‘Ethically fraught relationship with travel’

Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel
by Steve Burgess

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, April 2024
$26.95  /  9781771624015 

Reviewed by Trish Bowering

*

The idea of travel–a sojourn in a place that is new and full of wonders–has long been a siren song. Beginning with a destination, we plan our route, book accommodation, and scour the Internet for exciting things to do upon arrival. The trip is over before we know it, and inevitably we plan the next one. There’s something compelling about this vacationing cycle. Travel seems not just a pleasure, but a vital necessity and a right for many of us. However, it’s becoming apparent that our approach to travel must change as the era of more responsible vacationing dawns. 

Vancouver’s Steve Burgess offers his version of what it means to travel in an increasingly crowded, climate-change affected, and economically divided world. Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel is a substantial book that serves up marvellous tales of his adventures, with highlights including Japan and Italy, fascinating histories of the tourism industry, and a thoroughly modern examination of our perceived right to explore every corner of the globe. What does it mean to travel in the age of environmental change? Perhaps an uncomfortable question, but Burgess tackles it with a good helping of humour and doesn’t let himself off the hook. 

From the first chapter, it’s clear that Burgess is an avid and seasoned globetrotter. He’s also candid about his glorious and yet increasingly ethically fraught relationship with travel itself. He wastes no time in setting down his central question: because of the environmental and social perils of modern-day travel, “Could it be that every vacation is essentially a guilt trip?” 

Global travel was once a marker of sophistication. As the twenty-first century progresses travel is increasingly being seen as a sort of irresponsible collective behaviour. Once upon a time the traveller was an enlightened seeker. Now the tourist is just as likely to be viewed as one locust in an annihilating swarm…

 I do not like to think of myself as a locust. Unlike Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, I have never awoken to find myself transformed into a loathsome insect. But then, I’m not objective. A travel-themed rewrite of Kafka’s Metamorphosis might feature a cockroach in denial. Everybody else can see what he is, but Gregor Samsa is too busy taking selfies at the Trevi Fountain to notice. 

With that, Burgess is off to an immediately engaging, thoughtful, and pointedly humorous examination of our globetrotting selves. No method of travel is left unexamined, no package tours are sacred.

Trish Bowering writes that Vancouver-based author Steve Burgess delivers an “immediately engaging, thoughtful, and pointedly humorous examination of our globetrotting selves.” Photo Jesse Winter

This is a book where stories and timelines weave, rambling throughout the chapters just as Burgess has rambled through the world. It’s an effective technique, rewarding the reader with a conversation of sorts. His friendly words and humorous anecdotes created an inviting tone that made me want to read on. I loved the digestible-length discussions and stories; Burgess’s prose is a well-crafted pleasure to read.

Many of these shortish chapters tackle one aspect of the travel industry, imparting some fascinating history and then discussing current environmental dilemmas and ethical quandaries. Burgess explores air travel, probably one of the most environmentally devastating forms of mass transit; and Airbnb, which has arguably diminished housing stock in many locales, including his hometown of Vancouver. 

The chapter on cruise ships was informative and fascinating. He begins by chronicling the history of ocean liner travel, how it fell out of vogue in the era of air travel, and its renaissance. I was fascinated to read about the role that The Love Boat, the iconic 1970s TV show, played in the resurgence of cruising popularity. With the huge numbers of pleasure cruisers on increasingly larger ships, environmental concerns have mushroomed. Grey water dumping, underwater noise harming whale communication, and the difficulty of transitioning to cleaner fuels all play a role.

Ships are only getting larger, too. “When the drive is always towards bigger and more spectacular, other considerations become secondary at best. The cruise industry is not selling sustainable.”

Other chapters showcase Burgess’s myriad of travel tales. His visits to Japan provide many examples of holiday pleasures and perils. He visits the small town of Miyama, where efforts to attract the tourist trade to bolster the local economy is critical for revitalization. The village is bleeding citizens and desperately needs the economic boost, so they promote local festivals and train amateur tour guides to showcase the old, thatched roof cottages. 

I was captivated by his visit to Cosmo Isle, a Japanese town playing off its history of UFO sightings to lure visitors. He ends that chapter with a description of the most compelling ramen dish, called “UFO ramen”:

Satoru’s creation is a miniature Spielbergian epic in a bowl. Every item in the broth represents some aspect of an alien visitation: that large clam is the ship; the baby squid, the alien. A slice of egg is the moon and ribbons of seaweed, the dark night. Even the little bean sprouts are blades of grass blown back by the spaceship’s mighty engines (those would be the fish cakes with the pink swirls.) All this for a reasonable price, and damn tasty too.

After reading this tempting description, I wanted to make a special trip to Cosmo Isle just for the ramen. I suspect this is not in keeping with Burgess’s overall thesis of more thoughtful travel rather than short, impulse trips.

Indeed, an overarching theme is seeking to be a connected traveller rather than a sightseeing tourist. Is it even possible? Burgess has cultivated his love for a few cities with repeated visits, but even so experiences dislocation and the sense of being an “other.” He sips espresso while sitting in a café in Palermo, Italy, feeling at one with the place:

Now, in my espresso-fuelled vision, I feel differently. I have become that intrepid traveller—an outsider, perhaps, but one at home in this or any world, no matter how strange and unfamiliar. A Bogart, a Charles Boyer, a suave flaneur navigating my way through a foreign landscape.

Just then, a tour group led by a paddle-laden guide turns onto the street, passing by his little café: a gaggle of cruise ship sightseers.

As the guide and her obedient followers shuffle by, my little reverie evaporates…Their presence is yet another indictment. I am not who I pretend, they say. I am what I behold, what I was in Sienna, in Rome, in Kyoto—a tourist. Attempts to distinguish myself by my style of travel, my dedication to solo wandering and the pleasures of serendipity rather than the spoon-fed coddling of the package tour, don’t really change that.

Some of the most enjoyable passages find Burgess mining his experiences for an understanding of why long-distance travel (as opposed to Vancouver-based staycations, for example) feel so necessary. He values a sense of newness: “Beautiful as it is here, I often find myself paralyzed by familiarity, unable to muster the energy for a bike ride to places I have visited hundreds of times before. Like many, I travel for novelty.” There is also the desire to develop a sense of belonging elsewhere, educating oneself about different ways to live. Undeniably, this can help each of us become more thoughtful global citizens.

Burgess gives us a potent taste of his passion for global exploration. The only addition to the book I craved was a deeper understanding of how his own travel choices may change given the perils he presents. Of course, the first step is to recognize that there is a problem, and this book will be an excellent primer for the traveller who is beginning to wake to the new environmental reality. 

With Reservations, Burgess has written a wholly enjoyable travel narrative that asks some pretty tough questions of the casual vacationer, examining what it means to embrace new ways to explore the world in the era of climate change. He gets the fact that travel is so very compelling, and decisions to curb our wanderlust are painfully difficult. It’s going to be an arduous environmental journey ahead, but one in which we travellers can play a critical role.

*

Trish Bowering

Trish Bowering lives in Vancouver, where she is immersed in reading, writing and vegetable gardening. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria, and obtained her M.D. from the University of British Columbia. Now retired from her medical practice, she focuses on her love of all things literary. She blogs at TrishTalksBooks.com and reviews on Instagram@trishtalksbooks. [Editor’s note: Trish recently reviewed books by Susan Juby, Myrl Coulter, Christopher Levenson, David Bergen, and Debi Goodwin for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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