Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Case Against Travel

Let’s say I walked into your house, took a dining room chair, and placed it facing a wall, with about 12 inches of clearance. Then I sat you in the chair, and made you a proposition. “Here’s the deal.” I say to you. “You have to sit in this chair for ten hours. You’re allowed to get up to stretch every few hours – and you can have bathroom breaks too. But otherwise you sit there. Don’t worry about food and water, I’ll bring it to you. You’re welcome to have a magazine or a book or an iPod to help pass the time. That’s it. For ten hours.”
“Why would I do that?” you ask me.
“In exchange I will give you something truly valuable.”
“Look,” you say, “It’s not like I have ten hours of free time to give you. I’m pretty busy.”
“Oh I know. I need you to use your vacation hours from work for this. We’ll schedule it months in advance.”
“I don't get too many vacation hours.” you say to me. “This would have to be worth it.”
“Oh it is.” I insist.
“So I sit here in this cramped chair for 10 hours. Anything else?”
“Well,” I say, “Every once in a while during the 10 hours I will shake the chair violently and you will experience a brief moment of mortal panic. Oh, and you need to pay me $1,500. That’s it.”
You: “This sounds terrible.”
Me: "Ah, but I haven't told you what you get in return. Are you ready for this?"
“Yes I’m ready.”
“In exchange for that irritating test of your patience, you my friend will get to tour some truly beautiful cathedrals.”
“What? Cathedrals? Why would I want to tour a cathedral?”
“Because you’re not some uncultured boob. But wait, that isn’t all. There’ll be a charming sunset in it for you too. Maybe a scenic vista.  A couple of meals at some delightful trattoria. And at night! You won’t believe what happens then!”
“What happens at night?”
“Well, it will be just like sleeping here at home in your own bed, except it will be a) hotter, b) on a shitty mattress, c) noisy, d) humid, e) creaky, f) vaguely unsanitary, and g) the room will feature an elusive biting insect who comes out and strikes at the exact moment of slumber, then expertly disappears back into the peeling, stained wallpaper from whence it came.
“How is that preferable to my own bed at home?”
“Because it will be different! And different is better!”
“All right. So, I get the cathedral tours,”
“For a small fee.”
“And the trattoria. And the sunset. And the shitty bed.”
“And all I have to do is sit in the chair for 10 hours and pay you the $1,500.”
“Twice. It’s actually twice in the chair. Once before, once after. Forgot to mention it.”
“Okay…” you say. “My answer is no. That’s an awful deal. It seems to consist of nothing except being uncomfortable and paying money, and the fleeting moments of enjoyment that might arguably be possible are entirely outweighed by the ordeal of everything else. Frankly, I can think of no worse use of my time.”
End….. scene! To me, this is travel. It’s the opportunity to pay money and be bored and uncomfortable in exchange for getting to a place where you can pay money to be bored and uncomfortable. Any travel proposal, for me, has to pass the chair test. As in: would I be willing to sit in a chair facing the wall for ten hours in order to do it.
Very, very few things in life pass the chair test. I would submit to the chair ordeal for, say, a large lottery win. I would do it for a weekend at the Four Seasons with a sex starved Mila Kunis. I would do it to prevent an earthquake that would kill thousands of people. I would do it for a time machine. And that’s really about it. Getting to tour a magnificent ancient cathedral does not pass the chair test.
To be honest, if there was a beautiful cathedral a mile from my house, I wouldn’t go tour it, because who gives a fuck? And why should I sit in a chair for 10 hours to leave the comforts and protections of the United States to visit some vermin infested shithole? And pay for the privilege! Even if I’m just going to some tropical paradise somewhere, why visit a country where you’re really not supposed to leave the resort unless it’s with an escort and a town car? Or a country with a gulag? Or a country where you can’t walk 5 feet without someone trying to sell you wooden toys? Or a country where the toilet paper has to go in a separate garbage can? Or where you can’t drink the water? Or where you need a series of inoculations?
Where’s the upside? What’s the reward? Where’s the payoff? I’ve done these trips, and the biggest moment of personal discovery was the feeling of giddy happiness when I realized I was only an hour or so away from home, my own bed, and food that I knew met a threshold of freshness and safety.

Don't get me wrong. If I could snap my fingers and just teleport to anyplace in the world, I would do a bit of travelling. Lunch at a Paris bistro here, an afternoon on a Caribbean beach there. But the key is the short duration. After I pay the bill at the bistro, I'm ready to step back into my own home where climate control and a PS3 await. What I'm not ready for is the jet lag, the hassles of the airport and customs. The suspicioun of getting ripped off everywhere you go. The language barrier. The power adapters that fry your electric shaver. And most of all, I'm not ready to hand over multiple paycheck's worth of cash and submit to the chair. Twice. All for what? Cafe au lait and a stroll through the Louvre? You've got to be out of your mind.