Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Summer with no Travel, Just Travelogues

As anyone who has kept up with my rambling posts over the last 3 years knows, I tend to be inspired primarily when I am in a different country. Looking at last year's posts, the only thing that I wrote while in the US was about preparing for Jordan and was filled with pictures from my mountaineering trip to Mexico. The same holds true with pictures, I've taken somewhere around 10,000 pictures in the last 4 years, and would bet that less than 1,000 were taken in the States. Therefore, writing this summer has seemed a daunting task as I will not be leaving the country at any fully determined time in the near future (hopefully next summer, but it's hardly time to start preparing now).

So, without planning it, I have resorted to living vicariously through the travel exploits of others by reading a number of travelogues this summer that deal with all sorts of different travel experiences somewhat related to my own interests. The current list is as follows:
I've gotta say, travel literature both fascinates me and at times makes me incredibly angry or just disappointed with people in general (specifically Americans traveling overseas). I realize that I have committed many of the faux pas that I now scoff at, which in part adds to my unfounded momentary disdain for people writing travel literature, yet I'm sure that many people look at my silly stories and laugh at my own ignorance and naivety.

The main thing that irks me in travel literature is that most writers tend to be either scared at every turn when they travel, or they criticize everything they see. Dekker falls into the first category (as does Bill Bryson, which is why I couldn't finish A Walk in the Woods), although I admire the purpose of the trip in Tea With Hezbollah (to meet with America's enemies and look for good samaritans in the Middle East) and the insights which he draws out of his experiences.

Stevenson and Twain fall a bit more into the second category. Stevenson travels at breakneck speed around the world and his idea of experiencing a culture is to drink as much vodka as possible while crossing the Trans-Siberian Railway and all of Asia in under two weeks. Twain marvels at the novelty of distant shores, such as Tangier, yet goes on for pages about the savagery of the peoples and the inconvenience of having to carry his own soap. Most striking is the juxtaposition of Napoleon ("the brilliant adventurer...the genius of Energy, Persistence, Enterprise") and the "feeble" Turkish Sultan, Abdul-Aziz, who Twain describes as "the representative of a people by nature and training filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, and superstitious". Turns out Abdul-Aziz was a major modernizer and also a classical music composer, not quite given to "ignorance" and "indolence" as a first glance may suggest.

Finally, I just picked up for a second time a book of travel writing by Tim Cahill which my brother gave me for Christmas a couple years back. This is mostly to reassure myself that travel writing isn't all written for people who seek to have their own fears of the unknown affirmed by cynical and scared adventurers who seek comfort and safety in their journeys. Tim Cahill is a bit of a bad ass to put it bluntly. Most of his stories have some element of danger in them, or at the very least are engaging and interesting. Maybe it also helps that travel writing is his career, he has the art down, and writes for Outdoor magazine, a bit of an audience more up my alley.

A couple tips about travel writing from Cahill:
  • Rule 1: Avoid psychotic travel companions.
  • Rule 3: Exercise ordinary caution. Never, never, never put a marshmallow in your mouth and try to feed it to a bear.
  • Rule 6: Stop whining.
  • Rule 10: Don't follow rules. This is probably the most important rule.
  • Rule 11: Try the local foods. Eat what is put in front of you. Take the usual precautions, but expect to get sick anyway.
  • Rule 13: You are the foreigner, dickweed.
  • Rule 18: Wait until the last possible moment t punch out disagreeable traveling companions. It's best not to punch out traveling companions during the first two-thirds of a trip. The person may possess skills that could come in handy.
  • Rule 20: The worse the experience the better the story, therefore there are no bad experiences.
Very good rules. I think I'll try to apply them to my own travel and writing, and try to ignore some of the less agreeable parts of the other travelogues that I'm working through. Also, I've discovered that it is much more enjoyable to swap stories with other travelers (such as the marvelous Lori Baldwin, who just arrived back from her year long stint in Spain) or relive them with past companions than to indulge in the experiences of complete strangers. So if you have any stories to share, I'm all ears.