I drew my legs to my chest, chin resting on my knees, my back pressed to the cold stone wall. I wanted to melt into it, to disappear and be alone with the stone edifice, even if just for one short moment. To feel something, to be moved, to have this fleeting experience when an encounter with an emanation of beauty allows me to believe I am part of some greater good. And as a human, I am one of the creatures that can, sometimes, achieve magnificence.
But the Blue Mosque was filled with people. Curled by the cool wall, I stared up, as high as possible, at the ornamented ceiling. Anything to separate my gaze from the hundreds of other heads tilted upwards; anything to not see those outstretched hands with smartphones. I closed my eyes and tried not to hear the murmur of all those shallow, casual conversations covering the building, its history and all of us with the thick, sticky syrup of banality and tiresome repetition.
Before I even entered the Mosque, I waited for a good hour or so, queuing among groups of Chinese tourists, Indian families and European couples. I had spent that time staring at the scaffolding (the façade renovation is taking forever, and ticket prices somehow have not gone down, even though only half of the building is available for sightseeing.) The demand to ‘do’ one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks kept increasing, as per the ruling economic model. The Turkish metropolis was drowning in excess – just like Barcelona, Kraków and Rome. Always displayed and abused by the stares of curious strangers, exoticized and trivialized by ever-growing numbers of casual visitors, it was becoming impossible to live in.
In Hagia Sophia, it was the same. Swarms of people everywhere, heads tilting or nodding, exchanges of admiring remarks, faces stretching in smiles for photographic proof to be shown to the world, those trophies inspiring even more explorers of architectural and civilizational wonders – and not just ancient ones, because nobody really cares nowadays. Not many people remember the tales of their guides, or the dates when those magnificent structures were erected. It’s all about doing the thing and getting it over with. Just to get rid of that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach, that constant sense of want – after all, everyone is globetrotting nowadays. Only losers sit in one place. Let’s get moving!
And here they were, crowds waiting in the scorching heat to take a Bosphorus cruise, floods of pedestrians scampering towards the Galata Bridge, queues snaking into bathhouses and hot spring baths. Crowds spill from the Topkapı Palace into the adjacent café just over the strait. A coffee and cream puffs with chocolate sauce are four times more expensive than normal; the prices scare away some of the tourists, but those most generous get to admire beautiful views.
Sitting on a bench in one of the palace courtyards, I tried to remember my last visit to this city, 20-odd years ago. It had been my first encounter with the East. A walk with my backpack from the bus station just before dawn, muezzins’ voices echoing in the empty streets. When visiting the Blue Mosque, I sat in the middle of an ornate carpet, surrounded by men wearing neatly pressed trousers and dark brown socks, asking me friendly questions, animated by the evening prayer. No rush, no crowds. When I entered Hagia Sophia, I was so overwhelmed with what I saw that I just crouched right there and stared. I stayed like this, in the middle of the marble floor, for a very long time. Nobody obscured my view; I didn’t have to make way for rushing crowds.
But that was a long time ago, back when boarding a plane was a privilege in itself – not only because flights were costly, but also because the very act of travelling was still perceived as something both exceptional and quite romantic. One flew for a reason, and even though many routes had already become well-trodden and ordinary, travelling wasn’t yet an activity embedded into the consumerist herd instinct. Only the emergence of the global mass tourism that exploded with the turn of the millennium gave birth to the borderless trend of thoughtless transportation of bodies there and back, with no outcome other than economic growth. A new wave of tourists now joined middle-income Europeans seeking to bask in the warmth of their colonial past. Nouveau-riche Asians began to visit the West for the opposite reason – to shed the fate of the excluded and marginalized, the image of poor immigrants that was imposed onto them for so long. Plus, they could now verify the idea of that mythical better world to which their countries and cultures aspire. Day by day, the exchange of bodies and stereotypes kept on growing. It seemed that only a disaster could stop this madness.
Just like many other travellers, I’ve had enough. I no longer want to do it. Being elsewhere makes sense only when it leads to the experience of the Other. And when geographical change turns out to be nothing but a mere reconstruction, a tribal ritual of sameness, it becomes an un-travel. It ruins all diversity in the world, striking down the very point of being on the road.
All in all, nothing matters any more: whether you are in Uffizi, or the shade of a palm tree in Thailand, in a rooftop bar in Cape Town, or a tiny village by the Ganges Delta. Everywhere I go, I fall into a rut prowled by previous visitors, and all I do is deepen it even further before the next ones arrive. Whoever goes out into the world with the hope of loving and admiring the world must feel that with each step they take, they cause it more and more harm. They strengthen sequences of profit, leaving their carbon footprint and economic impact, inequalities eroding deeper and deeper.
My last trip before the closing of borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic was rather short – an hour-long flight to Vienna. Premiere night in the opera filled with aristocratic elderly ladies, their cleavages and hands shimmering with diamonds from Congo and Sierra Leone. A drink in a small bar that pretended to be in Manhattan, walls covered with black-and-white photographs of New York; Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, bartenders wearing white shirts with suspenders. Meanwhile, the crowded restaurant next door turned out to be a kingdom of pork schnitzels – a song of the past playing the loudest when muffled by the new melody, sung by the new green ethics of tomorrow.
In that ultra-European city, I felt like Malinowski among unknown tribes. I watched opera rituals, restaurant rituals and overwhelming palaces that looked like fossilized giants covered with clusters of passers-by and tourists. I felt like I’d just hit a wall. That wherever I might go next – whether it’s the Himalayas, Amsterdam or Sri Lanka – it won’t make any real difference. Not in me, not in the world. Travel can no longer be educational because it has become a tool of unification and pauperization.
Meanwhile, I have spent the past four months travelling around Poland. I walk down yellow roads, never in a rush. I hardly take any photos and rarely show them to anyone – ponds near Zwierzyniec, forest cycling routes and Baltic dunes are neither popular nor prestigious. I take narrow paths with no particular appeal. Sometimes, a roadside shrine turns out to be the highlight of the day. Other than that, I take in this familiar landscape, resistant to the currents of commercialization; sunlight shimmering on the surface of a lake, linden blossoms cracking open, a kitten sitting in the tall crop. I am moved easily, and I fall asleep quickly – my mind overflowing with images, my lungs filled with oxygen, my cheeks browned by the sun. In the morning, I wake up earlier. I want more.
I don’t miss airports. I do miss my friends in India, but it doesn’t sadden me to see that Qatar Airlines finally cancelled my flight to Delhi, having changed the time of departure seven times. Perhaps I’ll go some other time, or maybe never. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that the world is not within reach, it isn’t without borders. The only actual loss is having to say goodbye to this trivial illusion. The ability to be on the road is not dependent on the landscape we cross. Travellers will be fine. And the free transit of people and services will not lose its value; after all, it never had any.
Perhaps someone in Istanbul is visiting the Blue Mosque right now, as it isn’t being stormed by tourists. Maybe they are pressing their back to the cool stone wall, finding their awe there and then, instead of queuing for it outside the Louvre?
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano