James and Vera Hightower did everything right on the eve of their departure to Thailand. They bought travelers checks and cancellation insurance, made hotel reservations for every night of the stay, and collected dozens of tips—on restaurants and shops—from well-traveled friends. Yet their trip was a heavy disappointment, a time of confusion and incomprehension.
Why? Because they hadn’t engaged in the single most important preparation for any journey. They had failed to steep themselves, in advance of departure, in the history and culture of the land they were about to visit.
Result: They arrived as untutored ignoramuses, almost wholly unable to understand the rituals that surrounded them, puzzled by strange customs, vacant and dazed.
We Americans think nothing of flinging ourselves to some remote, exotic location without spending so much as a single evening in a library, studying the characteristics of the country ahead. If we do read anything in advance, it is a practical guidebook of hotel tips and temperature charts, all quite trivial. The important information—the cultural background—is rarely pursued.
We omit the cultural groundwork because of our assumption that someone at the destination will soon be telling us what it is that we are looking at.
But by then it’s too late. Without a context, without a framework, for understanding, all the lectured commentaries and guides simply add to the confusion. And thereby we fail to experience 90% of the enjoyment and intellectual growth that could have been ours if we had come better equipped.
Imagine a trip to Thailand, a largely Buddhist nation. In it you will soon be surrounded by Buddhist shrines, accosted by Buddhist monks with their begging bowls, witness to odd and puzzling ceremonies. Is it not the height of folly to embark on such an experience without first reading for an hour or so about the religion called Buddhism?
Let me cite a Western example. On a trip to the capitals of Europe, sightseeing is heavily centered around the Gothic cathedral. Seemingly on every daily tour, people are taken to see at least one such edifice per city: Notre Dame in Paris, the Duomo in Milan, St. Stephen’s in Vienna. Yet the average tourist, lacking any clue to medieval architecture, regards the Gothic cathedral as the single most excruciating bore ever created to afflict his or her existence.
If, instead of traveling unprepared, those tourists had simply made a half-hour visit to the children’s section of any major bookstore, their reactions would have been dramatically reversed. For there they would have found a picture book called “Cathedral,” by David Macauley, which seeks to provide 11-year-olds with answers to questions about these church structures. Why were the walls built so deliberately thin as to be unable to bear the weight of the roof above, thus requiring buttresses for support? Why were the windows made so expansive? What functions did various areas of the cathedral serve? Why is the artwork inside so often composed of multiple panels hinged together, called triptychs if they are three in number, polyptychs if they are four or more in number? Who are those figures always found in the side panel, kneeling and surrounded by children, and always gazing at a biblical scene in the central panel?
A half-hour spent with as simple a book as Macauley’s will, I submit, utterly transform a traveler’s reaction to this key element of European sightseeing. Suddenly the tourist will become, in this fashion, a minor connoisseur of the Gothic cathedral, able to discern the modifications that later generations brought to church design, able to understand and enjoy. Usually, one will then look forward to these daily stops at a famous cathedral, will rush from one to another with eagerness. And what would have been dull and obligatory, suddenly becomes a vibrant experience of immense pleasure.
The same with works of art. During much of your trip to Europe, you will be visiting great museums of art: the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizzi in Florence, the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna. Is it not absurd to embark on such an inescapable round without some advance study of the various schools of Western European art, their evolution through history? Unless you do, in my experience, your enjoyment will be limited to the modern works in those museums. But the vast bulk of their collections—especially the medieval portion and before—will prove strange and uninviting to the tourist unaware of, say, the techniques of the “Flemish primitives,” the themes of the Baroque, the Christian symbolism in so many paintings. For gaining such an appreciation, Jensen’s “History of Western European Art” —a required text in so many college courses-is invaluable.
Unless you are willing to peruse such a work in advance of your trip, why are you going to Europe? Why are you planning to spend so much time in a cultural area for which you are unprepared?
So which will it be? Cultural/historical preparation for travel, or the guidebooks? I earn a large part of my living as the author of practical guidebooks to various locations, and yet they are all as dross when compared with the works that deal with the essence of the travel experience. And I continue to be dismayed by the sight of people embarking for a trip with reservations, vouchers, policies of insurance, rail tickets, advance theatre seats, converters and adapters—but without a notion as to the political outlook, culture, history or theology of the people they are about to visit.
Let’s all of us admit it: that usually, the last thing in our thoughts, on the eve of a trip, is a visit to the library. But no other act can better improve the quality of your trip.