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.
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