Gilgamesh Didn’t Care About the Ethics of Travel

Tikal, Guatemala

According to an epic poem written more than 3000 years ago*, Gilgamesh, who was the ruler of Uruk, and his opponent-turned-best-friend, Enkidu, decided to destroy the Cedar Forest where humans were forbidden to enter. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, both of whom had super-human strength, traveled across seven mountains before they came to the forest. There they met Humbaba, the monster-ogre whom the gods-had appointed as guardian of the Cedar Forest. They slew Humbaba even after he asked for mercy, and then they cut the forest. The wailing of the trees was heard from a seven-day walk away. Even so, Gilgamesh returned to Uruk larger and more powerful in the eyes of his subjects than when he left. However, after another cruel exploit, the gods killed Enkidu as a punishment to both of them. Did Gilgamesh have remorse about killing Humbaba? No. About laying waste to the forbidden forest and symbolically opening civilization’s walls to allow exploitation of the world outside? Not at all. The death of his dear friend Enkidu? For this one very personal consequence, Gilgamesh felt terrible.

So do I want to go to Sardinia? My husband has a work trip there this fall.

The connection: the ethics of consumption.

As a recent retiree, I finally have enough money and time to travel. Do I want to join my husband? Of course I do. I loved a trip to Corsica a decade ago. I remember that the waters were turquoise. The hills were so rocky that it was hard to tell the sheep and goats and even the men walking along behind them from the rocks themselves. In the near, Sardinia beckoned.

I want to go to Sardinia, but want is more complicated than just my simple heart’s desire. Should I lay thoughts of the public good aside and use resources to take this trip for my own pleasure?** It’s not “in my face” who I would hurt by traveling; it’s not going to hurt me in an obvious way, and it would undoubtedly be fun. And it’s not only the issues of what I get and lose from travel itself, it’s also the value of travel compared to the value of not traveling.

United Arab Emirates

In the past, most of my travel was directly for work or was a side adventure from a work trip. I made travel decisions based on career and family issues. As a comfortable retiree, the equations are changed because I no longer balance the travel with the value derived from my work.

French Guiana

Here are my arguments against traveling.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
  • Because I have already had many and varied travel experiences, I will derive a declining marginal value from each future trip.
  • My travel money could instead be put to use for education, food, shelter, security of people in unfair situations or for restoration projects for natural resources in peril.
  • I could use my travel time to be more productive for society.
  • Travel disrupts the continuities in my home with some negative consequences. It disrupts routines that keep me efficient, centered, well-rested, and sociable. It slows my progress on finishing old projects and planning new ones.   
  • Travel has the potential to replaces the calm, health, and security I enjoy at home with anxiety, loss of personal belongings, injury, and disease.
  • An allocation of time and money to travel can be an allocation to a hedonistic or self-serving end–like an exploit of Gilgamesh.

Here are my arguments for traveling.

Train from DC to Baltimore–thanks to fellow-passenger Will for taking the photo
  • Travel can increase the base of people I’m close to by letting me go elsewhere to deepen existing relationships and make new ones, while still keeping the home fires burning. In fact, I am traveling right now, visiting four people who are important to me.
  • Travel can give me pride and fulfillment for doing what I want to do.
  • Travel can give me the satisfaction that I have changed someone or the future in a positive way.
  • Travel can exercise and expand my emotions and senses. It contributes memories that are unlikely to go away.

In the back of our minds, I think many of us consider these arguments–which are really just a subset of the consumption decisions we make every day. Tell me what you think!

And do I want to go to Sardinia? Of course I want to go to Sardinia. But Enkidu, I think we need to consider what we’ll miss at home, as well as the consequences of what we’ll get when we’re away.

Arctic Alaska

*There are different versions of the Gilgamesh myths written that have been written over the past 3500 years. There are also different translations. I read a translation by Steven Mitchell (Gilgamesh: A New English Version, 2004, Free Press) and listened to a different translation on an audiobook. Both were fascinating.

**The resources I can tap are those that, historically, only rulers like Gilgamesh possessed. Most of the “comfortable” citizens of the world, including me, have those resources largely because we are using them from the future. That is, we are mining, not producing as we go. We know that, but we also go with it because it helps our lives a lot, and we don’t see the immediate negative effects. Also, it is unclear how to live without “mining,” although it is clear how to live with a lower carbon footprint. The latter is an issue in my unpublished novel Sustainable.

5 thoughts on “Gilgamesh Didn’t Care About the Ethics of Travel

Add yours

  1. Barbara

    I love your ethical quandary.

    I find engagement through travel humbling and a great source of new ideas. In general it greatly enhances my data sets and thinking in different languages keeps my brain flexible.

    Warmly (from Venice) Daniel

    On Thu, Mar 21, 2019 at 10:22 PM Barbara Lachenbruch wrote:

    > Barbara Lachenbruch posted: ” Tikal, Guatemala According to an epic poem > written more than 3000 years ago*, Gilgamesh, who was the ruler of Uruk, > and his opponent-turned-best-friend, Enkidu, decided to destroy the Cedar > Forest where humans were forbidden to enter. Gilgamesh and En” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments Daniel and Sartenado. I agree with what both of you say. Thinking in other languages opens the world of possibilities in my brain in so many ways.

      And there are so many positives to doing something out of the ordinary routine. While I was writing this blog, I realized how many exquisite memories I have, and how many depths of emotion and senses I have felt, while traveling–depths I don’t see how I would have felt if I had not gone. Wow, there are a lot of interesting places, perspectives, and ways of doing things out there!


  2. Hi, Barb! As a member of that class of humans sometimes called “global nomads”, staying in one place too long makes me anxious and I feel like I’m stagnating. Travel definitely is essential to language learning, as two people said above (Sartenada and Daniel), but I also feel very strongly that for those of who can choose to travel (as opposed to refugees and asylum seekers, for instance, who are forced to travel to save their lives) travel can also contribute to world peace. Big statement, I know, but I feel that if one gets to know members of a different culture, one can’t then hate them as a vague “other”. And it shines a light on one’s one cultural quirks and hang-ups. Members of Congress who served in the Peace Corps, for instance, are much more understanding of other countries and can make much better decisions about foreign aid (and avoiding war!). And travel can make about history and geography much more alive.
    I am currently traveling — it’s my “spring” break at my school in Kinshasa (I put “spring” in quotes because we’re in the southern hemisphere so it’s not really spring), and I chose to come to Angola. As almost always when I travel, I go to visit people who live in that country. I’m staying with some old friends who also grew up in Congo (and one of them in Angola), who retired here and spend every day involved in community projects. I’ve helped with agriculture outreach, a children’s choir, sewing projects, you name it. So I think it’s very definitely possible to contribute to society while traveling. And I’m thrilled to be getting a sense of Angola and its history (which is very intertwined with that of Congo, where I live and work, with refugees fleeing from one country to the other over the years).
    I actually did one of those “travel for fun” trips over my Christmas break, going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and doing some tourism on the way. But while in Nairobi, I went to visit the David Sheldrick animal orphanage, contributing with my money and tourist presence to their conservation project.
    I could go on and on. My only ethical dilemma about travelling is the carbon footprint thing, and the fuel used to get me places. But I feel like in general, visiting a new place opens one’s mind and should contributes to the conviction that we are ALL human on an equal footing.


  3. Barbara, let’s keep in touch, we have a class reunion coming up.  I think it’s the 10th or 15th or something like that. Also, the class of ’72 has a reunion this weekend.  Roger was listed on the “classmates to be found” list. CheersJerry Jerry Manoukian, MD Mariam Manoukian, MD, PhD 2500 Hospital Drive, Building 4Mountain View, CA 94040 I’m already against the next pandemic!


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