“Travel broadens the mind –
but first you must have the mind.”
Travel writers lead romantic lives. They explore the world at other people’s expense, and they don’t even need to invent their material. They simply describe the places they visit. Anybody can do that.
You know as well as I do that the above paragraph is nonsense, but the romance persists. It would be a kindness to future travelers and travel writers to lay the myth to rest here and now.
There are several varieties or genres of travel writing. The most profitable type (for the writer) is essentially a branch of public relations. This is the stuff you read in brochures and glossy magazines, and also in newspaper travel supplements. Every destination is described as beautiful, welcoming, unspoiled, and so on, with digitally enhanced pictures. This is essentially a branch of fantasy fiction, as you soon discover if you actually travel to any of these places.
Secondly there’s what I call straight travel writing that gives the reader real, accurate, and unbiased information. This is quite rare. The “Rough Guides” series is the best example I know. Straight travel writing is enormously hard work, because it demands so much detailed on-the-spot research. Stamina, attention to detail, and an iron stomach are the basic job requirements.
Thirdly (in no particular order) comes “literary” travel writing of the kind practiced by Paul Theroux or Adam Gopnik. Books and essays of this type are usually great fun to read, and can be more eye-opening than any number of guidebooks. However the literary travel writer gives no information about hotels, ferries, restaurants and so on.
Fourthly, an increasingly popular genre is what might be called the “hair raising travel adventure.” The author deliberately sets out to do something idiotic, like climbing Everest on one leg, crossing the Sahara on a unicycle, or rowing the Atlantic in a bathtub. We don’t have any new frontiers, so these writers are doing the best they can to create some excitement. As my mother would say, they should have their heads examined.
Fifthly (I’m almost done!) we have “travel pornography,” of the type exemplified by Peter Mayle’s hugely successful A Year in Provence, and its many imitators. The pornography here is not sexual but cultural. These writers take a place and a culture and recycle it as an idealistic dream fantasy.
Finally we have travel writers who use humor and satire, from Mark Twain to Bill Bryson. I enjoy these a lot, but they are not the place to look for practical information.
Americans on the whole are not great travelers. Only 8% of citizens have a passport and (almost incredibly) only 12% of U.S. Senators. This may help to explain the resolute parochialism of American culture and politics. Foreign countries are experienced mostly at secondhand, through the media, or by young soldiers who have been sent to places off the regular tourist routes in order to teach their citizens the benefits of democracy. This set me thinking about the role of travel writers. If 92% of Americans and most of their representatives glimpse the world only through the eyes of travel writers and war correspondents, what do they see?
Obviously they see only a tiny part of the planet – the regions that are designated as safe enough for tourism or weak enough for military adventures. This leaves out just about the whole of the ordinary world that most people live in, and that can only be experienced by going there.
Most of my travels are fairly conventional, so I’ve not had the opportunity to write about exotic places and extreme experiences. But even conventional travel can be written about in very different ways.
For example, we were traveling in Europe a couple of years ago. On the final leg of our journey we abandoned the rented car and look a train ride from Nice, across northern Italy and to Milan. The city was new to me, although I had driven around the bypass several times. Before leaving home I had asked my Italian barber Milan, which was his birthplace. He said: “It’s like New York but full of Italians.” When I pointed out that New York is also full of Italians he said: “Then it’s like New York.” He was quite wrong. New York has no trams.
A travel writer might handle the transition between Nice and Milan something like this:
“The train from Nice sped along the Côte d’Azur, offering spectacular views of the sea and the mountains, before turning inland at Genoa to glide across the fertile plains of Lombardy and into Milan’s imposing Stazione Centrale.”
An honest non-fiction writer might describe the experience more like this:
“The train from Nice was cancelled. All trains were cancelled due to unspecified trouble in the tunnel at Menton. Buses were laid on to take us over the mountain to the station at Monaco. But there weren’t enough buses, and a great mass of passengers had to wait for an hour in the blazing sun. When we got on a bus the air conditioning was broken and the windows were jammed shut. Instead of stopping at Monaco as promised the bus driver (ignoring the loud complaints and threats of the passengers) continued right on into Italy and dumped us all out at the station of a miserable little town called Ventimiglia where we foreigners were mildly harassed by the local police (enjoying themselves enormously, the most fun day they had had in Ventimiglia for years) before being allowed on the train. All seat reservations had been cancelled in the confusion, so there was a huge scrum for seats. The train started two hours late and crawled very slowly towards Milan, stopping at every village and sheep station to take on more passengers, none of whom could find seats. There was no food or drink on the train, and the journey took five hours (not counting the wait in Nice and the bus ride). This traveling inferno finally arrived at Milan Central Station, which is more filthy, graffiti-encrusted, crowded, hot, and infested with bums, beggars and drug addicts than even a New Yorker could imagine.”
An honest non-fiction writer might also mention that Milan’s two major tourist attractions were effectively absent. The spectacular façade of the Duomo Cathedral (1386) was covered in plastic for cleaning, and the world-famous opera house, the Teatro Alla Scala, was closed for restoration. However s/he would also feel impelled to make positive comments on the superb public transportation system, the fine restaurants, and the friendly and helpful people of Milan.
Which experience would you prefer to read about? The second one is 100% true.
Over the years I’ve published a few travel pieces. But more often I have stalled, as you may have done, in the process of trying to translate my observations into the right language. The gap between real travel experience and the conventional style of travel writing is very hard to bridge. Humor is one way to do it. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, told more unwelcome truths than most travelers of his own or any other time.
Modern travel writing is indeed a form of fiction, and most of those who read travel articles in magazines and newspapers probably understand that they are indulging a kind of dream, where everything is beautiful and every encounter is picturesque and satisfying. But fiction understood by its readers to be pure invention, and travel writing is sometimes less innocent.
Many freelances and full-time journalists who do this kind of work depend on travel companies to give them a free ride. Whenever I publish a travel piece, however small and obscure, I receive a bunch of offers from PR companies – five days in Iceland, a gastronomic tour of Burgundy, a week in sunny Kabul, and so on. These offers suggest that the PR company flacks never actually read anything that I wrote. My travel writings tend to be ironic and acerbic. No sane PR person would invite me on a tour that they wanted to promote. When I accept one of these offers (which happens rarely, and only after stating clearly in writing that I will tell the truth about the experience) I always feel guilty. My fellow hacks don’t see it that way. For them, it’s just a free ride and a joke.
The earth is an imperfect planet. It is a mess. The alien peoples of the world speak incomprehensible languages, eat peculiar foods, subscribe to bizarre religions, and march to a whole timpani section of different drummers. In short, they have no idea how to live properly. Their nations, unlike ours, are often chaotic and alarming. Even their TV schedules are not always completely reliable.
The job of the travel writer is to make these stressful foreign places seem interesting enough to justify the investment of thousands of dollars in travel costs. He or she must draw on a rather limited range of images, all of which have been used tens of thousands of times before. Commercial travel writers, like travel agents, have created a new language with its own unique resonances. Water is always “crystal clear,” restaurants are “vibrant,” anything built before 1950 is “olde worlde,” views are “breathtaking” or “big sky” or “unspoiled,” hotels are “romantic gems” or “fairytale hideaways.” It takes real skill to write like this without laughing. The travel writer’s tool kit of appealing and improbable clichés also includes the following:
• Beautiful weather (usually exaggerated and unreliable).
• Glorious golden beaches (rare, usually artificial).
• Fine and/or exotic restaurants (if you are very lucky).
• Exciting nightlife (you can probably do better at home unless you live in Iowa).
• Friendly natives (usually the biggest fiction of all).
• Interesting historic ruins (almost never interesting except to professional archeologists).
• High profile cultural credits (art, music etc., a lot of hard work).
• Natural wonders (waterfalls, mountains, lakes, deserts – just like we have at home).
• Amiable wildlife (possible glimpses of the vanishing rear ends of furry creatures).
• Unique sporting opportunities (hang gliding in the Himalayas, skateboarding through Baghdad etc. – ideal for the under-twelve crowd).
It is difficult for those of us not gifted with powerful imaginations to make the connection between these descriptions and the places we actually visit on the ground. The latter can be described, certainly, but not in language that any travel editor would publish.
But the essential dishonesty of travel writing is not so much its bizarre language as its intense selectivity. Even Paul Theroux, a serious and excellent travel writer, admitted in a British newspaper interview that even he leaves out the really bad parts – the disgusting illnesses, the interminable delays, and the predatory people he encounters on his travels. Travel writing is the art of choosing a few bright fragments out of the chaos of experience and reassembling them into a complete picture.
This is not a diatribe against traveling, or even against conventional travel writing. I love to travel, even though I feel guilty about the pollution and waste involved, because I have great curiosity about how other people live, and I need the escape from everyday life. My complaint is that inexperienced tourists often set out with unrealistic expectations, nurtured by books, magazine articles and TV programs, so they fail to get the most out of their trip while it is actually happening.
The crucial distinction here is between travelers (us) and tourists (them). Tourists expect what the travel writers have told them to expect. Travelers expect anything and everything.
The interesting thing about tourists is that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they enjoy their trip or not. Years ago, when I was much younger and even more foolish, I took on a summer job as a driver and guide for a company called Minitrek Expeditions, operating out of London. They offered what they humorously called “Adventure Holidays” in Greece, Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe and north Africa, using heavy-duty buses and stretched Land Rovers. These holidays appealed mostly to young people who were strong enough to survive the experience. The “adventure” was created by the fact that most of the driver/guides were, like me, complete amateurs. My own groups enjoyed an extra level of uncertainty because I was not good at reading maps. My tours might end up anywhere.
These trips were hard work. It’s no accident that the English word “travel” derives from the French “travail” (work). We camped, often in foul weather. We had so much sickness that I carried a box full of antibiotics and sulfa drugs, illegally purchased in what was then Yugoslavia. The vehicles often broke down. The passengers fell in love and fought with each other, usually at the same time, and found a common enemy in their driver/guide. The places where we stopped were often poverty-stricken and grim, and sometimes dangerous. Nobody could or did call it fun. But we always had plenty of customers, and even repeat customers.
After a particularly diabolical journey in the Sahara, I decided to run a little experiment. A week before the trip I had the victims (sorry, passengers) fill out a questionnaire about their expectations. Halfway through the trip those passengers who were still conscious and coherent filled out another questionnaire about how their expectations were being fulfilled. Two weeks after they returned home the survivors filled in a third questionnaire about their memories of the trip. This was repeated over several dozen trips to different places with different guides.
The result was an almost inverted perfect bell curve. Expectations started high, and plummeted down to zero in the middle of the experience. Two weeks afterwards, false memories were firmly in place. The travelers looked back on their adventures with nostalgia, and their memories were almost as rosy as their original hopes.
I published this finding as an article in a small weekly magazine, and tried to sell it to a wider audience. But nobody wanted to read it. Being funny about vacations (à la Chevy Chase) is fine. Telling the plain truth is almost sacrilegious. This was, admittedly, an extreme and unusual example, but my knowledge of the tourist industry is slightly broader than that. I’ve worked as a guide the northern Italian cultural boot camp circuit (Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Venice etc.), and also as a troubleshooter in the villa rental business in Cyprus and Turkey. None of my experiences have contradicted the impressions recorded above.
All vacations probably follow the same curving path from anticipation, down to experience, and up again to nostalgia, and experiences are less powerful than memories. To paraphrase something that Professor John Gagnon said about sex: “First there’s the expectation, then there’s the memory. But best of all is the expectation of the memory.”
This lets travel writers off the hook. The Technicolor fantasies they create may cause travelers to suffer a rude shock during the vacation itself, but they provide essential material for the re-creation of happy memories afterwards. Once tourists have recovered from the jet lag, stomach disorders and the credit card bills, they begin to imagine that they actually did enjoy the golden beaches, exotic restaurants, and unique cultural experiences that they read about before booking the trip.
The main lesson for tourists themselves is not to take detailed notes during the journey. Like any diary, these notes will make unwelcome reading afterwards. Tourists must allow the ever-inventive travel writers to stock their dreams and refurbish their memories, and not ask too many questions.