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The International Writers Magazine: Travel Doubts

Bad Trips: The Art of Travail in Travel Writing
John Edwards

Our writer surveys the New Travel Writing field and finds the only good trips are bad trips, especially when even our guidebooks are “survival kits.”
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 it’s somebody else’s. 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 travail—to suffer or endure.

       From Homer’s 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 goes wrong.

       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 haven’t read On the Road or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I am, however, rereading Larry Dean Olsen’s 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 Fleming’s 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-story’s amusingly un-PC “Indian menace,” but with no arrows quivering in his tent-pole and no tomtoms throbbing ominously in the night, he’s 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 swipe”—or, if you will, close encounters of the turd kind. (Travelers’ Tales books like There’s 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 O’Hanlon, 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 monkey’s finger. Which drives in the old adage from the terrifying fable “The Monkey’s 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 Scott’s 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), you’ve got a twice-told blog worth trading on the Internet. Meeting Sebastian Junger, owner of the Half King bar in New York, I couldn’t 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 Theroux—whose 1970s travel book The Great Railway Bazaar introduced us to the verb “duffill,” to be left behind on the platform by your train—is known not for praising paradises but for grousing misanthropically. And so what if Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places (about places we won’t 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 don’t want to be dragged by colorful Sherpa guides toward sheer drops, death, dismemberment, or worse (spiritual oblivion), just flip through Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet or Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard. When life sucks, such as when we’re rolled in an alleyway by a mustachioed cartoonish thug wearing a striped shirt and brandishing a metal pipe, we’re 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 you’re not careful, you’re going back home in a bodybag!”

       When not riding around glumly on trains with “tourists” and “travelers” (I see no real distinction: they’re 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 don’t 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 that’s 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) we’d 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 Golding’s Lord of the Flies to why things went awry on “Gilligan’s Island” (I’m 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. We’re 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 Frost’s 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 don’t 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. I’m 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,, 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.

Night 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.

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