Whether or not you’ve read the novel or watched the movie, Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days is so embedded in Western culture that just about everyone knows the basic plot premise: wealthy and reticent Englishman Phileas Fogg makes gentlemanly bet with his chums that he can travel around the world in 80 days and then sets off with his temperamental French servant to do just that.
The idea for the story came from the actual journey of eccentric Bostonian George Francis Train. (Who liked to refer to himself as “Citizen Train” – check out the NYTimes article from the day he finished his trip in Tacoma, WA.)
What I hadn’t expected of Verne’s novel is that it is such a blatant reminder of how far we’ve come in the last 135 years since colonialist superiority was treated as unquestioned fact.
The steamer passed along near the shores, but the savage Papuans, who are in the lowest scale of humanity, but are not, as has been asserted, cannibals, did not make their appearance.
Similar descriptions applied to Punjabis, Chinese, and Native Americans are littered throughout the book. It’s also clear that, at the time of writing the novel, Verne was an unabashed Anglophile. Not only is the book a celebration of the British empire at its peak, but Verne is constantly praising Fogg’s alleged English qualities (honor, stoicism, courage) and jabbing at his servent Passepartout’s Frenchness (temperamental, impetuous, chatty).
What I found fascinating about Around the World in 80 Days has nothing to do with the book itself, but rather how Jules Verne wrote it. When he was a young boy, according to accounts of relatives, he ran away from home and attempted to sail out to sea to follow the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Having failed, he promised his mother that “henceforth I will travel only in dream.” For the rest of his writing career Verne rarely traveled. Rather he would surround himself with books and research the landscapes of his novels without ever setting foot there himself.
In the words of Ethan, Jules Verne might be what you consider an OG bridgeblogger. If you have even the most remote interest in African issues then you probably follow Ethan’s blog. He is incredibly talented at consuming and digesting large volumes of information about a complicated topic and then presenting that information in an easy-to-follow narrative that doesn’t simplify its complexity. But in all my years of following Ethan’s blog I think he’s only traveled to Africa for two short conference-related trips.
The obvious difference between Ethan and Jules (apart from the fact that Ethan is both nicer and more empathetic) is the number of research and communication tools that we now have at our disposal. Verne had his local library, letters, and the telegraph. Today, apart from being able to glimpse the front pages of hundreds of newspapers from around the world at the Newseum, we are also able to learn about the world around us in real time thanks to Global Voices, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google Earth. What’s more, we can – and often do – develop real and meaningful friendships from our interactions on those sites.
Still, there is something about being on the ground, there in person, that allows you to soak in and understand new lands, cultures, and customs in a way that even the most advanced virtual worlds could never rival. I doubt that Ethan would be such an impassioned Africaphile were it not for his time spent in Ghana. And Joi is right, if he really wants to understand the Middle East, the best thing to do is move there. (Though mentioning United Arab Emirates’ tax benefits would have been a brave gesture of sincerity.)
I do understand that increased international travel is neither good for our environment nor our budgets. But, done responsibly, it is good for humanity. The more we experience other cultures the more we understand about ourselves and our place in the world. Which is why I wholly support initiatives like Abby Falik’s Global Citizen Year fellowship program (which hopefully won’t be bogged down by the bureaucracy, legacy, and politics of Peace Corps).
As Michael Naimark notes in a smart essay on the 80plus1 website, Verne’s novel celebrated the technological advances of the industrial era. Thanks to the steam engine, railways, and global colonialism, it was possible for the first time to circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. Today we’re still at the dawn of a new era of technological advances: pervasive networked and structured data. These tools will lead to a new era of exploration. There are no longer new lands, tribes, and cities to discover. Just by starting up Google Earth we can cast our eyes on every hidden corner of the world. The curiosity that inspires exploration, however, remains. Something keeps Matt traveling and dancing around the world and keeps Nicholas daydreaming about his next trip to Guyana or Venezuela or Argentina. Something inspired this Chinese blogger to travel around the world in 800 days. But exploration today isn’t about discovering the so-called undiscovered. It’s about understanding what has been there all along.