Ed#430 Journeys & Destinations

12 April 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#430 Journeys & Destinations

When she was just a little girl called Robyn, before the world got to know her by her second name alone, perhaps young Robyn Rihanna Fenty had a quest. Maybe she aspired to be an international celebrity, or dreamed about becoming the youngest artist to have a dozen Number One singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. If so, I guess she could give herself a pass mark: mission accomplished.

For most of us, however, the object of quests tends to remain out of reach. All those gallant knights, including Monty Python’s (pictured), never did recover the Holy Grail. The moral there, perhaps, is not to aim too high – or at least make your goal something that can be achieved. In this edition, writer and photographer Charlie Sublet describes what he had to do to fulfil a task he set himself: to find the source of the Ganges, India’s mighty and spiritually significant river. His journey involved much travelling and some hardship, and the rewards could never be measured in Rihanna-style platinum records. Charlie was not the first to tackle the quest. Who knows, perhaps some will now read his account and hunt down maps of northern India, just as – I suspect – some journeys were inspired by Jaime Murcia’s account of his trek along El Camino de Santiago in Spain (Ed#397, early last year).

My mind turned to pilgrims and quests recently when I saw a pair of backpackers in the city one lunchtime. Their dress (practical rather than stylish) and manner (relaxed, not rushed) set them apart from everyone else around them. Ah, I thought, as I watched them head off down a street, laughing, I was like them once. That time is now well in the past. No, I won’t say how long. But when I think back on those days it seems clear to me that I was never on a quest. My mission was never as straightforward, yet so challenging, as Charlie’s. He set off to find the source of the Ganges; I just had to get away from where I’d grown up. For quite a while, in fact, my destination mattered less than simply being in motion. When I was hitchhiking, drivers would stop and ask: “Where are you going?” To which I sometimes replied, “No, where are YOU going?” (In retrospect, it’s probably a miracle I got any lifts at all.) This need to be in transit probably just reflected my restlessness; an inability or unwillingness to stay in one place indefinitely.

Then, a bit later, I ran into many people who had been travelling for far too long. Past, present and future had all become blurred; they were unsure not only where they would go next but also where they were now. Seeing them, and sensing their lack of connection to anything, helped me decide it was probably time to go home – while I still had a sense of where home might be. When I got back, one of the first things I did was give my backpack away. I never wanted to see it again. And now the wheel has turned: I don’t mind being away somewhere; it’s the getting there I can’t stand.

It all gets back to the difference between travelling and making a journey. The former is about wandering; the latter suggests having a clear goal in mind, maybe even a quest. Finding the source of the Ganges; completing a long trek in Spain…each to their own. I suspect that young Rihanna – I’m not being condescending; she only recently turned 25 – would find all this baffling. It’s certainly not the sort of thing she sings about. Not now, at least. But if she has the staying power of Madonna, an artist she admires, perhaps she’ll be singing a very different tune in 30 years’ time.