“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”)?
What is a telling detail? It’s a detail that serves a function: to move the story forward, to carry the narrative, to convey meaning. You don’t want to lard your essays with extraneous details, but rather chose the details that tell the story you want to tell. And the truth is that there can be a dozen different ways to tell the story of a single afternoon. Do you focus on the meal in the cafe, or on the couple that sat next to you carrying on a fierce argument in hissed undertones, or the stifling heat and deafening noise outside in the streets that drove you to take refuge in the cafe? Which if these details is important for the story you are trying to tell? Which is extraneous? Sometimes, the only way to know is to write forward until you find where you’re going. What you can be certain of however, is that without the richness of telling detail, a narrative is just a string of events without substance or meaning.
Look at the difference between the two examples below, each relating a trip to a Mexican mercado:
Telling: We went to this market in the middle of town, and it took forever to find because we kept getting lost and nobody would give us clear directions. It was kind of creepy in the market because there weren’t many people there and the smell was terrible. There was one meat stand we saw where the butcher had a big knife and was cutting up an animal right on the counter, and there was blood and flies everywhere.
Showing: I had anticipated one of those colorful, bustling outdoor markets you see in all the travel magazines, baskets piled high with chili peppers and vendors haggling over squawking chickens. Instead, we arrived hot and dusty from a long, confused walk, led this way and that by residents more eager to be helpful than accurate, to find a nearly empty square leading into a vast, shadowy, crumbling concrete structure housing a labyrinth of mostly empty stalls and stands. Outside, the tropical mid-afternoon beat down in a glare of heat and sunshine. Yet inside, impossibly, the air seemed even hotter, thick and oppressive and stirred sluggishly by a handful of ancient fans spinning idly in the dim space over our heads. I was hit first by the smell, a rank, choking fug of rot and death. It made me want to duck back out into the sun-blasted square, hail a jitney, flee to the sanctuary of our hotel room swept clean by Pacific breezes.
But we forged on in the shared fiction that I wasn’t a travel-wary vegetarian with a contamination phobia. We were here to drink it all in, weren’t we, all the rough, authentic edges of this down-at-the-heels fishing town we’d chosen in contempt for the tourist-clotted ports to the north and south?
We had arrived at what must have been the siesta hour, and only a handful of fellow shoppers wandered about, heightening the abandoned, post-apocalyptic feel of the place. Then we turned the corner on one of the many haphazardly jumbled corridors to find ourselves arrived at a butcher’s counter. The butcher was in residence, gesticulating with a cleaver as he argued heatedly with a woman holding a chunk of meat. On the waist-high, tiled counter that stood between us and him, a half-dismembered carcass of something impossible to identify lay sprawled. It looked like some mad scientist’s hybrid of donkey and pig, glaring at us with black, blank eyes from a fur-covered head. It seemed to have been murdered on the spot–blood had spattered and pooled and dribbled everywhere. It coated the butcher’s waving cleaver and the hand that clutched it, soaked his apron, shimmered in a crimson lake on the countertop, crusted with buzzing black flies, and ran in rivulets down the tiled face of the counter to the floor.
That’s the difference between telling and showing. Now, do you need this much detail about every single thing in your story? No. For one thing, your narrative would grow unmanageably long. For another, you’d eventually violate Elmore Leonard’s Rule #10 (leave out the part the readers tend to skip).
I gave you a general sense of the gloomy market building, the heat and the smell and the strange abandoned feeling of the place (and, upon revision, perhaps I could do that even better). But I didn’t itemize every stall passed or aisle walked. I focused on that butcher’s stand. And having chosen that detail, I’d want to build the story from there. What might I write about? Perhaps this is an essay about being a vegetarian tourist in Mexico? Maybe it’s about that single afternoon’s adventure; will the mercado be the culminating experience, or one in dizzying montage of sensory overload? As you sort through all the details of a journey, the ones that stick in your mind, the ones you seize upon, will guide you to the stories you want to tell.
Now, look at Susan Orlean’s essay “Morocco’s Extraordinary Donkeys” (“Where donkeys deliver”) from Smithsonian. How does Orlean use the donkeys as the focal detail for a larger description of Morocco, and the medina and Fez and the intersection of old and new cultures?
1) Log in to your Word Press account. You should see something like the image below. (If you have more than one WordPress account, you should see all your WP accounts listed here.)
2) Click on “New Post”
3) Begin writing your post. The “New Post” screen has a range of basic word processing features. Play around with these as you work on your first post. Don’t forget to add a title!
4) If you want to insert a picture, click on the image of the camera/musical notes:
Choose “select files” to upload an image (I believe you can also drag-and-drop, but I confess I haven’t tried that yet). Once the image has uploaded (this may take a short while, depending on the speed of your connection) scroll down. You’ll see some basic options for editing for size and positioning this image in the post. You can fiddle with those if you like, or just click on “Insert into Post”:
- preview: see how your post will look (it will not be visible to the public yet)
- save as a draft (post will not publish
- publish immediately — and your post will post to the blog and be visible. You can also choose “edit” next to “publish immediately” and choose the date and time you want the post to be published.
6) The other screen you should familiarize yourself with is the Dashboard. You can access this immediately at login by clicking on the “dashboard” link:
You can also access your Dashboard from your New Post screen:
Your dashboard lets you view comments and your posts, and lets you access your posts to edit or update them.
OK, give it a whirl! For help, you can click on the “Help” dropdown menu in the upper right-hand corner of your New Post or Dashboard screens.
We’ve been talking about the importance of telling detail, but in writing it’s also good to keep in mind that there’s a fine line between “enough” and “too much.” You’re overwriting when your sentences turn into flabby, flopping monsters of
Eleanor folded her arms and glared at me. “I am NOT sitting in the back seat with her!”
Eleanor folded her slender, tanned arms across her bright yellow T-shirt and glared fiercely at me where I stood beside our old gray Volvo under the Porky’s BBQ sign with the dancing pigs on it. “I am NOT sitting in the back seat with her!” she insisted with an angry and upset tone in her voice, stomping her sneaker-clad foot on the cracked black asphalt for emphasis.
Does the second option really tell you anything more than the first? It doesn’t, and in fact it loses all the power and effectiveness of the first example. Eleanor’s anger is swallowed by a blizzard of adjectives and adverbs and barbecue signs and asphalt.
Choosing the right, and only the right, details isn’t always easy. In general, go easy on your adjectives and adverbs (Elmore Leonard says “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.'”), trying to use just the judicious sprinkling that gives a gentle blush of color to your prose.
Overwriting can also be a sign that you’re tending more to the telling and less to the showing:
As I stepped off of the plane, I could feel the warm, humid air envelope me in its heavy wetness.
Speaking of heavy and wet? That sentence is both.
I stepped out of the plane’s air-conditioned interior and into a thick blanket of tropical heat.
Much snappier. We can get on with the story now.