It is, I believe, a fallacy to think of travellers’ qualities as physical. If I had to write a decalogue for journeys, eight out of ten virtues should be moral, and I should put first of all a temper as serene at the end as at the beginning of the day. Then would come the capacity to accept values and to judge by standards other than our own. The rapid judgement of character; and a love of nature which must include human nature also. The power to dissociate oneself from one’s own bodily sensations. A knowledge of the local history and language. A leisurely and uncensorious mind. A tolerable constitution and the capacity to eat and sleep at any moment. And lastly, and especially here, a ready quickness in repartee. – Freya Stark
Freya Stark is one of those people I can hardly believe really existed. She was a Brit and traveled, mostly alone, for years at a time, all over the middle east, in the first half of the 20th century. She rode camels, slept in the desert, found valleys and mountains, was mistaken for a man, spoke Arabic and Turkish (among other languages), wrote and published two dozen books, was awarded the Burton Medal, lived to 100, and had a fondness for hats. Oh, and did I mention, she was a she?
I came across Freya’s decalogue of travel virtues a few years back while reading Women of Discovery, a terrific compendium of intrepid women. I was reminded of her today by Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent New Yorker article, which recommends Freya’s books as still highly readable and remarkably relevant. The article inspired me to add one to my book list, the title of which I like quite a lot: East is West. As Freya presciently said, “the most interesting things in the world are likely to happen in the neighborhood of oil.”
I was also inspired to pull out Women of Discovery and find the list that had emblazoned itself on my memory the first time I read it. What first struck me about the list was that I have few of these virtues when I travel.
I am a more nervous traveler than not, and even though I have put myself in some odd spots that tested my endurance (a prop seaplane flight into the flooded Vancouver Island watersheds, a three-day fasting solo in Georgia O’Keefe country, underground in the tight confines of the Etruscan aqueducts) and have taken myself on at least one road trip with nothing more than a remote destination, a map, and some cash, I mostly prefer to plan my trips quite carefully, choosing my locales for their beauty and exquisite accommodation.
I remember feeling somewhat humiliated by her “decalogue for journeys,” as she calls it, if not by Freya herself, traveling alone in the Middle East before the Second World War. She was something, by any measure. So I sat with the list that day, pondering why it struck me so, if most of it just didn’t pertain to me. And then it dawned on me: there are other journeys to which the list pertains. In fact, it is a near perfect summation of what is required of me in the type of journeys I take in my work.
I work with people – most often large, diverse groups – some of whom vehemently disagree or think they do, all with a stake in some big problem or some big dream. Each project is different, with values, language, even culture to be learned, and I have often thought of it as an adventure into an unknown land. My job is to convene a group of people – sometimes quite large, bring them together, design the process by which they will engage the topic, create a forum within which everyone may be heard and contribute, where all ideas are welcome and something significant results.
A serene and hospitable temperament; acceptance of others, no matter how different; a quick assessment of character and capability; a readiness with the subtleties of language; the ability to go for long stretches without consideration of bodily needs; an ease and delight in hearing the thoughts of others and relating to them – all these and more from Freya’s list are requisite for the journey that is my work.
So, Freya’s decalogue is much more than a list for travelers, and my suspicion is she knew that. It’s a doggone good list of what I consider the important characteristics of great leaders, and of fine human beings, for that matter. I am happy to say that in some context, even if not in travel, Freya’s ten apply to me. And knowing I have them somewhere gives me the way to cultivate them in myself elsewhere.
For Penney, one of the great intrepid women, who gave me Women in Discovery, enabling me to find Freya.