Someone told me that with Google Earth, Wikipedia and other instant information tools readily at our fingertips these days, there was no longer a need to travel to foreign places to get a sense of culture, language, food, geography and all the other elements that a trip outside of one’s physical boundaries provide. While armchair travelling has never had it better, I beg to differ with these pundits of inertia.
I recently wrote a novel set in a part of France I had never visited (my travels in that country up to that point had been limited to Paris and environs). With the assistance of all the online tools and data repositories available to me, I wrote copiously about Strasbourg and Metz, and not in our present day either, but around the time of the French Revolution. Something irked me on completing the book. I had not captured the soul of these places. So I travelled to those two cities and spent some time soaking in their atmospheres.
The first thing I noticed was how poorly I had estimated distance, especially if travelling by horse and carriage, and how differently the shadows fell on old buildings at certain times of the day; and the variance in colour of the Vosges Mountain range in the distance, for online photographs create their own hue and are never like the real thing. Dwellings had added an extra floor with each passing century and the ones I had to hunt down were the crumbling three-storey structures with wide doorways for carriages – these were the ones that harked back to the period depicted in my novel. I had to blot out the sound of motorized traffic and imagine the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets that still paved the inner cores of these cities. I sat on canal banks and watched swans whose ancestors had floated on those same waters three hundred years ago, waters carrying the blood of citoyen killed in the mass upheavals of those times. I was so absorbed in the scene that I thought I heard voices. Was I finally communing with the soul of this place?
From a young age I have always travelled abroad. I even set an ambitious goal for myself once, of visiting one new country for every year of my life. I am probably running two countries shy of that target, not brought about by a diminishing of interest but because there are not many new “safe” places to explore anymore, given that the world is caught up in a war between the haves and the have-nots, and “equalization” methods such as kidnapping and terrorism now extend to tourists as well. Even Mother Nature has been angry, unleashing temperamental outbursts at the most inconvenient times: I escaped the tsunami in Japan in 2011 by a couple of weeks, and was rocked and rolled by an earthquake in Costa Rica last year, then stranded due to a flood in Nicaragua on that same trip.
But I continue my pursuit, and to stretch my goals, I have just completed a novel set in Cape Town, circa 1794. Even though I used my trusty online tools to the maximum once again, visited the reference library several times, and had two South African friends fact-check my work, I know what is missing. Needless to say, when funds and time permit, I will be heading off for a date with the Soul of South Africa.