Story behind the Passage
Yes, I know it is not reader-friendly to choose a bunch of German texts for a blog that is written in English for an international audience. Since I have no idea who my audience is at this point and since I am not writing for the masses anyways, I am taking the risk of violating the rules — as I do quite often. When I need to write about a certain book that I happen to have read in German, I am not going to let it go or replace it with an English version that might not be identical.
Today I thought of Schwarzenbach again (I mentioned her in one of my previous posts “On Both Sides of the River”), especially her travel narratives, because this is what I really miss. Not the books but the activity of traveling and writing. One does not have to be as obsessed as Schwarzenbach to share this passion. But maybe one has to be — I do not know. I just know that I am quite obsessed with it and that is why I start missing it very much. Of course, that must the case for all (travel) writers, especially for those, who make a living of it. I can just talk about the fact that the topic has been gaining more prominence in my mind recently.
“‘Unser Leben gleicht einer Reise…,‘ und so scheint mir die Reise weniger ein Abenteuer und Ausflug in ungewöhnliche Bereiche zu sein, als vielmehr ein konzentriertes Abbild unserer Existenz.“ / „‘Our life equals a journey…,‘ and this is why the journey to me is less an adventure or a trip to unusual spheres but more a concentrated reflection of our existence.” It is little wonder that the editors chose this sentence for the prologue of the book. It expresses the heart of Schwarzenbach’s soul searching. In fact, I think that all travelers are soul searchers somehow — at least, if they really travel and not just go on holidays somewhere.
I do think that the adventure issue indeed is a part of the journey as a reflection of life. Some are more into adventures, some less. But to me, the unexpected, the surprising side of travel is what stimulates me. When I hop on the plane and it takes me to a new destination — or even to a familiar one — I still know that things are expecting me that I have no clue about in advance. That is exciting, it is thrilling, it makes life worthwhile. I know that Schwarzenbach was addicted to this feeling too. But she lost control over it, just like she lost control over her life.
This is my judgement, of course. Who cares how others define your life journey? If it is your passion, your sense of living life to the fullest, to travel and to endure all the travails that go along with this, it is your personal definition of well-being. Nobody can take it away from you, just like nobody can take away the passion for writing from you. And writing and travel go along with each other, at least for me. Most essays and texts I ever wrote were written while I was traveling. That probably is because travel makes you explore solitude. Some people might think the opposite is true because you meet all kinds of people. But the travelers that I am talking about, real travelers, the ones that I met in forgotten places around the world, these are all loners — and this connected us.
“Wir nennen Wirklichkeit nur, was wir mit Händen greifen können, und was uns direkt betrifft — und leugnen Gewalt des Feuers, wenn es schon brennt im Nachbarhaus, nicht bei uns. — Kriege in anderen Ländern?“ / “We only call reality what we can touch with our hands and what directly affects us — and we deny the force of the fire while it is already burning in the neighbor’s house, not in our’s — wars in other countries?” Schwarzenbach was a time witness of World War II. But most of the time, she was witnessing her inner war, the war with the demons that made her become insane in many ways. These were the same demons that made her sane in another way that allowed her to write all the brilliant texts she wrote.
The reason why I am also looking at these sentences more closely today is not because Schwarzenbach writes about Yemen. I watched a short report about the country today. You have no idea about Yemen? Just look at the website of UNICEF. Here is the first passage of their website entry on Yemen:
“Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people — some 80 per cent of the population — in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.” (Yemen crisis | UNICEF)
When I had the chance to stay in Yemen as an intern in 2008, the country was in crisis already. The county has never been out of crisis for many decades. Even back then, more than ten years ago, Yemen was among the poorest countries in the world. What I am saying is: There seemed to be no: “It can get worse” because it already was more than worse. But “reality” can always beat the status quo of human perception. So, today in the coverage, I saw more kids starving. The report said that on average, 90 children are brought to this one single hospital every day because they are suffering from malnutrition. Most of these children will never leave the hospital again.
One of the most important reasons why nothing is improving in Yemen is the lasting civil war between the Huthis and the supporters of the government, backed by neighboring countries in the region and supported by international arms supplies as we all know. So, when Schwarzenbach is talking about “wars in neighboring countries,” this does apply to Yemen as well. Yes, you might think that the country is far away, at least from Europe and the U.S. But, hey, we live in a globalized world in which international trade rules everything and international interests are all connected somehow. Hence, the war in Yemen is our war as well.
We just do not care.
I know, we could be saying the same about many other countries. Indeed, there are some that are equally poor or eveen poorer — but not very many. In fact, there are only four (out of close to 130!) countries that are even poorer: Congo, Mozambique, Uganda, Tajikistan (Focus economics). That is it. And the world is watching. Do not get me wrong: I know that it is not so easy to make a difference. Just shipping food somewhere to produce happily looking children for TV cameras does not help at all. Even building up non-governmental structures that are seriously meant to create impact is not so easy either because the existing structures of corruption and violence prevent any sustainable effects. I do not even have to go into detail because any expert in development work knows more about this.
Still, what I feel when watching these scenes is: I want to get on the plane, go there, do at least something, whatever it is. Write about the situation, help in the hospital, negotiate with international partners. Of course, all this might not make sense to you now because there are many people and international delegates already doing this. We cannot just give in to our helper syndrome. But this hands-on action is part of what turns travel into a “reflection” of life for me. Some people only watch all their lives. Some people go to where life is happening and they do not hesitate to make their hands dirty and ruin their careless ‘Western’ life illusion.
For sure, every real journey changes you. You return as a different person. You cannot reverse this. I am very happy that this is the case. If there is one reason that bothers me about Covid, it is that the kind of mobility that allows countries to at least be connected to others based on human exchange has come to a halt. We have no idea about the long-term effects of this situation. We just talk about how our kids will (not) pass their A-levels if they cannot go to school or if the vaccine is really going to help in the long run. Only very few people are thinking about those who will be the very last to ever get medical assistance (if ever). Many of them will be gone when the Covid crisis is under control. Most of them will never even leave the village they were born in.
Yes, travel is a reflection of life, with all its travails. And only the privileged ones can actually go look into this “mirror,” the reflection that journeys provide. So, it is their responsibility to bring something back from their journeys, something that will change the minds of those who are not into adventures, who are not willing to see the “force of the fire in the neighbor’s house” — something that only stories can achieve.
1) Does travel have a deeper meaning to you?
2) What is your personal opinion about humanitarian aid? Can it really make a difference?
3) What was the worst journey in your life? How did you manage to make it through?