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Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Guilt Trip

Misguided explorations of modern travel

J.R. Patterson

Reservations: The Pleasures & Perils of Travel

Steve Burgess

Douglas & McIntyre

312 pages, softcover

Many of us accept that we are living in a new era, one in which nothing is inconsequential. All our actions, it seems, are imbued with profound significance: the generation of pollution, the repression of this group or that, the exploitation of tradition, and the spread of disease. The global consciousness released by the internet and smartphones has rendered innocence ignorance; not knowing has become the same as not caring.

Travelling has long been considered a remedy for ignorance: a way to see inside the world of others, to experience different cultures, to empathize with (or scrutinize) their actions, even to regain innocence. Afar, we are babes in the woods, without language or custom, learning the value of mercy and generosity at the hands of others. But in a growing number of circles, that old sense of receptive naïveté has been replaced by the idea that travel is damaging, insensitive, unnecessary. Even the low-impact mantra “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is now laced with self-flagellating contrition: Do these people want their photos taken? Is my carbon footprint too big? So we quickly understand when Steve Burgess begins Reservations: The Pleasures & Perils of Travel with the question “Can travel be justified?” that we’re in for a moralizing slog.

Worried that his globe-trotting has left him “guilty of crimes against the Earth,” the writer and broadcaster from Vancouver loosely presents his book as a trial: “I will stand in the dock, as an example. I will tell my stories, face my accusers and find my defenders.” This is histrionic proof that reality tends toward self-dramatization in a way that fiction does not. Even so, Burgess comes across more like the accused who can’t help but point fingers from the witness stand.

Amid the shuffle of essay, reportage, and memoir, and with jumbled verb tenses aplenty, the book has a bitsy incoherence. Despite the international name-dropping, or rather because of it, we never get a sense of Burgess really being anywhere. Instead, he tarries in the Land of the Bumbling Idiot, a territory of gee‑whiz buffoonery and insincere modesty that is thoroughly tired out and predictable. (For example: “If I swear by serendipity, perhaps it’s because it’s all I am capable of.”)

Burgess indicts travel (and himself) for reasons that are largely understood and have been explored to death, by experts no less: the emission of greenhouse gases, the degradation of natural landscapes, the commercialization and overcrowding of cultural sites. These detriments and others are retold here in hammed-up, journalistic prose through a rotation of academics, authorities, and anecdotes, while Burgess tries hard, but unsuccessfully, to link his own tours with guilt, desire, and action. There are simply too many ways that travel can be “bad”— or “good,” for that matter. (Another book that’s both exactly the same and completely different could be written simply by swapping those opposing adjectives.) By trying to be exhaustive, Burgess sometimes stretches observational credibility in the name of making a point.

Observation is one side of travel writing; cultural comparison is another. Both reveal more about the writer than about the setting. In Burgess’s case, we see a discomfort with his inherited North American outlook, which he considers at odds not just with “good” travel but with the world: a Nepali child gives him a smile “that most North American kids would save for a new Xbox”; Italian hoteliers are more empathetic than their North American equivalents; North America is the land of “citizen kings.” This positioning of his heritage as the foil of his best intentions is perhaps Burgess’s biggest blunder, a display of remorse that hides a deeper egotism: I would be so much better — multilingual, learned, debonair — if only I were from elsewhere. If Burgess has reservations, it should be about such reductive reasoning, which only works against him, turning his jokey, ironic prose into an admission hidden in plain view. “I’m a wannabe sufferer, a Munchausen’s syndrome schmuck faking symptoms for sympathy,” he thinks when a local favourite loses a horse race in Italy. “I am a dilettante. Worse — I am a tourist.”

In Burgess’s context, “tourism” is an accusation, and those who indulge in it have flimsy motives: spending their wealth, personal delusion, the search for novelty. In a small moment when the mask of self-mockery drops, Burgess suggests his own journeys arise from something more noble: a “quixotic” need to connect, “to establish ties and feel a sense of belonging.” One could argue that is the desire of all humans, always. The reasoning feels a little one‑sided and defensive, even when Burgess concedes that “travel allows people to define themselves.”

Of course, Burgess is looking at particular kinds of travellers undertaking particular kinds of travel: the degenerate pleasure seeker, the partying drunkard, the wobbly cruise ship guest. For Burgess, travel has descended from “a marker of sophistication” to an “irresponsible collective behaviour.” If once upon a time “the traveller was an enlightened seeker,” the modern tourist is “one locust in an annihilating swarm.”

This is poppycock: a wistful sigh and a teary “I wish it weren’t so.” Things don’t change as much as Burgess assumes. Two centuries ago, upper-crust British fops were exploring the Mediterranean on luxurious grand tours (and writing books about it), while starving Irish were crammed into cattle transports and taken across the Atlantic. Today, cruise ships troll the same waters that African and Syrian migrants risk in patched‑up dinghies. I’ve spent time on both kinds of boats and found on them people with more or less the same concerns — eager to talk about their kids, their homes, their future plans.

Unfortunately, there is only one real character in Reservations (Burgess is too offside to count): the Japanese news anchor Kyoko, whose romance with the author is the central and most compelling part. There is a lot to mine here: social etiquette, intercultural intimacy, the problems of language (especially in romantic fights). Love, precursor to life, expands understanding. Personal experience has taught me that how much a culture is understood lies in direct correlation to time spent intimately with a local. To put it another way, everything comes via the bedroom. Burgess’s experience in that department reveals more of the justification of travel than the other chapters, and one feels that, had he drilled deeper into that vein, the central questions of his book might have ultimately been answered.

For anyone seeking guidance, Burgess provides none. After exploring the many ills of travel, he is unsure how anything can be changed. His anti-climactic statement of defence boils down to this: “I dunno, whaddya gonna do?”

It was to be expected. Travel doesn’t wear existentialism well. Movement, whether for pleasure or from desperation, is the state of humankind. It has precipitated joy and genocide in equal measure; it has produced works of great art and piffle. Reservations is the latest in a string of works (extending back to Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, from 2002) that attempt to philosophize the act rather than address more concrete issues. Like other books that ask “Why do we travel?” it is revealing without revelation, the result of overthinking the means and avoiding the end.

J. R. Patterson has contributed to The Atlantic and many other publications around the world.