The Best Travel Writing, Volume 9 - Introduction

It Lives

Tim Cahill

We live in age in which we are blessed with a plethora of information about destinations of interest; an era of travelers eager to share knowledge and photos and experience. When I started writing about travel, especially to remote and— at the time— little known areas, research took place in a library. Information was often difficult to obtain. My trips were planned in the broadest of outlines. I’d heard rumors, for instance, that the salt mines of the Sahara desert were still operating. Could that be true? The words “salt mine” were the proverbial description of a joyless and exhausting job. Just so.

Travel writers tend to have a network of friends knowledgeable about various areas. Back in the day, you made a few phone calls. Information came from trusted sources. And you took precautions: geez, what if a publishing concern paid you to go find the salt mines and you discovered that they no longer existed. And hadn’t for centuries.

Now it is my contention that failure is as good a story as success. Sadly, many editors do not share this perception. So it was always necessary, on these dodgy sorts of stories, to find something else in the area— something known to exist— that might make a good narrative. Well, research suggested that to get to the salt mines, it would be necessary to travel up through Dogon Country. The Dogon are an ethnic group, largely animist, known for their masked dances, which, even years ago, were very often done for tourists.

The journey proceeded apace, and it turned out that the salt mines did, in fact, exist, just as they had since 1000 a.d. Great slabs of salt, mined from the desert floor, were hung off the sides of camels like saddle bags, the clear mineral glittering in the bright desert sun as the long line of camels made its way over the ridges of sand dunes and back to Timbuktu on the Niger River. It was a story.

But I’d already covered my bases and seen a bit of the Dogon. The culture was both impressive and fascinating. One of my traveling companions also impressed me with his eye for the sacred. The Italian gentleman was a longtime desert rat who had searched for the mines before (and failed). He also knew the Dogon and collected some of their masks. It wasn’t a business. (“I am very good at buying and very poor at selling.”) No, he felt some connection to the people and their beliefs, so when masks were laid out for us to examine and perhaps purchase, he invariably chose the one that was “not for sale.” I learned that some of the masks were, in fact, consecrated and used in actual ceremonies. And no, it wasn’t a negotiation technique: certain masks were not for sale at any price.

How, I wondered, could my friend pick out the sacred masks every time?

“You can’t see it?” he asked me.


He explained. “It is as if you are looking at a picture of a man. In one picture he is alive. In another, he is dead. You can see that. For me, it is the same with the masks.”

In time I believe I could begin to see which masks were alive. When I saw that Life— and knew I’d seen it— something inside me soared.

But I already had an overlong story about the salt mines that included menacing warlords, a would- be kidnapping, and a bad sand storm. It was enough. I never wrote about the Dogon. But I do have a mask hanging in my office. It was, I was told when I bought it, to have been retired from the dance. It looked alive to me. Still does. I don’t always feel its dry desert breath, especially in the mornings when I stumble to my desk with a cup of coffee sloshing in my hand. But sometimes, in odd moments when the work is going well, I feel that sacred mask watching me. I have that feeling now, as I write.

And that is what we have here, in The Best Travel Writing, Volume 9. These true stories from around the world are alive, and you may feel their breath in your heart. To the degree they breathe, they are sacred, as all our stories are sacred. Yes, even the ones that make us laugh aloud.

As I’ve said, information is an invaluable commodity, but to a writer it is only the inanimate raw material that is used to create a living breathing thing. We call that “thing” a story. Stories are the construct we use to organize our thoughts about the world; they are the lenses we use to make sense of the chaos of information that bombards us daily.

Story is the essence of literate travel writing. Bewildering situations arise as a matter of course, and it is story that lends comprehension to the case. Baffled, perhaps bewitched, the writer stumbles onto one key that unlocks the mystery. That key is called the “story.”

Story is generous about the forms it embraces. Young writers in most advanced fiction courses will be told that “character is story.” So it may be in travel writing. David Farley’s impressions of Minsk are a jolting introduction to the character of the city: it’s an often inebriated place of ambiguous political opinion and no little sophistication. Peter Wortsman’s character study of Vienna is very nearly one of psychoanalysis. Vienna! How appropriate.

In many pieces here, the story is about how decisions were made— or had to be made— in the face of changing circumstance. John Flinn is presented with a life or death decision. John Calderazzo handles the same sort of dilemma in a remarkable story that combines elements of Buddhist thought and history with his own concepts of conservation and mortality. Marcia DeSanctis considers a moral over the course of twenty years.

Colette O’Connor’s delicious piece about the sort of underwear favored by French women involves a new personal choice. Tom Miller’s short memoir amuses while Erin Byrne’s dreamlike meditation on the Celtic poet’s soul gives us both a physical and meta- physical way to think about travel.

It’s all here, and various stories will appeal to various sensibilities. What is alive and sacred to one reader may not be the story another can hear breathing. But all these writers here have been to the proverbial salt mines. They’ve dug up raw knowledge and watched it glitter in the unblinking sun. And they’ve discovered, in a collision of events, that precious arrangement we call story. Like the most sacred of the Dogon masks, a well- told story is animate; a sacred thing that, at its best, can send the soul soaring.

There’s a lot of that here. Enjoy.

* * *

Tim Cahill has been laboring in the salt mines of travel writing for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books and the winner of many awards, including The National Magazine Award and several Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. The co- author of three IMAX screen plays (two of which were nominated for Academy Awards), Cahill lives in Montana and still travels for a living.

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