The Best Travel Writing 2005 - Introductionby Tom Miller
Great travel writing consists of equal parts curiosity, vulnerability, and vocabulary. It is not a terrain for know-it-alls or the indecisive. The best of the genre can simply be an elegant natural history essay, a nicely writ sports piece, or a well-turned profile of a bar band and its music. A well-grounded sense of place is the challenge for the writer. We observe, we calculate, we inquire, we look for a link between what we already know and what we’re about to learn. The finest travel writing describes what’s going on when nobody’s looking.
Moritz Thomsen (1915-1991) was one of the great American expatriate writers of the twentieth century. Period. A soft-hearted cuss, a man of almost insufferable integrity, a lousy farmer and a terrific writer, his books have long since been smothered by the avalanche from megapublishers (yet remarkably, three of his titles remain in print). Although all his works could be considered travel memoirs imbued with a sense of place, his third book, The Saddest Pleasure, embodies some of the very finest elements of the genre: constant doubt, a meddlesome nature, and a disregard for nationalism. (The book’s title comes from a line in Paul Theroux’s novel, Picture Palace: “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures.”) Thomsen, who stayed in Ecuador following his mid-nineteen-sixties Peace Corps stint, pledged allegiance to nothing except his station as an expatriate. And as an expat he was free to judge us all, an undertaking he finessed with acute observations, self-deprecation, and a flavorful frame of reference that ranged from a Tchaikovsky symphony to a Sealy Posturpedic mattress.
Inquisitiveness. Yes. In The Art of Travel, a book worth staying home for, Alain de Botton quotes Alexander von Humboldt’s childhood curiosity: “Why don’t the same things grow everywhere?” And as children we might also ask, “Why doesn’t everyone look the same?” “Why don’t we all speak the same language?” Or, to quote Rodney King’s adult exasperation, “Can’t we all just get along?” It is these pure and simple questions of innocence that should accompany travel writers, not iPods, Palm Pilots, cell phones, or laptops. Travel with paper and pen, a book, maybe a bilingual dictionary. Ask the questions a child might.
. In the late nineteen-seventies I advanced a notion that the U.S.-Mexico frontier was really a third country, two thousand miles long and twenty miles wide, and went about testing it. I had little awareness of travel writing, but when my book about the borderland came out in 1981, reviews invariably referred to it as travel literature, a category I had never really considered.
Reviewers anointed me a travel writer; I didn’t choose the label. Others have recoiled at the identity. “I detest the term,” Jonathan Raban told the Chicago Tribune. Eddy L. Harris insisted to the same newspaper: “I’m not a travel writer. Absolutely not.” Although I’ve openly embraced it, the name sometimes makes me uncomfortable, too. It’s as if travel writing was considered a second-tier calling—“non-fiction lite.”
Yet surely as buses plunge off Peruvian mountainsides and Norwegian freighters collide with Liberian tankers, the basic ingredients of formula travel writing will endure. Henry Miller succumbed. When he lived in Paris, Miller wrote the odd travel piece for a friend’s publication. “They were easy to do, because I had only to consult the back issues and revamp the old articles,” he wrote in Tropic of Cancer. “The principal thing was to keep the adjectives well-furbished.” Be skeptical of writers who talk of snow-capped peaks, bustling marketplaces where the beadwork is always intricate, and shy but friendly natives. (You’d shy away, too, if foreigners constantly accosted you, cameras, notepads, and tape recorders at the ready.) The essayist who calls a town quaint, the plaza charming, or the streets teeming, has no literary imagination. Distrust any writing that opens with a quote from a cabby or closes with one from a bartender.
What the writers in the following pages so elegantly accomplish is first-person sociology, economics, anthropology, history, geography, politics, biology, cultural studies, even criminology. Their fulsome stories tell of near-suicide in Mayan country, a Laotian fortune-teller, and a Paris bistro. The contributors here use Odysseus as a guide, consider that Balinese canoes carry culture as well as cargo, and navigate corruption and highways to reach Bucharest. They are not prone to niceties, either. Their refreshing honesty reveals a world of surprising love and disappointing fools, unforeseen circumstance and invigorating challenges.
My favorite travel accounts all have an unspoken subtext. They are full of polemic, prejudice, adversity; revelation, conquest, triumph, and there is plenty of those qualities in these stories, too. Leilani Marie Labong, frustrated from teaching English in Japan, found herself “cursing its backwards ways.” Dustin W. Leavitt learned to say he was a scholar, not a writer, in a country where the former is respected and the latter suspect. Suz Redfearn met her literary mentor and idol, the late Spalding Gray, on a nude beach in California. For other writers in this book, such as Murad Kalam peregrinating to Mecca or Mark Jenkins slipping into Burma, annoying hosts and global boundaries just get in the way. “Somebody must trespass on the taboos of modern nationalism,” wrote Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, defending travelers whose writings insult their hosts. “Business can’t. Diplomacy won’t. It has to be people like us.”
The finest travel writing gets under the skin of a locale to sense its rhythm, to probe its contours, to divine a genuine understanding. We shed pre-, mal-, and misconceptions about a land, then sneak up on it and develop our own prejudices. Pico Iyer, appraising Dharamsala, pauses to allow that the point of travel “is to journey into complication, even contradiction.” Sally Shivnan, in her piece set in Spain, writes of approaching the Alhambra with “the best kind of naïveté”—knowing just enough to want to know more. It’s difficult to parachute into a setting for just a few days and emerge with confident, intelligent writing. I am often envious and always bewildered by writers such as Joan Didion who spent two weeks in El Salvador and emerged with a most respectable book about that country at war, or Andrei Codrescu who did a fly-by over Cuba and crash-landed with Ay, Cuba!
Travel literature, including many of the examples in this fine collection, usually consists of writers from industrial countries visiting far less developed lands. (For a memorable variation to this regrettable state of affairs, read An African In Greenland, by Tête-Michel Kpomassie from the 1980s; or, from a century earlier, read the Cuban José Martí’s essays on life in the States.) Not surprisingly, there is little tradition of homegrown travel literature in Namibia, Belize, or the Ukraine. Many countries publish anthologies of outsiders looking in at them, curious visitors who never quite unpacked their bags. In Notes of a Villager, the Mexican author José Rubén Romero laments, “Our country is like a cow fallen over a cliff, rich in spoils for the crows of other nationalities.”
As unrepentant crows from other nationalities, the contributors to The Best Travel Writing 2005 have enthusiastically picked at the rich spoils the world has lain bare. And we always go back, all of us, because somewhere in the world another cow is always falling over another cliff.
Tom Miller has been bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people for more than thirty years. His highly acclaimed travel books include The Panama Hat Trail, about South America, On the Border, an account of his adventures in the U.S.-Mexico frontier, Trading with the Enemy, which takes readers on his journeys through Cuba, and, about the American Southwest, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of 2000. Additionally, he has edited two collections, Travelers’ Tales Cuba, and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader. His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, LIFE, Natural History, and many other publications. He lives in Arizona, and can be reached at tommillerbooks.com.
For more of Tom Miller’s thoughts on writing, see his interview with Michael Shapiro in A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.
I stood at the front desk of the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, waiting for the clerk to hand me the stamps I’d just bought. Instead, he plucked postcards from my hand, licked the stamps, and began to place them precisely. The last stamp, however, tore at the corner when he was removing it from the main sheet, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he tore off the tiny, orphaned piece and reunited it with the rest of the stamp, which he’d already affixed. When he was finished, he gave me a huge smile and put my postcards in the outgoing mail.
I laughed as I went out the door—a laugh of surprise at such care. To say it was good service wouldn’t do it justice, because it bore much more the mark of a warm heart.
Most of us travel to connect with this mystery of the other, the strange land, the incomprehensible tongue, and the inner vistas of a different way of life. And if we manage to come away physically unscathed, we never come away without the tire marks of human contact, whether we’re crossing a border, trusting a guide in the bush, getting directions from a taxi driver, or being touched by the spirit of a hotel clerk.
Paul Harper, author of “Waiting to Arrive,” a story in this collection about a journey to the Nigerian frontier, wrote in a different piece about his stint as a bicycle mechanic in Ghana:
When I hear the clink of hammer on screwdriver in any West African City—something as steady and eternal as time—it means many things. It is a sound of defiance, a sound of reassurance that, yes, people are still riding bikes, and above all a comfort that I will not be missed. But there somewhere in the ringing space between beats is a pang, a reminder of an alliance that never happened, of all the other things I meant to do, of what I left behind and what can still be done.
You too are that stranger, who may pass through town like a ghost or leave as a friend who has earned the regard of those he’s met. It’s worth asking yourself, when you travel, are you a parasite, neutral agent, or catalyst?
Recently I was running at the Stanford stadium, when an old guy going the opposite way passed me saying, “How you doing, bro?” His greeting was the best thing that happened to me that day, as I was still digesting the news of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. His words were like a light shining on me, and I left the stadium thinking the obvious: “Why yes! He is my brother.” And so were those who’d just died in the disaster, and so are those who survived. As are the billions of people out there waiting to meet you, just as some of them met the travelers in this book, who brought home the things that happened to them, and the ways they were marked abroad, in tragedy, in happiness, in farce, in anger, and in love.
Be generous with yourself this year—go out and connect, spread yourself around. Travel more, not less. And then come home and tell a story to your friends about what it’s like just over the horizon, where your brothers and sisters live.
Palo Alto, California
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