Hilary Bradt muses on our desire for comfort, and how it affects the way we travel
Since interviewing the impressively ascetic travel writer Dervla Murphy for Wanderlust, I’ve been musing on our desire for comfort, and how it affects the way we travel. Comfort is such a western concept. It’s not a need; it’s something that’s crept into our culture because we can have it, so we want it. As do despots and the wealthy in the developing world – comfort is something that money can buy, so they buy it. Comfort sells: capitalism is largely driven by our wish for it.
But I think that discomfort is not just physical. While many of us can take a break from soft living while travelling, our main anxiety is the prospect of social discomfort. A fear, or at least suspicion, of ‘otherness’ is a human trait, so it’s not surprising that the ease with which we can be transported to a totally alien culture can make us anxious. So people avoid it by travelling in a sort of cosy capsule to a holiday centre where they only mix with their own kind and do the sort of things they do at home. I’m not thinking only of Club Med and the like – backpackers, too, find comfort in staying in hostels with other Westerners, and going clubbing with them at night.
Although I never fell into this category – far too frightening! – during my backpacking days, I was certainly not immune to this social unease. I used to hate approaching a remote village on foot: the stares, the alarm and the questions I couldn’t understand. I hid my discomfort and did the best I could, but it was – and is – an effort. Too often these days I find myself in a different place: dipping my toe in the shallows of real travel, rather than immersing myself.
When I was young I could sleep on rocks, flat roofs and flea-ridden huts. And I could help a village of astonished starers to accept me as human rather than an alien. You had to, if you were to travel cheaply, adventurously and rewardingly. But now, given the choice – a genuine choice – I’m ashamed to say that I would choose comfort. I want a deep, hot bath rather than a cold shower; I seek tasty food rather than local sludge; I like to sit down on the loo, not squat precariously over a hole; and I love my soft bed. And I’m afraid I also tire of the effort of crossing those cultural barriers.
Perhaps, though, I should allow myself a final word of mitigation. Compared with some of the people I have accompanied on trips to the developing world, I am toughness itself; Dervla-esque in my ability to dismiss that day’s ration of misery as a ‘useful experience’, or ‘worth it because’.
When stuff happens and there is no choice, it helps to have a British stiff upper lip. Or if the reward is good enough – a view of a rare animal, say, or dawn over the snow peaks – then my love of travel surpasses my love of comfort. And I can, and do, always learn “What is your name?” in the local language. So perhaps all is not lost after all.