Monthly Archives: June 2008

Thoughts on Traveling

I can’t say I grew up with fond memories of traveling. I remember cramped car rides with my family to Florida and to Wisconsin in the back of our smelly Chevrolet station wagon, fighting with my sister and being yelled at by my parents. There were dirty bathrooms at rest stops and moments of excruciating boredom on endless highways. Even when I was exposed to scenic views of the Shenandoah Valley or the Great Lakes, I would be deeply withdrawn into my adolescent self-centeredness, jealously comparing our low-budget domestic trips to the fancy tours of Europe taken by my friends and finding refuge in hotel TVs, especially the ones with HBO.

Traveling in recent years has yielded pleasanter memories. Part of it may be due to the fact that I’ve been able to shed some of the immaturity that clouded my previous trips. Another part is that I’ve become more invested in the outcome of my travels – what was once a feeling of being dragged along to an undesired destination, with no say in the itinerary, has, with my increasing independence, become personal initiatives to have a good time.

And it’s the desire to have a fun, memorable experience that has spawned the routine of paying careful attention to the selection of hotels, the knowledge of the restaurants, the proximity of attractions, and the obligatory purchase of travel guidebooks. Also is the unavoidable fact that traveling is an investment of time, money, and energy – such things require careful planning.

And yet, even with the well-executed logistics and the strategically framed photographs to serve as evidence of the good times, I know that no trip has been perfect. I can remember several instances when I grumbled about a city’s “lack of culture” in comparison to New York, failing to open my eyes to the unique aspects of the city’s architecture or it’s own versions of diversity. I can recall being bored by walks through famous museums and train rides through the countryside, too lazy to make an effort in observing what may be significant about such views and looking forward instead to the next meal or a return to the hotel.

Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is an interesting meditation on the activity of travel, from the unavoidable inconveniences and discouragements one might face to the enriching and enlightening experiences that one can encounter with the right mindset. In the course of reading the book, I became more and more aware of my shortcomings as a traveler, often embarrassed by the incuriosity, prejudices, and ignorance I’ve harbored on many of my trips, all while thinking of myself as some sophisticated and cultured traveler.

There are some very valuable lessons I learned. Rather than a tiresome review of the book, I’ve listed its sections with a few lines that summarize each – they add up to a nice list of “things to keep in mind when traveling.”

Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel

I. On Anticipation: Sometimes the best thing about travel is the idea of being somewhere rather than the actual (and often tedious) experience of being there.
II. On Traveling Places: As demonstrated by Baudelaire’s poetry and Hopper’s paintings, places such as service stations, motels, and airports, despite their undesirable features, “offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.”

III. On the Exotic: Travel can help us realize that cultures and countries not our own may suit our preferences better; physical origin does not necessarily determine our identities.
IV. On Curiosity: Modern travelers may be at a disadvantage when it comes to curiosity because of all that’s already been “discovered” and prioritized in guidebooks as “interesting” – don’t feel too bad if you find yourself not wanting to hit up all the highlighted attractions.

V. On the Country and the City: Wordsworth believed that “we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us, every time they enter our consciousness, both a contrast to and relief from present difficulties.” Lesson: it’s worth our while to spend some time in nature.
VI. On the Sublime: “If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places” – vast deserts, mountains carved by glaciers, endless oceans, etc. – “suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus… if we spend more time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.”

VII. On Eye-Opening Art: Works of art, such as Van Gogh’s paintings of Provence, can bring to our attention the details and features we may otherwise miss from our own observations, making it possible to appreciate a place in new and interesting ways.
VIII. On Possessing Beauty: As Ruskin taught in his lectures and manuals on drawing, the activity of drawing or writing (“word-painting”) about the things we find beautiful can help us better understand and appreciate the beauty of things.

IX. On Habit: Traveling alone can help us observe things we may normally avoid exploring in the company of others. Travel is not so much about how far and to how many places you go, but how willing and open you are to notice the world around you.