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The Curse of Cain: Travel Isn’t Everything We Make It Out to Be

“We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.” Madeleine L’Engle

A key moment in the last presidential campaign came early, in 2015. Hillary Clinton believed one of her political advantages was her long experience on the global stage. She therefore often talked about her tenure as Secretary of State. She captured that idea by telling crowds she had visited more than 100 countries.

However, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of global giant Hewlett-Packard, had also been on a few airplanes, and she neutralized Clinton’s argument. “Like Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina began, “I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike Hillary Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”

The line was clever and effective. It more or less vaporized one of Clinton’s most important campaign talking points, and it signaled that Fiorina could run with the big dogs, rhetorically speaking anyway.

But it also caused me to wonder: Why do we put so much stock in travel? “Join the Navy, See the World” was an old recruiting campaign. Ask recent college graduates what kind of job they’re looking for, and a high percentage will say they want a job that will allow them to travel. In fact, in a survey of millennials conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 70 percent of respondents said travel is a major reason they work. About 72 percent said they want to visit five continents in their lifetime.

Fiorina’s “flying is an activity, not an accomplishment” memo clearly hadn’t reached their desks.

Curse of Travel

In ancient times, travel was a curse, not a blessing. In fact, the blessing of home and the curse of travel are ideas baked into our cultural imagination. The first road trip came when Adam and Eve rebelled against God; they had to flee the Garden of Eden. When Cain killed his brother Abel, Cain’s punishment was to roam the earth. The prodigal son’s rebellion and ingratitude led him to travel. That story ends happily only after he returns home. And when the older brother complains that he hadn’t been allowed to take his inheritance and leave, the father reminds him that simply remaining at home was its own reward.

Judeo-Christian literature isn’t alone in extolling the glories of home and the dangers of travel. In The Odyssey, it takes an event no less traumatic than a war, and the duty it demands, to rip Odysseus from kith and kin, and the entire epic narrative has our hero moving toward a single objective: home.

In ancient times, travel was a curse, not a blessing.

In these and many other stories, travel is dangerous. The physical dangers were obvious enough. Travel took one away from the protections of home—the constable, the walls of the city, the caring neighbor who would come running at the sound of your alarm. In fact, the word travel probably originates in the 14th century with the Old French word travail, which means “work.” The word appears in Middle English as travailen or travelen, which means to “torment, labor, strive, or journey.”

But travel’s hardships were more than physical. It was also dangerous to the soul. Odysseus had to face the temptation of the Siren’s Song, among many others. Travel took Jesus from his home in Galilee to the wilderness and the temptations of Satan, and ultimately to Jerusalem and to Calvary.

Indeed, one of the classic “road trip” stories of all time is Don Quixote, now considered a high-water mark in the literature of the late Renaissance. The delusional anti-hero of that story “tilts at windmills,” thinks his broken-down horse Rocinante is a noble steed, mistakes prostitutes for ladies of the court, and has his sanity restored only when he returns home.

The message of these stories is clear: travel was a travail to be avoided. It was (in the case of Cain) punishment or (for Odysseus and Jesus) made necessary by the profound brokenness of the world. If you actually desired travel, as Don Quixote did, you were surely sick in the head, or the heart, or both.

Is it any wonder, then, that perhaps the most memorable line in one of the 20th century’s most memorable movies is simply this: “There’s no place like home.”

Purpose of Travel

The Renaissance is when many of our modern notions of travel were born. During the Renaissance it became fashionable for aristocrats and the wealthy—especially among the British upper classes—to travel to significant European cities as capstones to their Oxbridge educations. These “Grand Tours” weren’t undertaken merely to see the sights, though; they helped prepare young men to take their places as members of the ruling class. The itineraries often included introductions to families of similar standing in the capitals of Europe. Eventually, women also took “The Grand Tour,” sometimes finding spouses.

Socialist historian E. P. Thompson said the Grand Tour was vital to perpetuate the ruling classes. In his influential book The Making of the English Working Class, he writes: “Ruling-class control in the 18th century was primarily a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”

Politics is downstream from culture, and travel allowed the upper classes to accumulate social and cultural capital. It’s therefore not surprising that when the Industrial Revolution created a mercantile class of nouveau riche, they too wanted access to that social capital. Travel therefore became a status symbol of the wealthy and an aspiration of the middle class.

By the mid-19th century the Cook’s Tour became a Grand Tour for first the nouveau riche and then the aspirational class. Such tours were arranged by British entrepreneur Thomas Cook, a former Baptist missionary who became a pioneer in the travel and tourism industry. Package tours eventually became a staple of the travel and tourism industry, and they continued to offer the traveler the ancillary benefit of social capital. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in her book on the “aspirational class,” The Sum of Small Things, said that such “bespoke experiences” offer more than just sight-seeing, even today. “Traveling like this,” she writes, “has the second-order effect of generating cultural capital and symbolic boundaries and numerous non-pecuniary signifiers of being well-rounded, knowledgeable, and probably interesting at dinner parties.”

People who engage in such travel often talk about its virtues as a broadening experience. We might let the Roman philosopher Seneca stand in for many who have extolled the virtues of travel: “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”

Even if Seneca’s saying is true, one still has to grapple with the fact that so much of travel today has become anything but a “change of place.” For all kinds of good reasons—most of them related to safety and convenience—travel has devolved into a homogenized experience. KFC is in Kazakhstan and Kigali as well as Kentucky. It becomes harder and harder to experience a real “change of place” if one limits oneself to the standard travel destinations. As The Avett Brothers sing, “All exits look the same.”

Blinding Convenience of Travel

From our 21st-century vantage point, it’s easy to see the class consciousness and elitism built into the Grand Tour. But for all its class-consciousness, class-segregation, and overt mission of class-preservation, the Grand Tour at least offered the benefits of an immersive experience for the traveler. The young man on his Grand Tour was, for example, expected to use the languages he’d previously studied only in books. He was expected to maintain the relationships he began on such travels. The continued well-being of his family and perhaps even his country depended on it. Such travel had a purpose related to calling in life.

Today, though, package tours follow well-trod paths and shield the traveler from experiences that might challenge cultural assumptions. The primary purpose of such travel is to divert, to entertain, to amuse. The buses are air-conditioned, the guides speak English, as do the proprietors of all the restaurants and hotels they visit. Clever shopkeepers from Delhi to Sao Paolo accept American dollars, though you will likely pay a premium price for the privilege. Most Americans gladly accept this “tourist tax” as a cost of convenience. If you’re not careful, you could end up buying souvenirs in Reykjavik and Rio made in the same province in China.

One of the more ironic aspects of modern travel is that the convenience it offers mostly erases the possibility of a truly immersive cultural experience. The only people you will significantly interact with are your fellow travelers, who will be overwhelmingly your age and social and economic status. (After all, if they were poor, they couldn’t afford the trip. And if they were richer, they would have taken the more expensive trip, with the four-star hotels instead of the three-star hotels.)

David Foster Wallace skewered such travel when Harper’s Magazine sent him on a Caribbean cruise, an experience that eventually became one of his most famous essays: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

I now know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O. I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over 20 different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projective-vomit inside a glass elevator.

He concludes:

Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, a 16-year-old male did a half gainer off the upper deck of a Megaship. The news version of the suicide was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, a ship-board romance gone bad. But I think part of it was something no news story could cover. There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad.

Don DeLillo has a telling scene about travel and tourism near the beginning of what may be his most famous novel, White Noise. In the countryside is a barn touted as “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” Signs proclaiming so abound for miles around. On reading this passage it’s easy to conjure the real-life signs that say “See Rock City” or “The Big Texan” or “South of the Border” in real-life 21st-century America. When the narrator and his friend Murray arrive, they encounter a barn of no particular distinctiveness or beauty. The only unusual features are the “40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift parking lot.”

We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras: some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides—pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he finally said.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated spot, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies. . . . Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Damage of Short-Term Missions

Perhaps the most obvious place to see tourism masquerading as a religious experience is in a modern phenomenon of the evangelical church: the short-term mission trip.

Robert Priest, professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has studied the growth in short-term mission projects:

The number of lay people in the United States involved in short term missions grew from an estimated 540 in 1965 to 22,000 in 1979. By 1989 it had grown to an estimated 120,000. Three years later the figure had doubled to 250,000. It is now estimated that there are at least a million short-termers [each year].

A significant reason for the explosive growth in short-term mission trips is the growth of what some have called the ‘Christian Industrial Complex,’ a for-profit industry that has made the church and church members a lucrative marketplace.

A significant reason for the explosive growth in short-term mission trips is the growth of what some have called the “Christian Industrial Complex,” a for-profit industry that has made the church and church members a lucrative market. For example, today “Christian” travel agents and tour companies specialize in trips to Israel, or mission trips to parts of the world near and far. These companies are adept at offering discounts and free accommodations to the tour organizers—often pastors and youth ministers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford such trips. Thus incentivized, church leaders become highly effective local, on-the-ground salespeople for their trips.

Priest is critical of these short-term mission trips, saying they are more about sightseeing than service. “The shift to short-term missions is significant,” he writes. “It may be the first mission movement in church history that is based largely on the needs of the missionary.”

In fact, Bob Lupton believes these short-term mission trips have a detrimental effect. Lupton spent a career ministering to the poor, mostly in inner-city Atlanta. His books Theirs Is the Kingdom and Toxic Charity have become must-reads for those who work in Christian philanthropy.

Lupton writes that his eyes were opened on a trip to Nicaragua. He said Americans would pay thousands of dollars to come to Nicaragua to help build a church or run a week-long camp for children. The money spent on airfare alone would have supported local workers for many months, even years. Lupton’s tour guide Juan, on close questioning by Lupton, admitted that churches that had partnerships with U.S. churches were “destroying the initiative of the people.” According to Lupton, “Entrepreneurship declines as dollars and free resources flood in. People become conditioned to wait for the next mission group to arrive instead of doing the work to build their businesses.” He said the net effect is that dignity is eroded and people come to view themselves as charity cases for wealthy visitors.

Lupton concluded:

Nicaragua has disturbed me. It calls into question the way the Western church does mission. Sure we know better than to spoil a culture with our kindness. We know that doing for others what they can do for themselves is fundamentally hurtful—to both giver and recipient. We must find a better way.

Spiritual Restlessness

Given this obsession with travel, with movement, it’s not unreasonable to ask: What are we running from? What are we searching for?

Henry David Thoreau asked such questions. He was at the center of what was perhaps America’s first indigenous literary and philosophical movements: transcendentalism. Thoreau was also one of America’s first travel writers. One of his first works was “A Walk to Wachusett,” published in 1843 in The Boston Miscellany. It recounts a short walking trip from his home in Concord to the summit of Mount Wachusett. Other travel narratives followed, including “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers,” “An Excursion to Canada,” and the book that some consider a rival to Walden as his masterwork: The Maine Woods.

Thoreau occasionally praised travel. “Methinks that moment my legs begin to move, the thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote. However, Thoreau by and large disdained the impulse of America toward movement. He thought that impulse was born of a spiritual restlessness, at best. At times he even conjured images of America as Eden, and our impulse toward movement, especially westward expansion, as an effort to be “as god.” In an 1853 letter to H. G. O. Blake, he wrote:

The whole enterprise of this nation, which is not an upward, but a westward one, toward Oregon, California, Japan, &c, is totally devoid of interest to me, whether performed on foot, or by a Pacific railroad. It is not illustrated by a thought; it is not warmed by a sentiment; there is nothing in it which one should lay down his life for, nor even his gloves—hardly which one should take up a newspaper for. It is perfectly heathenish—a filibustering toward heaven by the great western route. No; they may go their way to their manifest destiny, which I trust is not mine.

Even in his travel narratives, Thoreau often expressed a longing for home. In The Maine Woods, he commented on the great American restlessness toward the West, and observed that around his own home was many a “lesser Oregon and California” that was “left unexplored behind us . . . as we have advanced by leaps to the Pacific.”

In the end, Thoreau concluded, “We need only travel enough to give our intellects an airing.”

Travels of Jesus

Jesus wasn’t much of a traveler. That’s not obvious if you read the Bible only superficially, since he is often on the road. It’s also true that we don’t have a reliable record of the “lost years of Jesus,” between age 12, when he traveled with his family to Jerusalem, and age 30, when he began his public ministry. Legends have emerged to fill these years. One legend has him traveling to Tibet, another to Britain. These legends have no historical evidence to support them, and some of them have been fully discredited as fabrications.

In fact, other than Jesus’s trip to Egypt (less than 200 miles from Bethlehem) as an infant to avoid Herod’s slaughter of all children younger than 2, it’s likely that Jesus lived his entire life within a hundred miles of his birthplace, and he lived the vast majority of his life within 25 miles of his parents’ home in Nazareth. If travel broadens the mind, or increases one’s spiritual, intellectual, or emotional depth, if it enlarges one’s empathy for other people and cultures . . . well, you couldn’t get that from a close look at the life of Jesus.

It’s likely that Jesus lived his entire life within a hundred miles of his birthplace, and he lived the vast majority of his life within 25 miles of his parents’ home in Nazareth.

In fact, Jesus too seemed to view wandering as a sign of the brokenness of the world. When a “teacher of the law” said he wanted to follow Jesus, Jesus told him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). The life of the sojourner, the pilgrim, the wanderer, Jesus seems to be saying, is one of hardship.

Or consider one of Jesus’s most spectacular miracles, the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, the “Man of the Tombs,” a story told in Mark 5. In this story, Jesus heals a man who had been tormented by a “legion” of demons. The man, now “clothed and in his right mind,” understandably wants to follow Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us the man “begged” to go with Jesus.

But Jesus told the man he could best serve by letting those who had seen him before see him now. So Jesus wouldn’t let the man follow him. Instead, Jesus gave the man a simple, direct, but in some ways almost heart-breaking command:

“Go home.”

Traveling for Wisdom

Gandalf famously said, “Not all who wander are lost.” He seems to be praising what we might call “purposeful travel.” On the other hand, we have this from the wise Bilbo Baggins: “It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out on the road.”

We live in the tension between these two understandings of travel. We should avoid the temptation to reduce these reflections to dogma. “Travel is good” or “travel is bad” aren’t conclusions to which logic or experience or Scripture lead us. Indeed, travel isn’t forbidden by God, and—from time to time—God bids us: “Go.”

‘Travel is good’ or ‘travel is bad’ aren’t conclusions to which logic or experience or Scripture lead us.

Still, it seems prudent to have a healthy skepticism about the individual and cultural costs of travel. At a minimum, if we do travel, we should travel with our eyes open, not as tourists but as pilgrims, collecting wisdom and not trinkets and souvenirs.

And what’s the highest wisdom we can collect from our travels? What’s the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist? It may be this: The realization that no matter where we go in this great big world, and no matter how many people we see who look and dress and talk differently from ourselves . . . . Despite all that, we are all the same, we all bear the imago Dei, the image of God. We are all broken by the fall.

We all long for home.

Editors’ note: 

An original version of this appeared at WORLD Magazine and is republished here with permission.

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