International Writers Magazine: Travel Doubts
Trips: The Art of Travail in Travel Writing
writer surveys the New Travel Writing field and finds the only good
trips are bad trips, especially when even our guidebooks are survival
Welcome to the world of disaster and distress!
Lately the trend
in literary travel writing is that the best of times is the worst of
times. All of us secretly relish the bad trip, especially when its
somebody elses. The gist of recent anthologies--Danger! (Travelers
Tales), I Should Have Gone Home (RDR Books), and By the Seat
of My Pants (Lonely Planet)--is that we prefer disaster stories
of struggling to rescue lost luggage, haggling with crazy taxi drivers,
battling golf-ball-sized bugs, and eliminating nauseous food. In fact,
the very word travel itself derives from travailto suffer or endure.
From Homers Odyssey to Homer Simpson,
bad trips make us laugh at the world and ourselves. As the over-the-top
Tarantino thriller Hostel showed us, mixing the European Grand
Tour with grand guignol, it is now officially a dangerous world. Literary
travel has become more edgy and sophisticated, self-referential and
way much darker. Most of us who travel are looking for a good story:
unfortunately, the best stories almost always involve frisson: something
My shortlived zine Unpleasant Vacations:
The Magazine of Misadventure specialized in such dangerous delusions.
One apocryphal tale was about a year-long trip to the Southern Hemisphere,
where I got stuck in a New Zealand mountain hut, until a British hiker
with khaki Tintin shorts saved my life. I summed up boldly, The
mysterious hiker boosted my courage to continue tramping out of this
mess, convincing me to be sure to write it all down when [I] get
back. Back home I purchased The Songlines, and realized
the mysterious hiker and this canny writer were one and the same: Bruce
Chatwin! So a chance meeting made me stop traveling to collect countries,
and start traveling to write about them. I had become, as Barton Fink
crazed, A Writah! As in any bildungsroman, overcoming adversity
is the spam and bugjuice of the postmodern travel essayist.
But please forgive me. I still havent
read On the Road or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I am, however, rereading Larry Dean Olsens Outdoor Survival
Skills. Olsen, a proponent of Stone Age living, writes: A
survivor also possesses a utopian attitude. . . . He makes even the
most miserable existence seem like millennial splendor.
One of the best genre books ever written
is Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming (James Bond-creator
Ian Flemings brother). Every travel book since the 1930s, including
those by the restless Rolf Potts (Vagabonding) and the peripatetic
Tony Perrottet (Pagan Holiday), sort of pays lip service to it.
In it, Fleming, in search of the missing explorer Colonel Fawcett, elocutes,
Otherwise, beyond the completion of a 3000 mile journey, mostly
under amusing conditions, through a little-known part of the world,
and the discovery of one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary
of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved.
Fleming admits his book could have had more
on the Amazon-adventure-storys amusingly un-PC Indian menace,
but with no arrows quivering in his tent-pole and no tomtoms throbbing
ominously in the night, hes sure the reader will get fed up:
This chap, he will say, led me to suppose that, once
in the interior of Brazil, he would be under almost continuous fire
from his dusky brethren. And now here he is in the last chapter proposing
to lay down his pen without having sustained so much as a flesh wound
from their primitive weapons. Understatement.
Danger, adrenaline, the thrill of adventure,
anything beats being caught with your pants down without toilet paper
in a third-world hellhole, learning the southpaw swipeor,
if you will, close encounters of the turd kind. (Travelers Tales
books like Theres No Toilet Paper . . . on the Road Less Traveled
and Not So Funny When It Happened confirm our worst fears of
unfamiliar lands and foreign plumbing). As road warrior Tim Cahill,
author of books with lurid titles like Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
and Pecked to Death by Ducks, says, Danger compels us to
commit philosophy, and in a big damn hurry to boot!
Indeed, adventure writers like John Krakauer
(Into the Wild) specialize in books that are downright life-threatening.
T. E. Lawrence, an obvious danger addict, said, I dared to dream
with my eyes open. In the book Bad Trips, Keith Fraser
says, The fruits of bad trips should be redemptive. The writer
escapes, feels wiser perhaps, survives to bring back tales of ennui
and strangely focused mirrors. When I met Redmond OHanlon,
author of In Trouble Again, at a New York reading, he displayed
a souvenir from a malaria-mad Congo trip gone wrong (No Mercy):
a preserved monkeys finger. Which drives in the old adage from
the terrifying fable The Monkeys Paw, be careful what
you wish for.
Speaking of wish-fulfilling prophecies, the
saddest trip I can think of is The Worst Journey in the World,
about Robert Falcon Scotts Antarctic journey. If you get back
from hell on earth alive (unlike Scott who froze to death trying to
become the second man to reach the South Pole), youve got a twice-told
blog worth trading on the Internet. Meeting Sebastian Junger, owner
of the Half King bar in New York, I couldnt help but think the
same thing about The Perfect Storm, wherein the ultimate sense
of tragedy comes from knowing in advance the unhappy ending.
Even Paul Therouxwhose 1970s travel
book The Great Railway Bazaar introduced us to the verb duffill,
to be left behind on the platform by your trainis known not for
praising paradises but for grousing misanthropically. And so what if
Robert Young Peltons The Worlds Most Dangerous Places
(about places we wont set foot in) has become an international
bestseller. Modern travel essays resemble more surveys of survival
kits than portraits of place. The point is: while braving bad
food, head lice, genital crabs, dysentery, undependable transport, tour
guides who act like terrorists, and swarthy strangers demanding to change
money, we experience an epiphany when we survive unfamiliar fiascos
and foreign predicaments. Fear is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
If you dont want to be dragged by colorful
Sherpa guides toward sheer drops, death, dismemberment, or worse (spiritual
oblivion), just flip through Heinrich Harrers Seven Years in
Tibet or Peter Mathiessens The Snow Leopard. When life
sucks, such as when were rolled in an alleyway by a mustachioed
cartoonish thug wearing a striped shirt and brandishing a metal pipe,
were always damned glad to get back. One of the best threats I
ever heard to obey the crazy codicils of a hardline communist country
was, If youre not careful, youre going back home in
When not riding around glumly on trains with
tourists and travelers (I see no real distinction:
theyre both stupid and ignorant), the intrepid Paul Theroux pampers
himself in the exclusive chic shangrilas of Cape Cod and Maui. Sounds
great to me. And so what if we dont remember our own packaged
dream vacations--long days parked on the beach with a P.G.
Wodehouse novel, perfect weather, impeccable service, friendly co-vacationers
in bikinis at poolside, waking up to birdsong in a body thats
hangover-free-- where everything went (remarkably) right!
Touring miasmas of filth and degradation
abroad, dodging dens of inequity and iniquity, rejecting the lures and
snares of ports-of-call, shelling out for alternative transport (with
babytalk names like tuk-tuk or jeepney), playing
cards with useless and obsolete slides, and looking for
a conclusion to a mega-essay spiraling out of control, I discover that
bad trips drive home the fact that maybe (secretly) wed rather
stay home lying supine on the couch with a pretend cold watching Desperate
Housewives. Why do travel writers traipse about like agents provocateurs
in vacation hot spots divided into war zones? Maybe there
is time to brush up on that aborted essay comparing William Goldings
Lord of the Flies to why things went awry on Gilligans
Island (Im sorry, Piggy and Gilligan ruined everything!)
But we did the right thing by cashing in
our Frequent Flyer Miles, rather than ruminating on an entire life wasted
on nine to five. Were okay. It was way cool to use big words like
Weltanschaung and Fetishistic while in motion
with a backpack burden of mostly dirty laundry and serious doubts. Without
an e-mail address in a declassified world, we can actually experience
life, even if we take the wrong turn in Frosts poem The
Road Less Traveled.
But hey, now in the MisInformation Age, we
can Google almost anyplace on earth, wake up total strangers in other
time zones with crank calls from cell phones (all conversation
is a form of incarceration), and we dont even need a paper ticket
anymore to miss our planes. The noggin spinning uncontrollably on the
axis of imagination, calmly resting on a cloud like a pillow wedged
in by the leggy flight attendant, is in the end the ultimate HQ. I reach
into the seatback marsupial pouch and pull out an inflight magazine,
forget the crossword. In the competitive art of travel and travail,
no one prevails. We gladly suffer not for our art but to see as much
of the world as possible. Im not sure if I prefer Bill Bryson
or Bill Buford, and neither are you. I am nothing else but my bio, a
long list of magazine credits attached.
© John M. Edwards January 2009
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus).
His work has appeared CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand
Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, International Living, Condé
Nast Traveler, Coffee Journal, Literal Latté, Lilliput Review,
Adventure Journey, Verge, Glimpse, Stellar, Slab, BootsnAll, Hackwriters,
Artdirect, North Dakota Quarterly, Borderlines, Richmond Review, Michigan
Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA
(North American Travel Journalists Association) Award and a Solas Award.
He lives in New York City.
Fishing: Chasing Tail in the Tropics
John M. Edwards
Well, the problem was, I thought I saw a real live mermaid. The
genuine article. This was a fantastical phantasm (or orgasm) that was
hard to shake.
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.