“I buy my luggage at Target and enjoy eating bagel dogs at the airport. How come I get to be a Judge Judy of five-star resorts?” “Paradise, Backstage” from WorldHum.
We dream of “getting away from it all,” but can perfect solitude be too much of both? In the garden of earthly delights, author Andrew Evans feels drawn to the other side of wall.
What’s so bad about being a tourist? In “Tourist Traps Worth a Visit,” author Peter Jon Lindberg writes,
For travel writers, “touristy” is the ultimate slander. Even “flea-ridden flophouse” seems less damning. We’re forever distinguishing between hip travelers and sheeplike tourists. We parse the world’s offerings into things tourists do versus things “locals” do, as if the mere act of residing somewhere confers a sense of style.
In this essay, consider how the author explores a theme, a question: what’s so bad about being a tourist? How does he use concrete, specific language and details to develop his theme?
…the merit of an experience corresponds inversely to the number of people we’re obliged to share it with. In the urge to legitimize, singularize, and privatize our travel experiences, we trade the proverbial hell of other people for the hell of trying in vain to avoid other people. That’s a terribly cool way to travel, and when I say cool I mean chilly, and when I say chilly I mean obnoxious.
For most of my life, I believed independent travel was the only route to the real unfiltered stuff. I eschewed group experiences like the plague, running from cruises, luaus, dinner shows, and, most of all, anything incorporating the word tour: carriage tours, walking tours, eight-seat tandem-bike tours, gondola tours, duck-boat tours, harbor tours, sunset harbor tours, ghost tours, foliage tours…
(Although a gentle copyeditor might point out that the term “avoid…like the plague” is hackneyed and something more original might be better…)
Traveling solo through India, I always expected some local shopkeeper or templegoer to invite me home for chai and divulge all the secrets of the culture. Never happened. Last year a couple I know took a Road Scholar tour of Rajasthan with a dozen other Americans; every day they shared tea or a home-cooked meal with Rajasthanis, several of whom they still correspond with. If that’s “touristy,” somebody strap a Nikon around my neck.
Let’s admit there’s something a little insufferably smug about those compulsive travelers who pride themselves on their extensively stamped passports and minimally stuffed backpacks; who wear as badges of pride their dysentery, malaria, and near-death encounters; who consider themselves superior to any longings for clean sheets, private baths, reliable transportation, or dinner not served from a street stall, and who would never ever admit to having visited the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or the McDonalds in Mumbai.
As you are reading and writing this week, think about the fact that whenever we arrive someplace new, we are, in fact, tourists, visitors, out-of-towners. Be willing to stop and recognize what it feels like to be the stranger, not to know your way around, to see things for the first time.
“Like an aging socialite who has done something ever so slightly common, Brighton has, and always has had, a high-low chic.” “Brighton Beach Memoir,” from Travel + Leisure.
Simon Doonan takes obvious enjoyment from Brighton’s mix of tawdry and trendy, and in a short essay manages to cover a lively mix of both. Interestingly, this piece also marries a travel essay with the go-here-do-this qualities of a travel guide, albeit an idiosyncratic one.
Read the opening page to see how Doonan introduces his subject, both specifically and indirectly, through his new coat. In other words, he chooses not to open with Brighton itself but with his flashy new outerwear, soon due to suffer a Brighton-izing moment. Also note how Doonan grounds many of his descriptions of Brighton’s highlights in his own experiences–whether it’s dining and looking out over the crumbling West Pier or it’s his celebrity-themed jogging.
As Doonan demonstrates, a travel story doesn’t have to be a downer. Most trips have their moments of humor–even if those moments only look funny in retrospect. (That whopper fight your family had while the car climbed Mt. Washington, the one that left your sister sobbing and your mother moping and your father threatening “to make the whole damn lot of you walk the rest of the way!” will get funnier with the passing years. Maybe a lot of passing years, true.)
The key, once more (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) is good, concrete details. Here’s how Doonan describes his father:
He grew up poor in Cardiff, then at 15 ran off and joined the Royal Air Force. After World War II and for the next 40 years, he worked for the BBC in the news department, monitoring Radio Moscow throughout the Cold War and beyond. His gritty journalistic background gives him carte blanche to say things like “What the bloody hell is truffle foam!” wherever and whenever he feels like it.
Do we know what Doonan, Sr. looks like? We do not. Do we care? Not unless it’s relevant. What Doonan, Jr. has has sketched for us here is a sense of his father as a person.
Here’s another description, this time of a local, er, landmark:
Dangling as it does over the pebbled beach, Al Fresco has staggering views of the world’s largest kinetic art installation. I refer to the blackened and crumbling remains of the grand old West Pier. After almost 150 years of war, fire, and salt air, this charred and collapsing skeleton now resembles a massive Louise Bourgeois crustacean emerging from the sea. Portions of it tend to drop off in front of your very eyes while you’re enjoying a bit of local bream. Ominous, much photographed clouds of swirling starlings add to the Gothic visuals.
“blackened,” “crumbling,” “charred,” “collapsing” — all lively, vivid adjectives.
“You can disappear here. Thousands have. Most of them by design.” “Hope and Squalor in Chungking Mansion“
Note how, in a short essay, the author sketches Chungking Mansions’ teeming enterprise, multicultural chaos, seediness, promise and peril, attraction and danger in a series of brief, specific images and descriptions.
Think “Blade Runner” or “The Matrix,” set up by a Bollywood production company and recast and reshot by John Woo. It’s not just the tiny rooms and dim halls and perpetual damp and the wires and phone lines running up and down and across every vertical surface, there is also a sense of displacement and a vague anxiety that wash over you as you thread your way between Pakistani businessmen carrying bulging suitcases stuffed with pirated video CDs and a trio of over-made up, platinum blonde Russian working girls squeezed into impossibly tight red and black leather cat suits. Here are the turbaned and beaded and mustachioed masses, displaying everything that is glorious and terrifying about a truly multi-ethnic world. The cliques of barrel-chested Nigerians hanging out beside the traffic-jammed road, the gangly Bangladeshi touts on the stairs, the Chinese hookers by the money changing queues talking on cell phones, it is exhilarating and confusing all at once. Yes, you discover, we can all get along. But it will take every ounce of respect, patience and grace we have to do it.
Once again, as in other essays we’ve looked at so far, the author moves between description and reflection, interweaving them closely so that the reflection grows naturally from the description. We read the paragraph above and feel vaguely claustrophobic and overwhelmed and yet intrigued–the very sensations a visitor might feel upon entering Chungking Mansions.
Until only a few years ago, if you wanted to experience a place like Chungking Mansions, you either had to read about it or go there. Maybe you might meet someone with a handful of blurry snapshots. Now an essay like “Hope and Squalor…” might be the introduction that draws you to Google that draws you to the virtual rabbit warren of images, articles, Wikipedia entries, travel guides, videos, blogs and more. And yet, in two short pages “Hope and Squalor…” manages to capture all that cacophany and leave you relieved to breathe in the fresh air once again.
(Another, more recent story on Chungking Mansions focuses on the thriving, semi-underground cell-phone market there. “the building’s secret—the reason it brought these races together like perhaps no place else on earth—was that it was supplying as many as one fifth of all of the cellphones sold in the booming markets of Africa.”)
“It is a vision of urban hell. It is also one of India’s newest tourist attractions.” “Next Stop, Squalor,” from Smithsonian.
This essay raises a thought-provoking question about the nature of tourism: should poverty be off limits? In addition, the essay examines the nature of poverty itself. A dense, reeking slum, Dharavi is also a hive of industry with a thriving economy where some families have lived for generations. (Nor does it represent the bottom of the world’s socio-economic strata; this photo essay documents those who live and work in some of the world’s vast garbage dumps.)
People often say that we travel to broaden our horizons, to open our eyes to other cultures and other realities. At the end of this essay, the author writes, “Were the people I saw in Dharavi the victims of globalization, or its beneficiaries? I still don’t know. But at least the question had been raised in my mind.” The essay asks whether “poorism” is voyeurism and exploitation or a valid way to expand our understanding of another culture. What do you think?
Although details are key to a story, there’s more to a story than details. The “easiest” kind of travel narrative to write is one in which something happens. (I say “easiest,” because they aren’t necessarily easy.) In “If it’s Tuesday, it must be the Taliban,” the essay follows the author and fellow travelers on their white-knuckle tour of Afghanistan. In “A brief and awkward tour of the end of the earth” we follow the author on an ultimately disappointing journey. In “Twilight of the Vampires,” we go vampire (myth?) hunting in a former Eastern Bloc country.
But many travel essays are a vehicle for something other than simple narrative. They might explore an issue (like “poorism”), or create a vivid sense of place (Chunkging Mansions or Brighton Beach), or look at some particular aspect of a particular culture (“Take in the State Fair” or “Where donkeys deliver”). As you work on your own travel essay, think about what interests you. Do you want to tell a story? Make a place come to life? Explore a culture? Describe yourself (“Aligning the internal compass”)?