Letter from…the world

An author and an inveterate traveller, Abdullah Al Jumah talks about life as a perpetual nomad, liberating himself from routine, and appreciating having his world turned upside down

Is it worth lugging bags through the chaotic bustle of an airport, just to savour an espresso in one of Milan’s cafes? Can the magnificent view of a volcanic crater justify the physical strain of climbing the Andes? Why do we put ourselves through hardship, not to mention considerable expense, to travel? 

Consider this: once, on a trip to Chile, I saw a small Santiago shop displaying the world map upside down. “It’s the map in your mind that is upside down,” the shopkeeper said, after I mentioned it. “Chile is at the top of the world, not the bottom!” Of course, he was right. Why should Europe crown the world? I learned in that shop that there are no absolute facts; the truths you take for granted might be the exact opposite for others. 

At home, we are immersed in routine that blinds us, focusing on the daily tasks that do little to enrich our lives. 

When travelling, we free our minds; instead of instinctively criticising that which is ‘different’, we become appreciative of other cultures. We accept new ideas, even new beliefs. We embrace excitement and adventure. We emancipate our souls from fear and push ourselves to do new things, even if it’s something as simple as asking passersby for directions. Even this is an adventure. “Which language should I use? Will that person be willing to stop and help a stranger? Might they take advantage of this ‘innocent abroad’ and rob me?”

With frequent travelling, it becomes easier to break out of your shell, to open up to the ways of strangers and other cultures, to comprehend their motives and beliefs, and thus to embrace change. The mental liberation we experience while travelling is advantageous not only in exploring unseen lands, but also as a means of exploring ourselves. Once they’ve opened their eyes to the way the rest of the world lives, many return home with a new appreciation for their own country. 

On a visit to Copenhagen, I expressed my admiration for the altar in the Church of Our Lady cathedral. “I prefer the architecture of mosques,” replied my Danish friend. “Nothing but pure whiteness. It eases your spiritual connection with the divine without any distraction and diversion.” I had visited mosques around the world thousands of times, but this was a thought that hadn’t occurred to me, and without my non-Muslim friend’s comment, maybe it never would have. 

Many people travel constantly, but do they truly live the experience? I doubt that many of those who pack their work burdens along with their clothes – so easy to do in these days of email, smartphones and tablets – will achieve the intended relaxation. Refuse to leave your vicious circle of ‘normality’ and you will end up with nothing new – even if you cross the seven seas.

Disconnecting from regular life can help us figure out things we wouldn’t otherwise have understood. And immersing ourselves in a new land allows its details to become larger than life. Only then do we realise that the taste of a coffee in Milan is better even if it is more bitter; that the Andes are majestically great, if extremely difficult to access, and that Chile can be at the top of the map if it wants, even if it is upside down.

 

Abdullah Al Jumah is the author of the 2013 bestseller Anecdotes from a Saudi Journey Across Europe