James's Corner

The Best Travel Writing 2007: Publisher’s Preface

Travel to new places, especially those far away, is surely one of the most rewarding ways to spend time. But it is also better than just about any other activity for the purpose of grasping the paradox of human existence: your life, and everyone else’s, is only a drop of water in the ocean, but is more valuable than all the stars in the galaxy. To paraphrase a line from the movie Gladiator—“Is all of Rome worth the life of one good man?” I think most of us know the answer to that question, but travel underlines the enduring truth of the answer.

Some years ago I was on a travel panel and was asked who were, in my estimation, the most amazing travelers. “Refugees,” I answered, and an uneasy murmur passed through the crowd; I think I’d been expected to canonize Wilfred Thesiger or Isabella Bird, or sing the praises of backpackers and do-gooders roaming the globe.

But no! I said refugees and I mean it still. Millions of souls cross borders without food, documents, clothing, health, or hope, and are preyed upon by weather, wild animals, and human jackals—their own kind who hack at them, rob them, rape them, kill them. These are the travelers we should admire and study and care the most about, for our cardboard wall of law and borders is flimsy, and expensive weaponry is mostly an illusion, and while that wall keeps the demons from snapping at us in our well-washed and well-fed splendor, if it collapses we will all too quickly join our brothers and sisters who suffer unimaginably every day. We, the lucky ones who can cross borders with impunity, need to do so as often as we can to see how the rest of the world lives, to wake up and spread the honest news of our fellows to people at home who don’t get out much, or who think that Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates have it handled out there beyond the bubble.

Recent research concluded that if you have assets of—get this—$2,200—you are in the richest half of humanity. So chances are if you are reading this, whether you are well off or struggling to make ends meet, you are, in the eyes of most of your fellow humans, unimaginably rich. And not just in fact, but in opportunity, in education, and most of all, freedom.

The traveler today continues to enjoy an unparalleled opportunity to bear witness, do good deeds, and have fun and fantastic life experiences at bargain basement prices. And while it is not new to say that the traveler is a nation’s best ambassador, it is worth repeating, for the lives and ethics and views of individuals are often, as Tony Wheeler points out in the Introduction which follows, dramatically different from those of governments the world over. The U.S. Army recently had a recruiting slogan I like very much and think we should all apply to ourselves: “An Army of One.” That’s you, bringing warmth and hope and a fresh perspective to others wherever you go, even when you’re just on holiday.

So I say look kindly on all those bereft of home for any reason, political, economic, or religious, and encourage your leaders and fellow citizens wherever you live and travel to craft shrewd and honest immigration policies so that those who wish to live in freedom and prosperity be allowed to at least try out for the privilege. Do not let them languish in the gray lands where they are prey to the wicked and the greedy and to the hideous inertia and cruelty of state bureaucracy.

I just got back from my first trip to Antarctica, an intoxicating and terrifying continent, but one that so far doesn’t suffer from the confusion of fences and borders we have up north. Sure, many countries have made territorial claims, with more in the wings, but so far the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, and the awesome power of the continent’s climate and remoteness have kept us, the would-be carpetbaggers, at bay.

Consider the penguin, that goofy bird that has forgotten how to fly (except underwater). The penguin, while it has a few natural predators, can go where the krill are without being machine-gunned by Janjaweed or brainwashed child-soldiers, blown up by fanatics strapped to explosives, or restrained at every turn by the kudzu of government regulation. The penguin can go home again, back to the same nest, unlike the world’s homeless, from the Lost Boys of Sudan to the Dalai Lama, who has been in exile from his Tibetan homeland since that very same year the Antarctic Treaty was signed.

So enjoy your next trip with deep appreciation that you can do it at all! And I will accept your forgiveness in advance if I seem overly cranky. I must still be thawing out.

James O'Reilly
Palo Alto, California


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