Photo: Margaret Wiktor/Shutterstock

How Not to Enjoy Your Vacation

by Aaron Hamburger Aug 21, 2013

In preparation for our annual summer beach vacation, I’ve been going online to check the weather, which looks lousy. Partly cloudy skies, strong chance of showers. Each day I keep clicking, hoping for a different result, yet the same intractable forecast keeps popping up.

It’s enough to make you want to go on Facebook, type in a clever status update along the lines of “Why does it always rain when I go on vacation???” and wait for the Likes to start streaming in.

My disappointment reminds me of a section in Alain de Botton’s wise and witty book The Art of Travel, in which he describes a long-anticipated trip from England to Barbados, a sun-kissed beach dream of a vacation inspired by a glossy travel brochure illustrated with images of palm trees and blue skies.

De Botton writes, “If pressed, I would naturally have recognized that the island had to include other elements, but I had not needed them in order to build an impression of it.”

However, when de Botton arrives in Barbados, he’s confronted by other sights that didn’t make it into the travel brochure he’d read back home. Among these are a BP oil storage unit, an immigration official slowly stamping passports, advertising, a stray dog, and an ugly air-conditioning unit in his room.

“If there was a problem with this profusion of images,” writes de Botton, “it was that they made it strangely harder for me to see the Barbados I had come to find.”

How many of us when we travel tend to erase or even complain about details like these that don’t conform to our preconceptions of what we’ll find when we go away? Sometimes we claim we want to have an “authentic” experience, see the “real” place we’ve come all this way to witness. And yet, when we get our wish and reality appears, we mourn rather than rejoice, because that reality doesn’t comport with the type of reality we were seeking.

In other words, we get upset when we have a real vacation instead of the one we’d been dreaming of.

This is not to say make lemons out of lemonade. No one should reasonably stand up and cheer when it rains during a trip to the beach. But once you’re there and reality comes in the form of rain, or a noisy souvenir hawker, or a loud local gabbing on his or her cell phone while blowing clouds of smoke in your face, I’m just wondering, what might happen if instead of liking or disliking it, we simply got very quiet and noticed it?

We live at a time and in a world that’s constantly encouraging us to rate our experiences in the degrees of momentary pleasure they bring us, which is in effect another way of preventing us from actually having an authentic experience, since life is not predicated only in terms of pleasure or pain. Moreover, this mania for pleasure at every moment and at all costs has another ugly side effect: It prevents us from seeing our true selves, instead of the illusory self we work so hard to persuade others to see.

There are other emotional realms we could be visiting during our journeys, if we only opened our eyes and our minds.

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