Friday, February 16, 2007

Secret Pathways

When I look at my "List of Things To Do Before I Die", I'm struck by how all of the things involve travel. It's not quite a list of places I want to see before I die, it's more a list of things I want to do in foreign places.

I couldn't imagine a life spent in one place. I want to see the world, and experience all of the wonders and cultures I have read of since childhood. I want to hike the Great Wall of China, walk in the Forbidden City and sail along the great Yangtze river. Explore the Minoan ruins of Knossos, home of the Minotaur. Walk the pathways of Angkor Wat. Visit the temples of Kyoto, and sleep afterwards in some traditional Japanese Inn.

I've found the experience of being in a place infinitely purer than the experience of reading of it. No matter how many times I read the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, or how many photographs or diagrams I studied, nothing compared to the reality of standing on the plain of Giza. Nothing prepared me of the truth of the Pyramids, their great bulk, the way they overwhelm the senses. No-one wrote that the interior of the Great Pyramid is hot, and that when you climb up within the great gallery the humidity lays upon you like a great wet shroud. The burial chamber is by contrast cool. What a frightening and wonderful achievements, those great monuments.

It was the same with the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, African Elephants in the wild. No media compares to the reality of a thing. The human brain is the greatest processor on the planet, and the human eye is infinitely superior to the best camera lens. After all, the camera is a mere imitation of the eye, a two-dimensional substitute for the brain.

Perhaps one day, humans would have invented virtual reality so real that people will be able to "plug in" and be immediately transported to the location of their choice. They'll be able to experience all the tastes, smells, temperatures and dimensions of the places they "visit". I'm in favor of the technology, for many reasons. It will allow many bed-ridden people to experience things they normally couldn't. It will allow us to record and preserve monuments that are fragile, or threatened by natural disasters, pollution or war. It will allow us to teach children by allowing them virtual access to sites all over the world.

No, I'm not at all a Luddite. Yet I think I'd still be visiting those places in person. I'd always want to explore my own secret pathways, even if I was really only following the footsteps of thousands of people before me.

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