‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

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I don’t know what I expected when I bought this book. At the time, I was browsing a bookstore for books for my father; I wasn’t really thinking of buying anything for myself. But then the title of this book just got my attention. The Art of Travel – is there an art to travelling? I was intrigued. I had wanted to embark on new journeys around the world for months and eventually, I decided to take a break from work to do it. I packed up my desk after nine years of teaching and told my colleagues I would not be back in the new academic year. I want to experience and explore more. I want to appreciate what the world has to offer and not be stuck in the same place, for what would be the tenth year of my teaching career. I still have so much more I want to do and learn and places I want to go and see; and life doesn’t wait for you – you have to make it happen. So I made it happen. And this book is now going to teach me how to truly travel, understand the cultures around the world, notice the little things and observe what is going on around me, really take in the sights, and just be generally happier on my journeys.

At first, I did not really understand the concept and structure of this book. The format and layout is not like what I was used to reading. There are five main chapters – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. In each chapter, he breaks it down into sub themes with the relevant places that he visited that inspired his writings, and a guide that guided him to experience the different aspects of his travels in a more meaningful way. Within each theme, he divides it into numbered sections and chunks. I did not know where it was going and there was no story to it. But I kept trying. The key message I got from it was how we feel and think when we travel is just as important, if not more so, than what we see and do when we get to our destination. There really is an art to travelling and de Botton has put into words something we have all thought during our travels, but never made the effort to record or write them down. I never thought about travelling in such a way. Every time after a trip, I come back feeling a little empty and the memories of the places I had visited slowly fade away. I never documented or wrote about what I had experienced because I didn’t really understand what that experience was – what was the purpose of it? After every trip, I come back with hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos from my digital camera, most of which I would never look at again. I select some I think are ‘post-worthy’ and upload them on various social media sites and the rest remain on my SD card or computer. Is this my purpose for travelling? What have I even learned from this trip? I realized I needed to change my whole mindset and stop thinking about what’s next or what photo would impress my friends or what souvenirs I should get, and really appreciate the moment, the present scene, the feeling in my skin, the thoughts running through my mind. Let your mind take you on a journey as well.

I also developed a deeper understanding of God when he discussed the misfortunes of Job in the chapter about sublime landscapes. The universe is so vast and mysterious, we will never understand why things happen the way they do. With Job as a guide, we are led to discovering the sublime and the beautiful. God explains to Job that the world is unfair, but when we encounter sublime places, “see how small you are next to the mountains.” We must realize that we are merely “playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled mountains… Our life is not the measure of all things: consider sublime places a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.” And if we spend time in such places, “they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” We are a part of the earth; that is what God created us from. In the end, we must accept our fate that we become one with the earth’s foundation. As we look at such sublime landscapes, we become fascinated and begin to wonder about a greater majestic power, a force so great and divine that we can only conclude is the work of an almighty God. We are merely dust in His creation.

When we travel, we are always worried about what we will do when we get there, yet when we get ‘there’, we are not really ‘there’. We are worrying about our next destination or next stop and never truly present in the moment. This book teaches us to forget everything we know about how to travel from the guidebooks we read. To truly be present in the moment, we need to develop a different mindset. Are we really seeing what is there in front of us when we arrive at tourist spots with our cameras and selfie sticks? Do we really understand what the building, tower, castle, monument, mountains, lakes, etc. represent and why they are special to the city? Why did we choose this destination and not that one? How many photos do we need to take to be satisfied that we have documented evidence that we were in fact present at this place? These were the questions that popped into my mind as I was reading this book. No photo can capture what we see before our eyes. So just enjoy the moment and appreciate the sublime and beautiful world.

De Botton describes each scene so vividly using the teachings and philosophies of various artists and writers that leaves you amazed and ashamed at the same time. I started to reflect on my recent trip to Osaka, during which I finished reading the final 50 pages on the flight back to Hong Kong. I regret not finishing it earlier so that I could practise some of what de Botton suggests – drawing or sketching, writing or word painting as a way to remember the sights. It doesn’t matter if you are not an artist, we can all become one and everyone has the ability to pay attention to beauty. No artist is able to fully capture the magnificent landscape, not even the renowned Van Gogh. You can only select certain details and that choice varies from artist to artist. They do not simply reproduce. The key is on seeing and not capturing. As we write about a place, we can also in some way ‘possess beauty’ through understanding it. Though, I have never tried word painting, de Botton did and realizes his own limitations and expresses that, “Attractive places typically render us unaware of our inadequacies with language.” I found this quite ironic for a writer of his calibre.

Reading this book was a journey in itself. I never thought about noticing how letters look on the signs at airports, or the minor details of a carpet, a train compartment or a hotel room until I read this. One of the most memorable parts of the book was the last chapter on Return, in which he suggests being a traveller in your own room – a novel idea inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s first book, ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’. We are always searching for new destinations to travel to but we seem unable to appreciate our own home. In fact, having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, I still don’t think I know this city very well. There are so many places I haven’t explored or thought to visit. Travel does not have to involve long distance flights or train rides to foreign cities or countries. You can travel around your own home or simply to the building across the road and discover something you didn’t know before.

The most important takeaway from this book is best summarised by this quote, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”

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