In Other Words

Travel Writing Lives!

The nostalgists are wrong -- in fact, travel writing is better than ever, and it's got more to tell us about our globalized world than dry policy writing does.

In 1946, the famed English novelist Evelyn Waugh -- a writer, like many of his generation, who funded his literary life by scribbling bemused accounts of overland treks to the Empire's far reaches -- predicted, "I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future." Waugh made his prediction at a time when Europe's old empires were crumbling and jet aircrafts, it seemed clear, were about to end travel as he knew it. But even in a century marked by dozens of famously false literary pronouncements, his forecast stands out as supremely wrong. Not only did a new generation of writers after Waugh -- from Ryszard Kapuscinski to V.S. Naipaul to Jan Morris -- prove that travel books still had a place in a post-imperial world, their prose was far more empathic and penetrating than anything that had come before. Their best books didn't merely breathe new life into an old genre, but provided accounts of our tumultuous age far more vibrant and lasting than any work of dry policy writing or historian's tome.

For decades, travel writers and foreign-policy types have had it in for each other. Foreign-policy writers dilate on grand structures, statecraft, and power imbalances, viewing themselves as lofty, farsighted visionaries. Meanwhile, travel writers, in search of minute daily texture in the places they visit, aren't necessarily looking to make broader political arguments. For travel writers, policy wonks are divorced from global life as it's lived, the reality of the street; for the wonks, travel writers seem naive or small-bore.

Of course travel writing has never been separated from politics. Herodotus himself, among the West's seminal thinkers on international relations, was also his era's travel writer par excellence. The roots of the modern literary genre lie in early explorers' logs -- from Marco Polo's accounts of the spice road to Walter Raleigh's Guyana diary -- which played key roles in shaping how Europe's states engaged the world. British travel writers of the interwar years like Waugh and Graham Greene may not have seen their accounts of "remote" places so explicitly tied to imperial policies. But much of their books' unique frisson derived from flirtations with an old colonialist worldview: describing colorful lands and colored denizens with a mix of revulsion and attraction, pitched to repressed Brits on their moist isle.

More recently, the world has been forced into the realization -- long understood by the best travel writers -- that what's geographically distant can't be ignored or held away as "exotic." The signal geopolitical event of our time -- 9/11 -- was enabled by globalization's emblematic technologies (the Internet, jetliners) and carried out by a small group of individuals raised in "remote" cultures. Increasingly, it's an obvious truth that choices made by peoples and nations everywhere may transform the planet's societies in cataclysmic ways. And so the traditional domain of travel writers -- the texture of everyday life; cultures, belief systems, and personal climes -- has suddenly become interesting to a whole new audience.

Eliza Griswold's recent book The Tenth Parallel, which describes a journey along the eponymous line, 10 degrees and 700-odd miles to the equator's north, that religious demographers have long cited as the globe's "center of gravity" for confrontations between Christianity and Islam, stands as a strong example of travel writing for the 21st century, one that marries the best of narrative adventure to an explicit jab at geopolitical relevance.

Griswold's book isn't shelved in the travel section but in "current affairs": It's a work consciously aimed at addressing issues of keen geopolitical import -- the roots of religious conflict, climate change's shadow impacts, the linked future of two of the world's great faiths. But it is also a work based in an understanding of our world as a place where "the tiniest change to the air currents in Nigeria ... may create chaos seven thousand miles away in North America," a place where distances are shorter than we think and a microscopic understanding of distant places is more crucial than ever. The desertification of Nigeria's grasslands, caused by the burning of fossil fuels in far-off Asia and America, can fuel conflicts there over water -- conflicts, in turn, that exacerbate local religious tensions threatening to erupt on a global level. In the crucial task of understanding how such stories play out and interrelate, work like Griswold's -- which 50 years ago would've been shelved under "travel" -- has a lot to tell us.

To see how this truth has caught on, one need look no further than to the many members of the foreign-policy elite -- perhaps responding to former Council on Foreign Relations president Les Gelb's challenge that "U.S. foreign-affairs experts don't know anything about foreign countries" -- who've taken to employing travel narratives in their books: approaches like Parag Khanna's in The Second World or Nicholas Schmidle's inside-out look, in To Live or to Perish Forever, at "the most dangerous country in the world." In No god But God, Reza Aslan used a journey through the Muslim world to show how Islam -- pace Samuel Huntington's depiction in The Clash of Civilizations of a great monolith bent on Christendom's fall -- is neither a monolith nor singularly bent on the West's destruction, but rather a "rapidly expanding and deeply fractured faith" undergoing an epochal reformation. Robert Kaplan has filigreed his paeans to American might, in books like The Ends of the Earth and Eastward to Tartary, with travel reportage from the Philippines to Azerbaijan.

Of course, as foreign affairs writing and travel writing converge, the results are not always pretty. Journeys abroad -- as Kaplan's critics have long noted -- can sometimes serve to reinforce old biases or facile claims, rather than complicate or subvert them. For Thomas Friedman, famously, a visit to Bangalore occasioned not an exploration of how and why that old Indian city's people have transformed their lives by embracing -- or resisting -- its new economy, but a trite anecdote meant to bolster his thesis that the "world is flat."

But the best travel writers are still doing what they do: using surface color to explore deeper structure. Peter Hessler's acclaimed Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory is nominally an account of driving through China, enlivened by finely drawn encounters with people and places. It is also a book that poses and gives implicit answer to the big questions about China's modern rise: How is China's use of fossil fuels affecting its countryside, its people, its neighbors, the world at large? And what is China's astronomic growth going to mean for everyone?

Suketu Mehta's modern Mumbai masterpiece, Maximum City, and Rory Stewart's timely account of traversing Afghanistan by foot, The Places in Between, have a similar effect. While performing the traditional travel writing tack of illuminating difference, they gain their merit as literature by the brilliance with which their authors' respond to the epigraph from Kapuscinski with which Griswold starts her Tenth Parallel: "What in him is of human being?/and is he." For readers aiming to understand daily existence in an impoverished megacity of the sort a majority of humans will soon call home, or the rich internal life of a nation now at the heart of our politics, these should be among the first titles on the shelf.

Travel books, as Evelyn Waugh knew them, may have died long ago. But the ways our best writers have found to narrate the experience of journeying through our world have never been so alive.

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In Other Words

Travel Writing Ain't What It Used to Be

If you like your adventure stories devoid of any eating, prayer, or love, try the classics.

"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.

Long-form travel writing has always been mostly about the writer. It's a first-person account of an expedition into uncharted territories. Authors went off to search for truth and beauty and pleasure, and came back with grand stories about human nature, the weirdness of exile, and the spirit of the place. (They also returned with memorable and useful life skills, like Sir Richard Francis Burton's advice on the best way to learn a foreign language: Lie in the arms of a beautiful married woman and she will teach you all the proper vocabulary to navigate society -- and when her husband discovers you, you will learn all the coarse street language you will ever need.)

But the first-person narrative has changed dramatically over the last 50 years with the rise of the memoir, and outer territories have been abandoned for inner ones. If everyone can hop on a plane to Patagonia, what distinguishes your story from mine? Well, me, of course. So we have shelf after shelf of books of men and women walking across Spain, going to the islands, riding horseback across Mongolia, and coming back with stories about what they learned about themselves.

I recently read two travel pieces by Jessica Olien. In the first, "How Elizabeth Gilbert Ruined Bali" printed on the Gawker-owned website Jezebel.com, she bemoaned all of the middle-age women in Bali, looking for love and healing, writing their own versions of Eat, Pray, Love. A week later, this same woman had a piece in Salon, called "My Ironic 'Eat, Pray, Love' Romance" saying she met the man of her dreams. In Bali.

Compare this with Maugham, whose short story "Rain," based on a missionary couple the author met while journeying to the South Seas in 1917, anticipates much of the post-colonial calamities of the post-World War II world, and says much about the motivations and consequences for people -- and nations -- suffering from white-knight syndrome. With little agenda of his own, Maugham simply quietly observed, letting the clash of the old world and the new, rich and the poor, play out in front of him at the bridge table.

Greene was another Brit interested in colonialism and its slow crumble. Some of his best-known and best-written books -- The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter -- are powerful accounts of the consequences of meddling. He fed his novels by traveling extensively, through Mexico, into Africa, to leper colonies, to Southeast Asia. His travel writing from these places emits a world weariness that feels startlingly modern. Life is more transient now than it ever was before, with migration and travel being commonplace. It has changed our culture and our lives and our nations, and Greene experienced it all for us decades ago.

In his book about his 1937 trip through Mexico, The Lawless Roads, Greene writes, "The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers." Much of Greene's writing dealt with the agony of travel and the fatigue that comes from waking up in the morning unsure where in the world you might be. Yet the pull of wanderlust always takes him back on the road, with a selective amnesia about how previous travels have gone -- a startlingly modern paradox that Greene shares with everyone from Mexican migrant workers to British party kids.

In guest editor Bill Buford's introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2010, he writes that the travel writer's axiom is "I saw, you didn't." That's also the axiom of the journalist, which is what much of travel writing has become. The journalist pares down and simplifies, whereas the writer expands and creates worlds. Many entries in the anthology follow the standard travel journalism formula: a few facts picked up on Wikipedia plus a handful of meaty descriptions of landscape, one funny anecdote about cultural differences, topped off with one harrowing travel moment. (And then there's always that one guy who thinks he's Hemingway. In this book, it's Colby Buzzell in his essay "Down and Out in Fresno and San Francisco." He smokes crack in the Tenderloin to really get into the heads of the addicts around him.) You might have a vicarious experience, but the insight starts and stops at, "Isn't this neat?"

Do we still need the travel writer? In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote that "sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time." You get the feeling that most travel writers these days are just passing through, missions and checklists in hand. Travel is about more than sunny beaches, fruit drinks served by the sexually attractive. It's more than being a fuzzy version of Hemingway. It's about how the world works. The ease of the transitory has hidden the necessity of the eternal. There are still uncharted depths, boys. But a guidebook is not going to help you get there.

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