The word ‘home’ has such a warm log-fire glow to it; it’s a concept we unquestionably accept as desirable: ‘all back to mine’ goes the cry – for that’s where my heart and possessions are.
But homes can be claustrophobic, containing, diminishing - they can trap us in a routine of self-perpetuating accumulation, accelerate time so that we lose it in the dullness of daily routine.
In Edgar Reitz’s epic film ‘Heimat’ [the German for ‘home’], there is an iconic moment several hours into what is a 15 hour movie:
the blacksmith at the centre of a village and a family decides one day simply to leave both, putting down his hammer and walking out along the central street to disappear over the horizon - and this being a long film, it takes him some time to reach that horizon; it later emerges that he never stops until he gets to America. He doesn’t come back to the village for some 30 years.
It is a moment that is both shocking and liberating. It is also emblematic of how travel is not always just a way of seeing other places; for many, it is a way of escaping from home.
I was eight years old when I first went ‘overseas’, to Paris with my mother in 1968. It was exciting for us both. At that time exchange control allowances meant you could only take £50 out of the UK – not much even then, so we lived cheap, sleeping in a flat with a bunch of revolutionary students.
This was around the period the street barricades were going up, although not for the last time on my travels I was unaware at the time of what was going on.
Our first night in the city the students drove us around the city in an open-topped car and I can still remember the impact with which we hit each roundabout, like a bob-sleigh ride. My mother changed. She was not the same person she was at home in London. Nor was I.
Since then, I’ve spent much of my life travelling - making films, writing book - and it’s given me some of my most intense experiences, but also made me aware of the mixed motives behind that travel and how easy it is for us to forget both the privileges and the losses incurred by our escape.
A few years ago I attended a Peruvian festival called Qoyllurit’i - loosely translated as ‘the festival of the snows’. This is perhaps the greatest and most extreme of all Andean festivals, which culminates each year with a night time ceremony on glaciers 17,000 ft high, officiated over by ‘ukukus’, self-appointed guardians.
The ukukus have a fearsome reputation, dressing in bear costumes with black balaclavas covering their faces; they speak in high-pitched screams and carry whips, which they use on each other and on pilgrims who do not follow the unwritten laws of the Qoyllurit’i pilgrimage.
The strangest part of the festival is an area completely covered with miniature buildings a few inches high, using small loose stones from the hillside immediately above. Some of the houses are simple little rectangles laid out in the bare earth, a few inches high - others are more elaborate complexes, with two-storied central buildings and outhouses.
They look as if built by children, but nearby are their adult owners, serious-looking men and women, who crouch over their model homes, adding string as electricity supplies to some, or putting in model cars and goods they have bought at the stalls nearby.
For this is a serious business, the juego de las casitas, ‘game of the little houses’, in which people build their dreams.
The participants believe that with the aid of the Lord of Qoyllurit’i you will later acquire whatever you build now in miniature, so you must meticulously consider what you ask for. In the words of the old saying: ‘Be careful what you set your heart on, for you will surely get it.’
So these men and women move slowly, as if in a sort of waking dream, as they deliberate whether to add even more white pebbles (llamas) to a field, or buy more goods from one another. Sometimes a man will just buy the whole of another’s model, realising that someone else has created his dream for him.
They can use fake money to acquire academic certificates, computer qualifications, tickets to travel abroad, driving licenses and everything else being sold by the salesmen who rove around the plots of the houses. Some men and women are just sitting with a contemplative attitude, making their houses as if ‘dreaming awake’.
The level of detail is phenomenal: small sticks represent eucalyptus groves (eucalyptus being the equivalent of poplars in France, a cash forestry crop), and there are tiny fridges, food-blenders, pick-up trucks and even Volvos. On the slopes above, those who want to be transportistas, ‘truck drivers’, carve long descending routes in the stone and dust for their model lorries.I am with a Peruvian architect friend of mine called Carlos, who is intrigued by the level of detail in the maquettes before him, and also by the intensity and speed with which the game is played. Within moments Carlos and I are involved in some serious negotiations for his own first house.
Despite being an architect, Carlos forgets to ask the right questions, and the vendor has to prompt him - does he need planning permission, how many hectares go with the plot, does he want water-rights, or grazing, or ‘transporte’.
To our surprise, a notary almost immediately bustles up to make sure the sale is made official (for which of course, like a real notary, he receives a small fee).
A large, bearded man approaches us with a seaman’s intensity, like somebody out of Conrad. He asks if I am foreign, and from which country; then if I will act as British Consul and grant him a visa.
He produces a beautifully made miniature passport, all of an inch square. I am about to accept it, but Carlos stops me. ‘First you must question him,’ he reminds me.
So I ask if he has had an honourable record, if he has his own business, if he has ever been in trouble with the law. He replies positively, but then insists that we keep the passport so that we can make ‘further enquiries’.
‘But how will you ever find us again,’ I ask. ‘I will,’ he says, withdrawing with an intense gaze.
And find us he does, some hours later, by which stage after prolonged exposure to a high both ofaltitude and culture, I am truly flying on different, Andean time; the bearded Conradian man approaches me: in a low voice, he respectfully asks ‘was all my paperwork in order, in the end? Can you endorse my passport?’
I sign and give it back to him.
‘Now I can travel, like you,’ he says.
Yet however intense and universal the urge to leave home, the doubts remain for any committed traveler who allows themselves to reflect.
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt travelled the world to realise that he would have been happier if he’d stayed at home, settled down and married the girl next door. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop asked ‘is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?’ (in ‘Question of Travel’). A homecoming is salutary.
It reminds us, as Odysseus finds in the most famous of all travel stories, that much may have changed while we’ve been away; but it also reminds us of what we may have lost by travelling in the first place.