"Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans: all I knew of the South Slavs," Rebecca West writes in her classic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an account of her travel through the former Yugoslavia between the two world wars. "And since there proceeds steadily from [the southeastern corner of Europe] a stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time deprived me for ever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.... [The Balkan Peninsula] was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why."
I'm wondering what Avi Davis thought as she set of to document Romania in her piece, "The Undead Travel," originally printed in the Believer and now collected in The Best American Travel Writing 2010 anthology. Probably, "Hm, Romania. That's the one with the vampires, yes?" She eats the tripe soup because it was "recommended by my guidebook." She reduces a complicated, bloody, mythologically and historically rich nation (and because closed off under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, still mysterious) to stories of Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
It's unfair to compare an amateur travel writer with the great Rebecca West, an article written for a magazine with a 600-page seminal tome, but it is fair to say that something is missing from contemporary travel writing. We are way past the golden age of Graham Greene riding a donkey through the Mexican jungle, W. Somerset Maugham sailing the South Seas (and spying on Russia for the British government), Patrick Leigh Fermor walking across all of postwar Europe, not to mention Bruce Chatwin, West, Julio Cortázar, and many others. It has only been 50 years, but the distance seems uncrossable.
There's a reason why you still find so many dusty paperbacks of In Patagonia stuffed in the back pockets of travelers in Argentina. Chatwin's book is not simply the story of one man's journey -- it reveals the timeless nature of the land and its people by rooting his adventures in the odd and surprising history of the place. But somewhere down the line, that sort of thing went out of fashion. Both travel and writing have changed dramatically in the past 50 years, with the result that it's been ages since we've seen a work that lasts beyond the remaindering season.
It's not just the tech that has changed things, the Wi-Fi cafes in tiny villages, the jet travel to anywhere in the world, the iPhone apps that make translation the act of pressing a button, the online airline bookings that can get you out of any horrible travel situation in a few minutes. Nor is it that the most remote regions of the world, from Siberia to Antarctica to North Korea have been trammeled by travel writers looking for a unique angle to justify their existence. What we want to read has also changed. As travel got easier, faster, and more accessible, the spread of service journalism began. An army of budding travel writers was set loose on the world with the mission to cultivate restaurant recommendations, hotel listings, the 10 most beautiful beaches, all in 35 words or fewer. With that sort of apprenticeship, it's no wonder the genre has been taken over by the reductive.