It’s fashionable, of course, to hate crowds. Good travellers are always complaining about them. Perhaps we ascended Mount Pilatus in Switzerland early in the morning and were disgusted to find that there were already several dozen people at the summit, or we went to Athens to look at the Parthenon and we were appalled by how many groups were wandering about the ruins.
Our distress is very real. But if we examine our annoyance in detail, it turns out that it’s not actually the presence of lots of other people that is bothering us so much.
Crucially, there are certain occasions when we have a powerfully positive experience of being in a crowd. If we’re attending – for instance – the Olympic Opening Ceremony, it’s deeply thrilling to feel that we’re sharing moments of collective pride with many others in an atmosphere of dignity and prowess.
Or, if we’re at a religious service in a cathedral, the grandeur and solemnity of the occasion is profoundly enhanced by the fact that thousands of people are at the same time rising to their feet and singing a hymn, or simultaneously contemplating the errors of their lives and seeking forgiveness for the wrongs they have all done to one another.
Keeping such experiences in mind shows us that it’s rarely the pure quantity of other human beings that upsets us: it’s something else. It is the lack of a sense of nobility, ceremony or shared occasion.
It could be one of life’s most majestic experiences to be gathered on a mountain top with a multitude of others in a moment of joint awe and humility at the sight of the world spread below us; it could be deeply moving to be part of a mass of people who gathered around the broken columns of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the goddess of wisdom.
Knowing this can’t, by itself, solve our problem with crowds. But it shows us more accurately what’s bothering us when we travel: we don’t hate people, we’re just missing the sense of dignified shared devotion. We don’t really need every place to ourselves. We want there to be a crowd – only of a different kind.
On a densely populated planet, the ideal of being alone is very understandable – but it has grown ever more problematic. All the very interesting and attractive places get busy. The desire to journey away from the crowd simply leads us to a desperate scramble for ever more remote locations: the Galápagos Islands, the ice shelves of Alaska and (most exclusive of all) outer space; places which will, in turn, get spoilt too.
However, the grander and more hopeful ambition is to transform our experience of being one of many; to turn the idea of a group from an insult to a virtue: to make belonging as nice as it can be.
This is an edited extract from How to Travel.
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