometres – more than anybody else had ever ventured before.

He visited Africa and Asia, travelling alone, helped chart the Australian outback, and was accused of being a spy by a Russian Czar.

He also happened to be blind. When Holman went to “see the sights”, there was nothing to see.

And yet he went anyway, telling people his handicap was actually a strength. William Jerdan, a journalist who knew Holman in his lifetime, wrote that he “had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind, never blinking”.

Holman’s story offers a curious counter-narrative to the one we usually associate with travel, where photographs “capture” a place and picture postcards are intended to show a person back home what it means to “experience” something.

Humans are visual creatures; we put vision foremost among the senses. (“I see,” we say, when something becomes “clear”.)

And yet Holman makes me question if we have it backwards.

If a blind man can circumnavigate the world and find it fascinating enough to inspire a whole series of books – his impediment gave him “a stronger zest to curiosity,” he once claimed – is sight really the most important of the senses?

Should we perhaps be giving greater credit to the other faculties?

Taste, for example, is powerful enough to motivate an entire sub-genre of travel – “the culinary tour”. Every year people plan trips in consultation with their stomachs, collecting flavours like stickers on a suitcase.

Perhaps this is unsurprising: every traveller knows one of the greatest pleasures of visiting a foreign land is that first taste of a strange new food; jalebi in Varanasi, cha ca in Hanoi, or chocolate mole in Oaxaca.

Street foods can make or break an urban experience (and your gastrointestinal system); Michelin stars can set off a frenzy of competitive posturing (Did you get a booking at El Bulli before it closed?); and at least one Brooklyn restaurant has turned dining into a quasi-religious experience, banning all conversation for the duration of meals.

Taste is serious business. Some people even peg their reputations as travellers to a taste for the strange, seeking out fugu, or cobra, or Swiss cheval (horsemeat) with the determination of a hog sniffing out Perigord truffles.

But for me, taste is interesting for an entirely different reason that has to do with memory. I live in Manhattan, and sometimes, if I’m feeling homesick, I take a train to Cafe Gitane in SoHo and order toast with Vegemite.

Why do I do this? Marcel Proust puts it best: “When from a long-distant past nothing subsists … taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time … and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection”.

More than photographs, in other words, taste can be astonishingly evocative. A single smear of Vegemite can stir up Sydney and the delicious comforts of my mother’s kitchen.

Smell is similar, and perhaps smell and taste are just two sides of the same sense. There’s no taste without smell, of course, though we tend to forget that because we tend to forget smell entirely.

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in one of his more canny moments.

Indeed, smell tells your brain a lot about a new destination; it “colours” your understanding of it (particularly if you have synesthesia).

But smell is evanescent and difficult to describe; we let it slip because few travellers have the trained nose of a perfumer or the expressive power of Ian Frazier sniffing out the breeze in Russia: “There’s a lot of diesel fuel in it, and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness – currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots – and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement.”

As for hearing, nothing thrills me more than unintelligible language on a public train. Nor do two cities ever sound precisely the same: each has its own soundtrack, as characteristic and beloved as a person’s voice.

There’s a reason instruments are often used to evoke a sense of place (a half-tube zither for China, bagpipes for Scotland).

The way something sounds can be a strong marker of provenance.

When it comes to accents, this idea can pull people together – “You’re Australian, too?” – which makes hearing the most social of senses, as well as one with an uncanny access to emotion.

A fleeting “mate” overheard in the street can jolt me with nostalgia, while a huanyo song in the Peruvian Andes can make me feel further away from home than a dozen unfamiliar mountains.

Still, do any of these senses explain the pull that Holman must have felt to travel that much?

Lacking vision, was the taste of curry enough to tug him all the way to India, and the sound of a symphony across the Alps to Vienna?

I recently came across a modern day Holman. Tony Giles is British, legally blind, and 80 per cent deaf without the use of hearing aids.

Five years ago he also had a kidney transplant. Giles began travelling because of stories his father told him about life in the merchant navy.

After a university exchange to South Carolina and a solo trip to New Orleans, travel became his lasting passion. To date, Giles has backpacked around 88 countries, including all seven continents and every state, province, and territory in America, Canada, and Australia.

His favourite country happens to be New Zealand, he told me recently, before adding: “If this will piss your readers off I can mention another place.”

Giles has written a book called Seeing the World My Way, and he describes travel in terms of a personal challenge.

He plans to visit every country under his own steam, pitting “my skills and wits against the difficulties”. I asked him to describe his experiences, and he talked about new music and unusual foods, “the smells of different cities and towns”.

He described “dangerous activities” like rafting the Tully River, climbing Uluru, and bungy jumping in Queenstown.

Blog posts on his website (tonythetraveller.com) are filled with details like the “honking horns, dusty streets and chaotic traffic” of Zanzibar, where tortoises feel like “hard stones”.

In conversation he also cited the “atmosphere” of a place, saying “I can feel it through my skin”.

Touch is the essential sense when it comes to travel. It links the experiences of James Holman and Tony Giles with our own.

It explains why it’s more moving to visit the Colosseum than simply look at photographs of it: nothing beats the sensation of wind whipping through the ruins as traffic rumbles stones underfoot.

And while it’s possible to taste Italian flavours anywhere from Cape Town to Moscow, Italian “atmosphere” manifests as a physical sensation that occurs nowhere in the world except Italy itself; it involves air quality, temperature, texture of the ground – and something abstract and almost mystical in nature (the “feel” of a place).

Touch can include a religious dimension, for that matter: Faith in the power of touch sends people on pilgrimages to St Peter’s Basilica, seeking blessing or a moment of solace beneath the awe-inspiring domes.

The point is this: It’s not enough to see sights, or smell smells, or hear sounds, or taste another culture’s cuisine, because real satisfaction comes from going somewhere else and feeling it all come together in a specific, tangible location.

To travel is to reach out and touch the world, one place at a time, feeling it vibrate around your body.