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Notes From the Exit Row

The Vacation Question

We vacation to remove ourselves from our everyday experience—but what satisfies the itch more: huddling in a Cold War housing block or lounging poolside at Sandals? From 2008, a look at the line between far away and too far away.

Credit: Domagoj Smoljanovic

Last year my wife and I spent a depressing few days in the nasty little seaside town of Neum, at the center of Bosnia’s 15 miles of rocky Adriatic frontage. A steep descent from a mountain ridge was densely pocketed by Communist-era cinderblock boxes that passed as resorts, their owners’ only concession to the post-Cold War reality being to paint the piles pink and blue. Neum has all the charm of a de Chirico landscape, and about as many people. We paid $30 for a lukewarm dinner buffet of dumplings and toast. As we ate, we wondered why we were better off having not gone to Sandals.

Frankly, taking a package tour never crossed our mind. Driving around rural Bosnia not only seemed a good idea, but the only idea. Why let someone else determine the course of our vacation? There’s a certain exhilaration that comes with planning your own trip to a faraway place, navigating local languages and laws, traveling to obscure towns and barren coastlines. But there’s a downside as well: I’ve been to far too many Neums. My wife and I spent my most recent birthday wandering the slummy night-streets of Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysian Borneo, having heard rumors of fantastic nocturnal markets but finding only desperate hawkers pitching knockoff Nikes. I once spent a long weekend in Montevideo in the middle of the winter, huddled in an unheated hostel, all because it seemed the last place anyone else would go. And for good reason.

Had I let someone else, a professional, plan my trip, maybe I would have avoided that chilly night; maybe my wife and I would have bypassed Kota Kinabalu and Neum. But then we would have missed the possibility of the unexpected adventure, the random encounter. This paradox of structure versus chance, which frames every vacation, raises an important question: Why do we travel?

 

This question rarely comes up when I’m not traveling. When I’m sitting at my desk, looking across an alley at the brick wall of an anonymous apartment block, the appeal of unplugging and moving to another continent, even temporarily, is obvious, and even more so the appeal of going somewhere obscure, by my own plans. When I’m regaling friends with stories about fish markets I have known and loved, I don’t ask why I went.

Rather, the question usually arises at the close of a particular trip. There is something inordinately sad about the end of a vacation—and it’s not just the impending return to the office. It’s the way that the fun of the trip can never quite overlap with its length. Like leftover ringgit and euros too small to exchange, the last few hours before a return departure are too often lost.

On the final afternoon we were suddenly confronted with an hour and a half and nowhere to go, except that we also had everywhere to go. And such pressure: If we could only visit one more museum, or sample one more dish at that Malay restaurant we discovered on our first night, which was it going to be?

But it’s easier to ignore a few dollars’ worth of coinage than a few hours’ worth of leftover vacation. My wife and I capped off our Borneo trip with a few nights in Singapore, before an 11 p.m. flight home on the last day. There was more than enough to explore and experience in Singapore, but on the final afternoon we were suddenly confronted with an hour and a half and nowhere to go, except that we also had everywhere to go. And such pressure: If we could only visit one more museum, or sample one more dish at that Malay restaurant we discovered on our first night, which was it going to be? It was a self-defeating proposition. Any choice would fail, because the singularity of a particular experience can never match up to the totality of the untaken paths.

About 10 years ago I spent a year in rural Austria. I left via Vienna, and having an early morning flight, I booked myself into an airport hotel. But it got to be 6 p.m., and there I was watching dubbed Seinfeld on RTL in a cramped hotel room; was this how I should spend my last night in Austria? I didn’t know anyone in Vienna, so I took a train into the city and wandered. But my leisurely stroll turned sour when I realized how little of the city I had seen, and how little time I had left to see it. Hurrying from closing museum to shuttered cathedral, I saw a lot, but not all. And I certainly didn’t have any fun.

Another time, in London visiting friends, I spent a late and besotted night flowing from bar to bar, one final fluid evening with Bill and his pals before going home. Our goodbyes said at the end of the revelry, I woke the next day with three hours before I had to head out to Heathrow. The climax of my trip was over; how, if at all, could I write the denouement? Whatever I did, it would feel tacked on and pointless. I ended up wandering around Trafalgar Square, alone.

At this point I expect a few readers will have turned away in disgust. Neurosis is always more interesting to the sufferer than his audience, and neurosis over foreign travel—a luxury for so many people—is particularly unappetizing. But it goes back to the original question. The problem of leftover time relates directly to the issue of what, if anything, drives travel, foreign and domestic, in the first place. I, and I suspect most people, travel for a particular experience. Sometimes we leave it up to travel agents and tour guides to set up trips for us; other times we plan them ourselves. Setting aside trips for business or to visit relatives, what are we looking for?

I maintain the illusion that hiking in Croatia is fundamentally different from hiking in, say, the Shenandoah Valley, an hour from home. Over time, though, the two aim toward consilience, and by the end of the trip, I realize that I have not actually left anything behind, that my vacation away hasn’t been away enough.

We expect a lot out of travel, perhaps too much. Alain de Botton writes about the art of travel, and that’s a nice way to think of it, as if the joys of travel are to be found in the perfection of some aesthetic capacity. But it’s also wretchedly, impossibly idealistic. I travel to get away from myself, to be if not a different person, then at least the same person in a different place. Realizing that means diving into activities—going to museums, hiking, camping, snorkeling. These are all things I can do at home, more or less, but for most of the trip the newness of my surroundings overwhelms the similarities. I maintain the illusion that hiking in Croatia is fundamentally different from hiking in, say, the Shenandoah Valley, an hour from home. Over time, though, the two aim toward consilience, and by the end of the trip, I realize that I have not actually left anything behind, that my vacation away hasn’t been away enough.

Of course, there are intellectual qualities to travel. You might pick up bits and pieces of a language, or mingle with members of an obscure Papuan tribe. But this is too often a quixotic exercise. We look for what we want to find, and we’re too often disappointed by the results. “Part of the challenge,” says travel writer Rolf Potts, “is that by nature we seek out cultural differences as travelers, yet we tend to project Platonic ideals onto what other cultures should look like and how those cultures should operate.”

It’s worse than that, actually. Knowing what tourists expect, local promotional authorities hand down detailed dictats about how cafes and their denizens should look and act. In an effort to spread around the traveler dollars from the massive Otavalo handicrafts market, the Ecuadorian government has converted entire Andean villages into the arts-and-crafts equivalent of monocultural farms—here they specialize in “traditional” leather goods, there in wood carvings—and fertilizes them with a steady diet of tourist-laden buses. It’s nothing new, as Patrick Leigh Fermor, the renowned British travel writer, wrote archly about 1960s Greece:

The caïque-building yard has long been cleared away to make room for a row of bathing huts and a concrete lavatory; the spotless Tourist Police stroll past in couples. Somewhere at the edge of this scene, round a table of tubular metal, the old fishermen sit; they approve of the boom [in tourism] but they are slightly at a loss to know why they are not enjoying themselves any more. The Tourist Police tell them that last week’s directive from the ministry forbidding bare feet and narghilè-smoking has been reversed: the tourists find them more picturesque. [Roumeli, p. 128]

We travel to feel some sort of aliveness that we can’t get at home. But as soon as we do we find ourselves wrapped in layers of artificiality and fixity that prevent us from feeling much at all. Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens while we’re making other plans. This is why those last few hours before a trip’s end are so painful. The sudden lack of a plan, the sudden opportunity to do anything but with only a fleeting few moments to do it, strips bare the bankruptcy of the travel experience.

So why do I travel? Perhaps because, being away from home and my various comfort zones, I may find myself behind layers of artificiality, but for once I know they’re there, I can almost see them, and I can try to get around them. Travel itself doesn’t get me in touch with life in all its contingencies and unpredictability, but it shows me the way to that end.

On our most recent trip to the Balkans, my wife and I rented a car and drove around Montenegro. After a few days, we decided to head into Bosnia, with plans to be in Mostar by dinner. According to the map, the mountain road we were on should have been paved all the way across the border, until it hooked up with a highway on the other side. But after 20 minutes, it turned to gravel, then dirt. We drove in second gear for hours through sharp mountain passes, no signs of settlement near or far.

Just as we decided we were lost, we came to a border station. A hearse sat parked on the other side of the red-and-white striped barrier. About half a dozen men, some armed, some in uniform, filtered in and out of the stationhouse, smoking, speaking in low terms. Their faces were grieved; we gathered that the hearse was headed over the border to pick up a dearly departed local. The sun was setting. A dog barked. For an hour, no one came out to get our passports, or even recognized we were there. Moments like this are why I travel.

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen