Over the weekend, I finished reading celebrity philosopher, Alain de Botton’s (2002) excellent book, The Art of Travel. In it, he very humorously and counter-intuitively examines why and how we travel, using his own experience, and excerpts from travel narratives of great poets and philosophers as analytical fodder.
On why we travel, de Botton suggests, in one of the chapters at least, that it is because we crave for the exotic, which he in turn loosely defines to be “what we hunger for in vain at home” (pg. 77).
Naturally, I’ve heard this one before. A friend of mine very matter-of-factly said the same thing when I showed up somewhat suddenly at the (Hamburg) airport to be picked up: “Kennie, you travel so much because you are searching for something. You’re not here to see me. So don’t fool yourself ‘cos I’m not fooled.” Touché.
What exactly it was (or is) I’m searching for, I don’t have a clue. Only that it’s not what I hunger for in vain at home because I was quite homeless at the time. It’s also not “home” because I’m rather enjoying this homeless flitting around, thank you very much.
On how we travel, de Botton’s notes that:
“It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern with the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come – how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere else other than where we were.” (pg. 22)
I absolutely agree. One of my worst habits when I travel, is to preoccupy myself with what I’m going to do next – the next day, the next meal, the next hour – rather than enjoy what I was doing at present. I could be walking through a quaint historical quarter of the city and be thinking of the restaurant I had planned to dine at that evening, rather than taking in the atmosphere of the place I was in right now; a place I had identified as an absolute must on my itinerary.
I love making itineraries. I could spend hours obsessing over the perfect itinerary for a week in Kyoto, or in Hanoi. But if I reflect upon this, I realise that almost always, I derive more satisfaction making the itinerary, than following through with it.
What I do love about traveling though, is eating and drinking: being able to have great wines and exotic [aha!] local fare in lovely bars and restaurants. I realise I recall places through bars and restaurants.
Beirut: a simple but amazing pea stew and Lebanese wine I had in an old Ottoman-era house. The waiter-owner’s grin when I told him I absolutely adored everything.
Gothenburg: Basement bar-grotto; an unexpectedly gorgeous red wine from the Basque Country; stirring conversation about love and life with a good friend.
Tokyo: peals of drunken laughter at a tiny izakaya (Japanese grill) as I pointed to and requested for the “ooki edamame” (big edamame), and was told that the pod in question was a “soramame”.
I suppose I travel in order to search for these ordinary yet non-trivial experiences that you can’t really have if you decide, instead, to journey around your bedroom in pink-and-blue pajamas (pg. 249).