A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

Some Aspects of Travel

I MUST begin by asking your forgiveness where I touch on matters of which you know much more than I.

I cannot claim to have travelled widely, but I have met many travellers, and I have noticed what they tell the public in print of their experiences is one thing, and what they tell their friends by word of mouth is another. So I would like to try to deal with some of the more intimate and personal aspects of travel. They may be trivial or absurd, but one must remember that in a few years, most of our existing methods of transport, together with the physical and mental emotions that accompany them, will be profoundly changed. The time is near when men will receive their normal impressions of a new country suddenly and in plan, not slowly and in perspective; when the most extreme distances will be brought within the compass of one week’s — one hundred and sixtyeight hours’— travel; when the word “inaccessible” as applied to any given spot on the surface of the globe will cease to have any meaning. I present myself to-night, then, as in some sort a recorder of experiences which are on the eve of being superseded.

Many years ago a friend of mine was engaged on a survey in a little-known part of Asia. When he came back, I asked him what he used to think about while he was at work. He told me that, as soon as his party had settled to camp-routine, his mind moved in an uneasy triangle — he traced it in the air as he spoke — between Supplies, possible Sickness, and Mileage. The figure was as real to him as one on a blackboard. It was an isosceles triangle with a narrow base, in the centre of which he felt himself to be walking, between Supplies on the one hand and Sickness on the other, always looking forward to the always retreating point M. When his work was ended, and the survey connected up, the point M, he said, “opened and let him through”. Till then he had felt himself constricted — harnessed up was his word — between these imaginary lines. I remember we discussed the matter at some length, and in our interest to discover why his thoughts had cast themselves into a triangle, we missed, I think, the main point — that the phenomenon did not show itself till the boy had been worked rather hard.

That roused my interest in what one might call the psychology of moving bodies under strain. Most of the men I was brought in contact with, knew something about the strain of travel, and I asked them — as I have asked many men since — how they realised their experiences to themselves. Few things are more doubtful than any man’s, especially any Englishman’s, evidence as to his own feelings; and in the rare cases where one meets a man who can or cares to testify, one finds that a very few days of baths, clean clothes, and mixed society blur the clearness of his record. Travellers, like sea-trout, should be caught fresh-run, with their experiences still sticking to them.

Yet it seemed to me, from what I was told, that a number of the men who work under strain and responsibility, as leaders of expeditions — survey, prospecting, exploration, or scientific — come to evolve a more or less definite image of their work within the limits of which, or with reference to which, they accomplish that work. For the sake of brevity, let us call those images pressure-lines.

I have no knowledge of any other case except the one I have given, of pressure-lines taking the form of a complete mathematical figure. One man who had led a rather trying expedition, told me that his pressure-line showed itself, after a few days’ hard marching, as a diagonally shaded bar or line a little above and a little to the right of his right eyebrow. It was a distinct mental image almost as insistent as a scratch on the glass of one’s spectacles; and he felt himself to be constantly pushing in or shouldering towards it. After a good day’s work the bar was clear and firm in outline. A bad day, with lost loads and delayed transport, broke it up into ragged curdled flecks. He carried the bar with him for the first few mornings after his return to civilisation, exactly as one carried the memory of the school-bell for the first few mornings of one’s holidays.

Many of the pressure-lines, of course, cannot be defined in words. One man has written to me: “I had the picture of my job at the back of my head all the time. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you what it was like, but it was there and it was quite real. I kept it by me, or rather it kept by me, till I had had a week’s sleep between sheets.” And another man told me that his pressure-line appeared to him as an amorphous lump — a cross between a monthly calendar and a porter’s load. That gives an idea of complicated pressure and its attendant horrors. And yet another, who suffered from malaria, compared his pressure-line to that indescribable sensation of swelling and thickening of the hands at the beginning of a bout of fever, which, as you know, is sometimes accompanied by a consciousness of indefinitely protracted parallel ruled lines in the head.

In every case, I noted that the pressure-lines did not show themselves till the man was physically tired out — and a little more. When the pressure of the work was removed and the man was fed again, the lines gradually faded, and could only be recalled by an effort of will.

And I remember, too, when I was a young man, listening to Stanley, who was talking, half to himself, of some work he had done in his early days. He had been under the necessity of covering a certain distance in a certain time, and he ended his monologue with an abrupt fore-reaching movement of his first finger, as though he were pegging down or hooking up something, and he said: “Of course, it was the mileage that worried me!” I often wondered whether that gesture of Stanley’s was characteristic, and what form his pressure-lines took.

Several men have told me that their mental idea of their day’s work, as distinguished from the responsibility of leadership, was a ribbon or tape unrolling behind them or being dropped from their hands as they marched. In one case my informant said that he thought of distance actually covered as a clear white tape; distance to the next haltingplace ran forward along the ground like a misty web or skein. These men were not leaders, but subordinates responsible for making good so many miles per diem. One can see the reason for their linear conception of progress. Expeditions, as a rule, string out in single file, and any movement of the leaders is seldom to a flank, but up and down the line.

Speaking from my own experience of the one march I ever had to make in a hurry, my impression at the time, as well as the memory that stayed with me afterwards, was that of the unrolling ribbon. Luckily I had not to worry about supplies, but my single object was to get myself and my coolies out of a certain district as soon as possible. My mind projected itself along an imaginary straight line — in this instance white against dull green. It would be interesting if any of the Polar men who work against white backgrounds would tell us how the idea of their work presents itself to them while they are engaged in it. I have heard that the dogtrain mail-runners of Alaska and Northern Canada sometimes see their winter-trails as short straight lines strung with beads — that is to say, as a diagram of the taut sleigh-traces with dogs attached.

But I think that most travellers do not cast, or do not recall that they cast, their thoughts into mathematical outlines. They retain more or less accurate pictures of incidents that have impressed them personally. I knew one man who said he could run any road that he had marched over, backward between his eyelids like a cinematograph film before he went to sleep. His companions told me that his diary and written work were quite bad; but that they always took his word for the time and place of any event that had happened on the road. Such a gift as this — and some motorists have the rudiments of it — stands at the top of a scale that ends in those disappointing men who, after months of experience, can communicate no more than a hazy recollection of the places where they got food or water or warmth or shelter. Punch has described this type in the man who said: “Rome — Rome. Wasn’t that the place where I bought the shocking bad cigars?” It is not at all a bad type to travel with, because it generally gives all its attention to its own duties. A man who carries too many pictures in his head is apt to forget vital things like straps and kettle-lids when the loads are being packed. On the other hand, I have been assured by competent authorities that the camp-cook, if white, ought to be of a sentimental and imaginative disposition. It makes him more generous. I seem to have read lately of a cook whose notion of a twelfth course of a dinner to some returned voyagers was ten boxes of sardines made into a pile with bacon and pastry to match. May one take it that he was imaginative?

I have, not exactly a theory, but an idea, that first-class leaders of expeditions, however definite and urgent their conception of their work, either do not visualise too much or keep their powers of visualisation under control. At least, I do not remember to have heard any men who have led men into a tight place and out again, say to me: “I could see exactly what was going to happen when the canoe swamped or the bridge broke”. They usually put it: “When the bridge broke or when the hippo charged, I did so and so, or gave such and such orders”. And there is reason for that, too. An old prospector once warned me: “As long as you’ve only got yourself to think about you can think as much as you damn-well please. When you’ve other folks’ hides to answer for you must quit thinking for your own amusement.” So I should be inclined to say that, however great the strain, responsibility does not encourage detailed imaginative excursuses on the road — or on any road — while the work is in hand. Later, when a man is boiling down his log and notes into book-form, he falls back on his store of mental pictures, but, in the actual stress of travel, the first-class man as distinguished from the very first-class second-class man — and this is an important distinction — does not, or decides not to, visualise.

There is another useful gift of visualisation not necessarily connected with the executive capacity that may be worth noting: for the reason that it must deal with new material in the years to come. I do not assert that it is impossible to hold intelligent conversation without the help of an atlas. But I do say that as soon as men begin to talk about anything that really matters, someone has to go and get the atlas. And when that has been mislaid or hidden, it is interesting to see how far the company can carry on, scribbling and sketching in the fork-and-tablecloth style, without it. One discovers then, that most men keep a rough map in their heads of those parts of the world they habitually patrol, and a more accurate — often a boringly precise one — of the particular corner they have last come out of. Motoring has tremendously increased our powers in this respect; for a man who can read a county can learn to read a country, and so on. Many men, I find, can visualise the Empire on Mercator’s projection enough for conversational purposes; and I have sat at the feet of one or two superior men who seemed to be able to spin the 24-inch globe, with steamer-distances, in their heads as required. Ideally, of course, every average man ought to be able to do this. Myself, I am like the rest. I only see the atlas, and that roughly, as far as I have used it. Everything outside those limits is a cloudy blur; and the atlas that I see in my mind is based on the first atlas — a little cheap blue and yellow one — that I was forced to study. Other men have told me much the same thing about their mental atlases, and they all agree that we visualise our imaginary travels as from sea-level, with specially vivid pictures of certain capes and ports and land-falls. Naturally, so long as we travel by sea, we must embark from a port and look out for land-falls. But the time is not far off when the traveller will know and care just as little whether he is over sea or land as we to-day know and care whether our steamer is over forty-fathom water or the Tuscarora Deep. Then we shall hear the lost ports of New York and Bombay howling like Tarshish and Tyre. Incidentally, too, we shall change all our mental pictures of travel.

The other day I asked half a dozen men at random what picture or diagram the words, “He went down to the Cape”, called up in their minds. Three or four of them who had not been there, said it evolved a mind-picture of what they called the “veld”— probably a cloudy composite photograph from illustrated papers. One said he could see the brownish-red outline of Cape Colony as coloured in his private atlas. But one man, who took the road regularly, answered at once by indicating the long curve of the liner’s southerly descent, as that is laid down in the chart. It was his mental sign-talk or way-signal. Assuming identical experience and temperament, if that man’s grandfather had been asked the same question in the days of the sailing-ship, he would have swung his curve westward to within sight of the Brazil coast, and would have made his southing on the long slant. When that man’s son is asked the same question, he will not describe any curve at all. It will have no more meaning for him than the old coach-road over the downs by Salisbury has for the modern motorist. His way-sign will be one straight line slightly inclined from left to right — from fifty-one nothing North to thirty-three South, and fifteen, whatever it is, East; and his time-conception — that indescribable diagram of time which rises in each man’s mind at the mention of a voyage of known length — will be shrunk to a little block or bead or shadow representing forty-eight or fifty hours. And so it will be with all voyages. At present, most men’s mental shorthand of the run to India is a zigzag of four: London — Gibraltar; Gibraltar — Port Said; Port Said — Aden; Aden — Bombay; of the Australian voyage, a zigzag of three: the line running straight from Aden to the southern continent generally. These will be all straightened out into single lines, each carrying its own vastly shortened time-conception.

But all this, as you will say, is in the air. Let us leave it there, and consider for a while the illimitable, the fascinating subject of smells in their relation to the traveller. We shall soon have to exchange them for blasts of petrol and atomised castor-oil. Have you noticed wherever a few travellers gather together, one or the other is sure to say: “Do you remember that smell at such and such a place?” Then he may go on to speak of camel — pure camel — one whiff of which is all Arabia; or of the smell of rotten eggs at Hitt on the Euphrates, where Noah got the pitch for the Ark; or of the flavour of drying fish in Burma. Then the company begin to purr like cats at valerian, and, as the books say, “conversation becomes general”.

I suggest, subject to correction — there are only two elementary smells of universal appeal — the smell of burning fuel and the smell of melting grease. The smell, that is, of what man cooks his food over and what he cooks his food in. Fuel ranges from coal to cowdung — specially cowdung — and coco-nut husk; grease from butter through ghi to palm and coco-nut oil; and these two, either singly or in combination, make the background and furnish the active poison of nearly all the smells which assault and perturb the mind of the wayfaring man returned to civilisation. I rank wood-smoke first, since it calls up more, more intimate and varied memories, over a wider geographical range, to a larger number of individuals, than any other agent that we know. My powers are limited, but I think I would undertake to transport a quarter of a million Englishmen to any point in South Africa, from the Zambezi to Cape Agulhas, with no more elaborate vehicle than a box of matches, a string or two of rifle cordite, a broken-up biscuit-box, some chips of a creosoted railway sleeper, and a handful of dried cowdung, and to land each man in the precise spot he had in his mind. And that is only a small part of the world that wood-smoke controls. A whiff of it can take us back to forgotten marches over unnamed mountains with disreputable companions; to day-long halts beside flooded rivers in the rain; wonderful mornings of youth in brilliantly lighted lands where everything was possible — and generally done; to uneasy wakings under the low desert moon and on top of cruel, hard pebbles; and, above all, to that God’s own hour, all the world over, when the stars have gone out and it is too dark to see clear, and one lies with the fumes of last night’s embers in one’s nostrils — lies and waits for a new horizon to heave itself up against a new dawn. Wood-smoke magic works on everyone according to his experience. I live in a wood-smoke country, and I know how men, otherwise silent, become suddenly and surprisingly eloquent under its influence.

And next to wood-smoke for waking rampant “wanderlust” comes the smell of melting grease — such a smell or bouquet of smells as one may gather outside a London fried-fish shop. It is less sentimental and vague in its appeal than wood-smoke, but it hits harder. Where grease is melting, something is being cooked, and that means a change from tinned food for one night at any rate. It is an opulent, a kaleidoscopic, a semitic smell of immense range and variety of colour. Sometimes it reconstructs big covered bazaars of well-stocked cities with the blue haze hanging in the domes; or it resurrects little Heaven-sent single stalls picked up by the roadside, where one can buy penny bottles of sauce or a paper of badly needed buttons. It implies camels kneeling to unload; belts and straps being loosened; contented camp-followers dodging off to buy supplies — turmeric assafœtida, currystuffs; men washing their hands in sand before dipping them into the greasy pewter platters. And the next gust or surge of it may be pure Central Asia — thick, and choking as butter-lamps before a Tibetan shrine — a Tibetan shrine, with frost in the air, one star on the tip of a mountain, and a brown-cloaked Bhotyali rustling up through dry maize-stalks to sell a chicken. Or it may thin out to a mere echo of an appeal that calls up all the pulse and thrill and clamour of the true tropic night-blazing moonlight, black shadow, the roar of the tree-toads, a touch of Chinese matting, a gust of jasmine or champak, and the languid puff of a warm phosphorescent sea.

To me, as to others, a fried-fish shop can speak multitudinously for all the East from Cairo to Singapore; and I have heard West Coast men say that, when the smell turns bitter, it will sometimes duplicate the smell of their palm-oil chop, and cause them to re-live horrible depressing evenings by the light of kerosene lamps, hung under corrugated iron roofs of factories beside brown rivers that bubble. It does not cover the South Seas, that wonderful fifth quarter of the world, where, I believe, the smell of first appeal is burning coco-nut husk, a heavy loading of coco-nut oil, and a dash of salt coral-reef. But it is no mean magician, as we all know.

And so much for universals. Coming now to smells of particular appeal, what would most vividly remind a Polar explorer of past experiences? I suggest that ether-like smell given off by the flame of a big spirit-lamp when it is flattened out against the heated metal cooking-plate above — an unmixed smell, simple of itself, like Falstaff’s sack. I should put the limits of this appeal roughly as from the Seventies to either pole. From the Seventies to the Sixties runs that belt of unsanctified latitudes which are the stamping-ground of the winds, the wilderness and the fringes of the restless ice, all linked together, in the minds of men who know it, by the desolate smell of the stranded berg as it piles up reeking with ooze gouged off the sea-floors. Melville, of the Jeannette, once told me that it would “send your heart into your boots — if you hadn’t eaten them already”. At the Sixties and down to Labrador, it seems to me we reach kindly timber and a suggestion of meat on the hoof. The smell of stranded ice is mixed with the clear breath of seas that are not always frozen, and the acrid tang of a raw moose-hide being passed back and forth through wood-smoke to cure it — this last as characteristic as the smell of home-made rimpje on a Dutch farm at the other side of the world. A little lower, the appeals thicken and become more complex. I suggest evergreens sweating in the sun; birchwood smoke; the oily bark itself; pinegums, resin and tallow melted together; the cleanswept smell of milky-green snow-water pouring over pebble bars; and not so far in the background, a suspicion, or a camp-shifting certainty, of skunk. Here — say 50°N. and 65°W. — we meet our friend the horse, or rather he pushes his way into the rotten-wood smudge (that is an awakening smell, too) beside us. He keeps us company west through the grass-scented prairie air till we are more conscious of him and his saddlery than any other flavour in the landscape.

There is a heart-searching little motif of five notes — horse; old saddlery; coffee; fried bacon; and tobacco (from cut plug to maize-leaf cigarettes)— that can carry a man down from high dry camps in the Selkirks, or wet ones in Oregon, down and down over red spicy dust and dead white dust, through the scent of sage-brush and sharp peppery euphorbias, down to the torrid goat-scented South where fried beans, incense, and the abominable brassy smell of pulque will pass him on to all the forlorn brood of mangrove, foreshore and yellow-fever stinks, until he leaves his horse on the beach, and the Tropics lift up his heart with the wholesome rasp of sunbaked coral and dried fish.

Forgive me, ladies and gentlemen! I will not go on with the catalogue, though I feel like the commercial traveller in the story, who said: “If you don’t care to look at my samples, d’you mind my having a look at ’em. It’s so long since I’ve seen them.”

It is probable that the future will have no place for these links with past delights and labours — that they will be forgotten like the labours themselves — as we have forgotten the smell of homemade soap or the whistle and rap of the flails on a threshing-floor. Only a little while ago a man wrote me from Northern Canada: “We have broken into a new belt of wheat 40 miles wide — and we have left the horse behind!” Even now one can charge by rail in less than a week through the exquisitely graduated and significant series of smells, that lie like iridescence on an oyster-shell, over the last 2500 miles of South Africa, and one can return with no more than a general impression of sunshine and coal-smoke. And, as people always say in the middle of a revolution: “We are only at the beginning of things”.

Conceive for a moment a generation wholly divorced from all known smells of land and sea-travel — a generation which will climb into and drop down from the utterly odourless upper airs, unprepared in any one of its senses for the flavour, which is the spirit, of the country it descends upon! Everything that we have used till now has allowed us time for a little mental adjustment of horizons — time and contact with the changing earth and waters under us. In the future, there will be neither mental adjustment nor horizons as we have understood them: not any more of the long days that prove and prepare, nor the nights that terrify and make sane again, neither sweat nor suffering, nor the panic knowledge of isolation beyond help — none, so far as we can guess, of the checks that have hitherto conditioned all our travels.

And hitherto our life has only taught us to love what we have suffered for or with. One loves a stray dog after one has had to sit up with him for a night or two. How much more that corner of the Earth to which we have given our very hide and health and reputation!

And it is the same on the human side. Men like a man who has shown himself a pleasant companion through a week’s walking-tour. They worship the man, who over thousands of miles for hundreds of days, through renewed difficulties and efforts, has brought them without friction, arrogance, or dishonour, to the victory proposed, or to the higher glory of unshaken defeat. Anything like a man can bustle hounds after a sinking fox, but it takes something like a man to bring them home with their sterns up after they have lost him, or — seen him run into by another pack! It is one of the mysteries of personality that virtue should go out of certain men to uphold — literally to ennoble — their companions even while their own nerves are like live wire, and their own mouths are full of the taste of fever and fatigue. There is no headmark by which we can recognise such men before they have proved themselves. Their secret is incommunicable. One man, apparently without effort, inspans the human equivalent of “three blind ’uns and a bolter” and makes them do miracles. Another, working hard all the time, scientifically reduces half a dozen picked men to the level of sulky, disloyal schoolboys. And everybody wonders how it happened.

The explanations are as bewildering as the facts. A man was asked some time ago why he invariably followed a well-known man into most uncomfortable situations. He replied: “All the years I have known So-and-so, I’ve never known him to say whether he was cold or hot, wet or dry, sick or well; but I’ve never known him forget a man who was”. Here is another reply to a similar question about another leader, who was notoriously a little difficult to get nn with. One of his followers wrote: “So-and-so is all you say and more, and he grows worse as he grows older; but he will take the blame of any mistake any man of his makes, and he doesn’t care what lie he tells to save him”. And when I wrote to find out why a man whom I knew preferred not to go out with another man whom I also knew, I got this illuminating diagnosis: “So-and-so is not afraid of anything on earth except the newspapers. So I have a previous engagement.” In the face of these documents, it looks as though self-sacrifice, loyalty, and a robust view of moral obligations go far to make a leader, the capacity to live alone and inside himself being taken for granted.

But then come the accidents for which no allowance is made — or can be made. A good man, who has held a disorganised crowd together at the expense of his own vitality, may be tried, slowly or suddenly, beyond his limit, till he breaks down, and, as Hakluyt says, is either “ignominiously reported or exceedingly condemned”. There is a limit for every man, an edge beyond which he must not go. But here at home only the doctor, the nurses, and the clergymen see what happens next — not the caravan, not the grinning coolies, and the whole naked landscape — and afterwards all the world!

However, these things, and worse, are part of the rule of the road. They have never hindered men from leading or following. Even in these days a man has but to announce he is going to gamble against death for a few months on totally inadequate cover, and thousands of hitherto honest Englishmen will fawn and intrigue and, if necessary, lie like anyone you choose to think of — in order to be allotted one life-share in the venture.

But what of the future? Into what terms will this world-old, foot-pound energy of travel translate itself under the new conditions? Here is our position. Up to the present we have been forced to move in two dimensions by the help of the Three Beasts of Burden and a few live coals in a pot. Now we perceive that we can move in three dimensions, and the possibilities of our new freedom distract and disturb us in all relations. This is because our minds are still hobbled and knee-haltered by inherited memories of what were held to be immutable facts — distance, height and depth, separation, homesickness, the fear of accident and foul weather. The sea, in spite of our attacks, is still unplumbed, salt, and estranging; a mountain-range means so many days’ delay or détour; so many extra rations, sure changes of heat and cold. The desert and the wilderness have still to be approached by cautious sap and mine — depôt and cache. Where there is no water for 200 miles, we shake our head and limp round it. A little while ago we should have done so, humbly, glad to be excused. Now we step out of our path grudgingly, resentfully, resolute to come back again and take no refusal.

Presently — very presently — we shall come back and convert 200 miles across any part of the Earth into its standardised time equivalent, precisely as we convert 5 miles with infantry in column, 10 with cavalry on the march, 12 in a Cape cart, or 50 in a car — that is to say, into two hours. And whether there be one desert or a dozen mountain-ranges in that 200 miles will not affect our time-table by five minutes.

Month by month the Earth shrinks actually, and, what is more important, in imagination. We know it by the slide and crash of unstable material all around us. For the moment, but only for the moment, the new machines are outstripping mankind. We have cut down enormously — we shall cut down inconceivably — the world-conception of time and space, which is the big flywheel of the world’s progress. What wonder that the great world-engine, which we call Civilisation, should race and heat a little; or that the onlookers who see it take charge should be a little excited, and, therefore, inclined to scold? You could witness precisely the same flurry in any engine-room on the Atlantic this evening, where a liner happens to be pitching her propellers out of water. For the moment the machines are developing more power than has been required for their duties. But just as soon as humanity can get its breath, the machines’ load will be increased and they will settle smoothly to their load and most marvellous output.

Frankly, one is not so much interested in the achievements of the future as in the men of the present who are already scouting and reporting along its fantastic skyline. All, or nearly all, that can be accomplished by the old means has been won and put to general account. The old mechanism is scrapped: the moods and emotions that went with it follow. Only the spirit of man carries on, unaltered and unappeasable. There will arise — they are shaping themselves even now — risks to be met as cruel as any that Hudson or Scott faced; dreams as world-wide as Columbus or Cecil Rhodes dreamed, to be made good or to die for; and decisions to be taken as splendidly terrible as that which Drake clinched by Magellan, or Oates a little farther south. There is no break in the line, no loads are missing; the men of the present have begun the discovery of the New World with the same devoutly careless passion as their predecessors completed the discovery of the Old.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38