The Art of Vacation
It has likely been since I entered the work force (sometime around age 15) that I began dreaming about what an entire month free of school and work would look like. Some of us may think back to the halcyon days of our early youth when summer break actually meant a break - when we were finally out of school but also too young to get a summer job. But those days were likely filled with aimless exploration and merriment - those with no concept of responsibility cannot be burdened by it. Time moved slower for us then without the milestones of pressing commitments and important engagements. When I first started planning my little dream, I was fully aware that I could not take a total vacation from responsibility, worrying, or planning for and thinking about my work. I had to save enough money, not only to cover the expenses that a month long vacation would incur, but also to cover the standard monthly expenses of back home - rent, hydro, etc. Even while I could take my website down, I still intended to maintain an internet presence on social media as well as consider new business strategies for the spring/summer season, plan tour dates, write copy. For those of you who are self-employed, you know that work is not something one can simply leave behind. Still, I had found myself in a truly unique position - I am self employed, I have finished my schooling for the time being, I could save enough money up to make this dream a reality, and I had an amazing traveling companion who I had pre-determined synergy with. Thus, I made it happen.
So how did it proceed? Well, I’m a perfectionist. I felt that self-care was something that could be attacked with planning, exercise and productivity. I packed a large number of books that I’ve been meaning to begin, old journals to hopefully stimulate and inspire my writing, and my yoga mat and my workout clothes to cater to the improvement of my corporeal form. I found a yoga studio and a gym near our residence and mapped out where all the amenities were in relation to where we were staying. I developed a list of mental goals for my time (mostly) away from it all. And I was successful at achieving all of these things, for about the first week. Addy and I marched to the gym every morning, managed yoga classes five out of seven days. In the afternoons I hit the beach and worked on my tan, finished books that I had meant to finish for years, even got a few attempts at writing out of the way. And then I caught some sort of fever.
I was laid up for about five days, it was a lingering fever that would lift and fill me with hope, just before it descended again, incapacitating me. Then it was followed with about three days of nausea, probably brought on because I hadn’t been able to eat very much in the days prior. I approached health tentatively and slowly. By the time I had emerged from the fog, I had fallen from my strict regime for self improvement, having spent my feverish days only able to re-watch episodes of Rick and Morty. As unfortunate the setback was I realize the immense fortune I had in falling ill near so accomplished and attentive a caretaker as Addy. I don’t think any human being outside of my mother has cared for me so diligently during an illness.
But in the days following my recovery, I began to feel a bit depressed. It became clear I would not arrive back in Montreal with all of my lofty goals for self improvement met. I had quit going to the gym and yoga, I had not read as many books as planned. I had not written an impressive amount of blog posts for my client facing blog, all ready to be published. I could not do a yogic handstand on command. I had a killer tan though, and a lot of time to think about how I wanted things to proceed when I returned home, what tours I wanted to plan, how I wanted my work/life balance to look. Most of all, I had a lot of time to think about myself. Introspection is not something we often have time for and neither is it always the most pleasant activity, even when it takes place against a beautiful background. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about his trip to a tropical destination: “I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on [vacation], a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.“ A drastic change of scenery is not enough to make us happy. We remove ourself from our homes and usual landscapes thinking that these are the things that fill us with discontent and melancholy. But when faced with restlessness and unease in a tropical paradise, it is unsettling to realize that perhaps the answer to our unhappiness lays within. De Botton writes, “if we are surprised by the power of one sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods, we are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn… that the state of dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery.”
My illness had thwarted one attempt to visit the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza. By then the inertia had settled in and I had little impetus to travel outside the comfortable world of our apartment, hammock, and fantastic food trucks. I do feel a small amount of guilt in admitting that I’m not particularly drawn to viewing ruins. Specific kinds of temples peak my interest, like the ones I saw in Thailand and the ones I hope to visit in Japan. Libraries of the old and antiquated variety are some of my favourite things to look at. Art galleries and museums can also pull me in depending on their content and collections. For whatever reason, ruins fail to inspire my imagination. Like de Botton, I felt “a combination of self-disgust at the the contrast between my own indolence and what I imagined to be the eagerness of more normal visitors.” I knew that upon returning I would lack any stories of adventure and tangible discovery. It is a bit embarrassing to return home from vacation metaphorically empty handed. To turn to de Botton again, “anything I learnt would have to be justified by private benefit rather than by the interest of others. My discoveries would have to enliven me: they would have in some way to prove ‘life-enhancing.’” And so it was life enhancing. I did not return a bronzed Adonis, nor did I have any silly pictures of me posing in front of the ruins of long dead cultures, only a lingering addiction to chiles rellenos de queso. When asked what I did on my vacation, I tell people that I thought about myself a lot; I discovered new parts of my identity and different characteristics previously unknown to me. All in all, it was a good vacation. To the outsider it probably seems boring but to press the point, who and what are vacations really for?