Hotels and Horror Vacui

My ideal man, I cheekily told a friend, was someone who didn’t prefer hotels to the wide expanse of the outdoors. Not an overreach, I thought. It was simply a case between the sugarcoated versus the authentic. Most seasoned travelers will tell you that luxury is an enemy to authenticity. I fancied myself a traveler.

As if some joke of the cosmos though, I found myself in a luxury resort in Panglao, Bohol, for a few days with very little work to distract. There was instrumental music playing in the cliff deck restaurant where swiftlets fluttered in and out to peck morsels off the terracotta floors. Below the deck was the coastline of Alona and boats across the water ready to take tourists diving or dolphin-watching.

In my room every night was a plate of freshly-baked pastries. The linen had a subtle smell of lavender and across the bed was a little nook with gossamer curtains overlooking a meticulously-manicured garden.

The whole wing in the resort was new. I was one of its first occupants. The tasteful, albeit generic, furniture was unscathed, as was the bathroom and veranda. It had seemed idyllic but there was one hitch. I refused to take it all in. There was too much discomfort in the comfortable.

On my first day, I nibbled on chocolate chip cookies while reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, a third-world character living out a muffled existence as a nanny to first-world children. It made me feel terribly guilty.

“They looked beautiful. They looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea.” Kincaid narrated, as if discussing this extravagant lifestyle, and that made me feel even guiltier.

What attracted people most to resorts, I thought, was the absence of any form of history, most especially their own. There were no baubles lying around to trigger a flashback. No dilapidated objects that have seen the wear and tear of previous years. No scars especially.

You came in with no past and perhaps no future. There seemed to be no need to have both. Found in the clean slate of its white walls, white sheets, its universal furniture, is the possibility of leaving yourself behind if and when need be.

But who would want that temporary amnesia, I argued to myself, especially when the rudiments of reality come knocking in days after.

Perhaps what made me feel uncomfortable was that there was really just nothing to do. What held typical days together were the routine ins and outs of tasks in order to feel glamorously busy. Vacations unravel all that. What is left is what a College professor calls “necessary boredom”, a horror vacui in time.

I tried watching television, an abnormal mechanism to relax, and then I tried to take a nap after sleepless nights prior to the trip. Yet I found myself still too antsy to really take in the cotton sheets and the soft, almost inaudible, sounds of raindrops. Just as quickly as I got into bed, I stepped out to find reliable WIFI connection and answer “urgent” emails.

What was frightening to me about the concept of vacations most especially was the involution of the self, that you are stripped of the “to do’s” of daily life, and are forced to evaluate its blank spaces. The glorification of movement is replaced with the terror of keeping still.

The accidental vacation was still treated as a list of things to be done. 1. Take walks on the beach. 2. Enjoy pandan slush on the veranda. 3. Make lists of things to do upon arriving home. 4. Relax. 5. Faux-meditate.

On my last day though, there was a change of pace. I slept in. Bad weather covered the resort in gray mist. WIFI had been cut. The restaurant was on the other end of the property.

Then, sipping coffee in the small nook, faced with a dreaded pause, I started to understand why so many find resorts, and vacations in general, necessary.

The role of travel, the kind I loved, is to find beauty where there seem to be none – in cockroach-infested rooms, war-ridden areas, undeveloped roads, bad network services. The experience is the struggle. The struggle gives it meaning.

The role of vacations – an indulgent nepotism from choice of food to pace of movement – seems to be just the opposite. It represents the essential curated experience, the insurance that everything is beautiful, even if only for a while.

Beauty minus the pain or compromise brings in a form of horror vacui. To take in beauty in its purest form, the effortlessness in living it, the ease by which it is acquired, sets forth a fear of the empty. How do you take it all in? Some, without question, just do.

The more ideal man then perhaps is someone who can feel perfectly-adequate in both, a 5-star hotel room or a cockroach-infested hole. Let him teach me how while at it. That is the overreach.


2 thoughts on “Hotels and Horror Vacui

  1. dancingalien says:

    Most people act in frenzied energy, they are are almost never still. Forgetting, I suppose, that stillness is energy. I once asked my husband to do the dead pose in yoga (I’m not sure if you’re familiar but I’m sure you can deduce the pose…) and cracked up when he seemed to have difficulty. I honestly thought he was pulling my leg. I shared this with my yogi, and he said that it’s actually not very unusual at all. People do forget to tune out and keep calm, without spacing out 🙂


    • jonggailim says:

      Haha, the Corpse pose is the most difficult for me too. I like the notion of constant motion, of impermanence. Staying still is something I have yet to learn. But here’s to constantly trying. 🙂


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