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Friday, June 8, 2018

The Allure Of Solitary Foreign Travel - Great Hotels, Great Expectations, And Surprising Insights

There comes a time when the allure of foreign travel fades; when the frustrations, difficulties, and inconvenience outweigh the rewards; when shakedowns, intimidation, and crime become more imminent and real than tropical beaches, lovers, and adventure.  Until that time, however, the attraction remains.  However it is not awaited pleasures that drive the traveler, but the anonymity, the freedom, and the independence.  Once off the plane, the traveler is no longer husband, son, or brother but only himself.  Few times in a long, predictable trajectory is this so.

Travelers who see nothing in travel but different responsibilities – contracts and deals instead of family and home – are seldom seduced by its appeal.  Those who see travel as a new and irreplaceable dimension are few, but select.

Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel  writes about traveling alone.  Writers from Ibn Battuta to Bruce Chatwin and Peter Mathiessen have remarked on its eloquence – a clarity of perception both outward and inward which give a surprising coherence to thought. They all write of a sense of discovery, even epiphany, when the traveler is free from other’s claim to his identity.  Not only is he no longer son, husband, or brother, but travels without the moral, ethical, and religious character that give substance to his identity at home.  He is free in the most complete sense – unattached, unalloyed, and on his own.
You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Image result for images the tao of travel theroux

Although one never leaves responsibility, ethics, or morals behind, the lone traveler feels free to test them, to challenge their assumptions within the context new surroundings and cultural configurations. Although no one ever leaves fidelity completely behind, infidelity takes on a different cast.  In the community of lone travelers – all temporarily untied, aware, and open – everyone shares the same exhilaration of independence and awareness.

For those for whom travel is wearying and debilitating – a necessary extension of work, family, and responsibility – hotels are fearful places.  Staff who quickly learn your name; flowers and fruit baskets in the room, turned down beds, and soft lighting all make the loneliness and detachment worse.  There is no way to shorten the distance between comfort and home.  A hotel room is a compartment – an isolating necessity, an anchor in an unfamiliar environment; but nothing more.  The lobby is impersonal, the bar depressing, and marble, glass, and brass artificially elegant.

For the special traveler, hotels are the very symbols of the unattached anonymity that is at the center of foreign travel.  Hotel rooms are not empty, airless places, but possible venues.  Bars are not the refuge of spiritless, tired travelers but places of opportunity and the surprising. Pools are not places to fill empty weekends but an arena.  Anything might happen there – conquest, conflict, default, introduction.  Pools are never neutral places.  Their lambency is misleading. 

The great hotels of the world – the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, the Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo, elegant grande dame hotels in the Carpathians, five-star hotels on the Corniche in Dakar, the Victorian polished mahogany and teak Splendide and the gingerbread watering hold of Graham Greene, the Oloffson in Port-au-Prince are proper places for anticipation, exposure, and the meeting places for that special community of the temporarily at liberty and unafraid of it.

The Raffles Singapore

The Oloffson, Port-au-Prince
No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.  The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting. 
Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.
Hotels are not places to return to but places to go, destinations.  A hotel is the axis around which real social networks turn.  Le tout Kigali meets every evening at the Mille Collines.  Wedding parties and beauty pageants are held there, ladies clubs meet there, assignations held and tea and coffee are served there.  Lobbies are places of anticipation.

In Reclaiming Travel, an article in the New York Times (7.8.12) the authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travelers past:
Our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
We should return to travel with a serious purpose, the authors write, force ourselves out of the complacent apathy of convenient travel, and discover what Theroux, Matthiessen, Nabokov, Greene, and so many others have found:
St. Augustine believed that “because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
Image result for images st. augustine saint

Hotels are benign expressions of the desire for reinvention or personal epiphany that more serious travelers have found elsewhere.  They are all places of promise.  There is no fear in hotel lobbies, unlike the deserts and jungles explored by Moorehouse, Mungo Park, and Richard Burton; only occasional loneliness but a loneliness which, like that in the middle of the Sahara, is is profound.  Loneliness is a sign of individual weakness, a childish dependence on others, and fear of what exploration of the self, all alone, will discover.  
What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that, a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel.  At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.  We come across a cascade of light and there is eternity.  This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in travelling (Albert Camus).
Hotels because of their foreignness, their anonymous complicity, and their service to this community of temporary individuals are irresistible, full of potential and excitement.  At the same time this foreignness and emotional neutrality can be unsettling, reminders of why we are so tied to emotional apron strings.

Travel within the United States can evoke similar elements of insight, but seldom.  American hotel chains have been designed to be predictable – Holiday Inns, the story goes, were designed with such regularity that a blind person would be quite comfortable in any of them;  and while current marketing efforts have focused on the boutique experience – that unique combination of personal service, unusual touches, and derivative but pleasant appointments – serviceability and practical amenities first can only make individual discovery more difficult.

Travel in foreign places accentuates difference and by so doing demands more of the traveler – not so much in the sense of accommodation to strange surroundings and goings-on, but personally and emotionally.  The traveler is never free in his own country, for persistent responsibilities, easy communication, and short trips limit any serious insights.  Theroux writes:
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.
A hotel which combines the best of all worlds is the Grand in Calcutta.  Inside it is all teak, mahogany, marble and brass; impeccable service, palm planters, fine Kashmiri carpets, 18th century prints – a perfect recreation of the elegance and taste of colonial Britain but outside the door are the bazaars, crowded streets, din, and kaleidoscope color that were absent when it was built.

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The dramatic contrast, its sense of refuge, and the more familiar social scene combine to satisfy the lone traveler.  It is evocative of Empire, a cool haven, and a place for surprises.  The traveler can be alone, congenial, or in a crowd of thousands.  it is an inside and outside hotel; and no other hotel has such dimensions. 

Staying at the Taj Mahal in Bombay, another elegant grande dame of the British Raj; , tall, ornate, overlooking the Gateway of India in Bombay and perfect in service, rooms, lobbies, and appointments was a trip back to the Raj with liveried coachmen, white-jacketed waiters, pukka afternoon tea and gin-and-tonics, polished brass fixtures, teak and mahogany, planters, and flowers.   The rooms were spacious, light, and airy, with many overlooking the Arabian Sea.  Breakfasts and dinners were formal with white linen tablecloths, silver, and crystal.

Image result for images old taj mahal hotel bombay

It was as perfect as the Grand.

The best hotels are unforgettable, especially if good things happened there, which they always did in the right frame of mind, the right circumstances, and the right company.

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