Unquestionably, luxury insulates the traveller, isolates her, cocoons her in comfort, and in doing so reduces access to the real world. The traveller in luxury might see the grim, hard world, but from a distance; he might hear it but only in small doses before he retreats to the refuge of quiet, plush hotel rooms and the interiors of gently throbbing tourist coaches with their views of the harsh and glaring world outside softened by tinted windows. The traveller in luxury must make a deliberate effort to eat the food of the masses rather than the treats of the elite; obnoxious smells and physical discomfort must surely be easier to bear when the sufferer knows they're only temporary and largely elective.
Still, luxury—at least anything short of an obscene amount— can't completely isolate a traveller from the actuality of the world through which she glides. Even a tiny exposure to that world must be enough to convey its reality to anyone prepared and willing to notice and imagine. Through the tinted windows of his air-conditioned coach a traveller looks out at evil, festering drains and mountains of rubbish; sees a woman washing a toddler in a basin of filthy water; sees a man squatting next to a wall, his hand over his face as he empties his bowels; sees others sleeping on the urine-stained footpath, each corpse-like and covered only by a thin, grimy blanket; the traveller sees these things, remembers the sounds and smells as he walked from his hotel to the bus and he must surely imagine what it must be like to live day after day like that, watching the big buses cruise by.
Perhaps, however, the traveller used to luxury finds these acts of observation and imagination too uncomfortable, too disturbing. Perhaps guilt suppresses thought—you are privileged, these observations say, and privilege is generally an accusation; the traveller, unable to deny her observations, turns away from their implications. Better not to think.
To be fair, Theroux's argument actually focuses on how luxury itself distracts: how the pleasures of comfort turn us away from paying attention to what's outside our luxurious cocoon. Perhaps he has a point, but he misses another: that luxury is relative and our capacity to become used to it is huge. A night in a vermin-infested hotel room on a hard bed would be luxury to one of the pavement-sleepers but a nightmare to a Remuera socialite , and after several weeks of buffet dining, the novelty of tropical fruits and croissants for breakfast can begin to wear thin (I imagine — not having experienced it myself). When we've become accustomed to these luxuries they no longer seem so luxurious: they become day to day life. Then, perhaps, our attention returns to the wider world.
Luxury may indeed be the enemy of observation, but luxury is also its own enemy. The danger is that, instead of allowing its novelty to dissipate, we try to hold on to it by seeking even more of it; we make it a goal — and one increasingly difficult to attain. Perhaps, ironically, the way to enjoy it more is not to seek it but to turn away from it and enter the harsh, all too common world in which luxuries, even if accessible only to those with a little wealth, are never far away (after months of bucket baths, a proper hot shower seems impossibly sumptuous — and that I can confirm). But to what kind of opulence can the habitual dweller in luxury turn?
Theroux goes on to explain how the rich — the acolytes of luxury — not only never listen but constantly complain about the cost of everything: "... indeed, the rich usually complained about being poor," he says . Maybe he's right, but not in the sense he apparently intends. Maybe the rich really are poor; cut off from the real world and struggling to achieve ever greater levels of luxury which become increasingly hard to attain, maybe they shouldn't be envied, but pitied?
1.p. 17 in Theroux, P. (2008). Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. London, Penguin. 485 pp.
2. Remuera is an Auckland suburb populated largely by many of New Zealand's wealthiest people.
3. But if luxury is the enemy of observation and Theroux observed the rich in their natural habitat (i.e. luxury), to what extent can we trust his observations, given he was also in it at the time?
1.The Phool Mahal, the Palace of Flowers. One of the many opulent rooms in the Mehrangarh, the great fort and palace complex, at Jodhpur.
Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor