When I began reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, I was a bit taken aback by the author’s frankness. Only five percent of the way through (I was reading it on my Kindle), and already de Botton was spouting seemingly off-the-cuff profundities:
“It seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.”
De Botton comes to this conclusion after describing instances of disappointment and nuisance during a trip to Barbados, and at once the statement struck me as incredibly true and incredibly unnerving. I too had experienced travel disillusionments. In Barcelona, the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral had still been under construction. My weekend in Paris was dreary and cold. Yet, in the end, the experience of traveling, of seeing those places firsthand, was worth the annoyances, wasn’t it?
I had hoped The Art of Travel would serve as inspiration for a collection of travel essays I was working on, but at that point in the text, it seemed de Botton’s words had the potential to dismantle the significance of my project. If it is more enjoyable to simply imagine gorgeous, faraway lands, why even bother traveling at all, let alone writing about it?
As I read on, however, I found that de Botton’s honest prose answers this very question. In one particular instance, he describes the scene beyond his Barbados hotel room in stunning detail:
The beach stretch[es] away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay with jungle-covered hills behind, and the first row of coconut trees inclin[es] irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.
This gorgeous description is typical of de Botton’s work, yet he immediately undermines its beauty, admitting that, in actuality, the scene was colored by a collection of petty anxieties and physical discomforts such as “a sore throat…and a rising need to visit the bathroom.”
Such discomforts are present to some degree in every travel experience, yet travel writers often stifle them to make room for the upbeat and the exotic. However, de Botton shows us that these imperfections are precisely what make travel such an eye-opening experience, one that possesses the incredible ability to teach us about our own flawed nature. In the end, de Botton’s work did inspire me to face the jarring, the messy, the disconcerting elements of travel and to examine why, in spite of it all, do we continue to leave the comfort of our homes to go explore these faraway places?