Every time I have the opportunity to take a trip – big, small, exotic, mundane, work-related, totally frivolous, near, far – I am grateful. I am grateful for the opportunity, the variety and the inherent surprises that come even when you think for sure they will not. And I am grateful for the chance to share my experiences with others. Whether or not they are grateful is something that apparently very few travelers actually consider, but I would like to consider it.
Since I have been living in Asia and traveling in Asia I have found, in sharing my experiences, I rely heavily on words like myriad and juxtaposition. But these words do so little to actually communicate what I mean. Or at least they seem ineffective in comparison to what I see around me. How can I really demonstrate what I mean when I say there are myriad subtleties in the art of multilingual (or non-lingual) communication in Asia, or that Asia is replete with the most incongruously wonderful juxtapositions I have ever seen? Just saying it seems limited.
And why would it matter? Because, of course, with traveling comes the requisite sharing of said experiences, either with other travelers, or maybe with those who would, but can’t and those who could, but don’t. Ihave a great audience in my classroom for sharing, though I was reluctant to share my trips with my students in the US at first, a result of scars from having to endure my own Freshman English teacher’s every vacation to Hawaii (Mark Reischling I know you loved it, but us? Not so much.) Eventually I did begin to share and whether or not it had the Reischling effect on the kids, it totally changed how I traveled. I began to look around the world in a wholly new way; trying to see everything through the eyes of my students gave my trips a completely new focus. I brought back Vegemite and didgeridoos and boomerangs from Australia and let my students try all of them when we studied the region in Geography. I shared my photo essay of the street people and permanent protesters from D.C. when we covered Civil Rights and Liberties in Government class. I brought in albums from Italy when we studied the Renaissance in World History and the photos for my graduate thesis on Area 51 when we covered the Cold War in US History. Photos of the Ancient Agora and the Theater of Dionysus were passed around when we covered mythology and Ancient Greece. From Russia to Alaska to the Baltic States to Mexico and Jamaica – I wondered: What would my students find interesting, or surprising or bizarre… what might shock them? How could I impart what it was like to be in all these places… How could I create the sense of place in a way that they could relate to and provide context for what they were studying?
I read somewhere recently that the abundance of travel writing was getting simply ridiculous. Something to the effect that people live under the misconception that everyone wants to read about their every trial and tribulation on the road and that somehow a well-inked passport makes one the next great… well, you know, travel writer. And I had to admit, it is kind of true. There are more travel blogs out there everyday, and in some ways, this might kind of be one. I do not read many of the travel blogs that profess to be the “key” to any sort of wisdom, and I love the idea that something one reads on the internet could in any way be “off the beaten track…” [Sorry Lonely Planet, I still love you and I turn to you often, but yo, you are way mainstream.]
Still, I have a certain love for travel literature.
I think my love for the genre has more to do with my innate nosiness. And my geographic inclinations. I like to read about the experiences that people have and see if I can relate/imagine/comprehend/covet/sigh-with-relief over their experiences. And I love to contemplate the complete sense of a place. My favorite travel authors include Hunter S. Thompson, John Steinbeck, Wendy Dale, Elizabeth Gilbert, selected works of Bill Bryson and one particular book by Michael Crichton.
Didn’t think those were all “travel writers”? HST’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 are two of the most effective pieces of literature to capture to flavor of a region and a nation, respectively, ever written. Thompson was completely aware of the significance of creating a sense of place in his writing in order to offer a unique context that would contribute to the story in a way that dialog or description never could. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is brilliant in it’s ability to convey the vernacular geography of America and the attendant topophilia during the 1960s as he made his way around the country in his camper (named for Quixote’s horse, Rocinante) and his standard poodle, Charley. The themes in all three of these books are still completely relevant today – and totally worth reading if you have not.
Wendy Dale wrote a novel called Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals that I read while on a cruise in the Caribbean back in 2004, I think. Yes, I said cruise. And to that end I was with the least adventurous person I have ever known, bless his rigid cotton socks. That book saved me from myself on that trip and reminded me of my own adventures during a particular summer in Guadalajara. Most people are now familiar with Liz Gilbert, and those same people all seem to have very clear opinions on her work, specifically Eat, Pray, Love. I adored this book and found that, in many ways, Gilbert shared parts of the travel experience that others have overlooked, though I am sure that I fall into her target demographic so maybe that is why I liked it so much. I find Bill Bryson a bit much on times, I could not get through his book on Australia – while I was planning and traveling through Australia – but I love, love, loved The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, detailing a 14,000 mile trip around the US in the late 1980s. Again, for the reasons that I have found particular travel literature so alluring, I like this book because it points out the little things that might go unnoticed, but make all of the difference. No one misses the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon, but there is so much in between that really gives those experiences meaning…
So, when I write about share my travel experiences it is in a constant effort to impart the unseen, to share the texture and feel of the place through the less obvious experiences: it is the intention of communicating the sense of the place. ‘Sense of place’ has been defined a million ways. If you look to Wiki you get this as an introduction:
To some, it is a characteristic that some geographic places have and some do not, while to others it is a feeling or perception held by people (not by the place itself). It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging.
As a teacher of Geography I have told my students it is the attempt to share the total experience of being in a place with someone who has not been there: what does it look like, smell like, sound like, feel like, even taste like… As a student of Geography I have been fascinated not only by the inherent nature of the sense of places, but also in placelessness and the love of places – topophilia. [Check out Yi-Fu Tuan.]
I have just returned from a long weekend in Saigon. If put to the task of ably communicating the sense of place in Saigon, could I? I could tell you that the texture of Saigon is tangible in every sensory way. I could tell you that the auditory experience of Saigon is immeasurable on any sort of scale I could describe. I could tell you that the juxtaposition of people, places and things cannot be enumerated. Would that be enough? I could tell you that I am constantly struck by the reality that such a great percentage of the world falls into a category easily labeled as “poor,” but they seem to take it all in stride so much more readily than I coped with my four hour delay. Would any of that give you a real sense of Saigon? If I tried to express the “emotional connections between physical environment and human beings” (Tuan’s definition of topophilia) would it be my own or those I had observed? Could I share the way that I see people around the world do the most ingenious things with what is on offer from their surroundings or is that suddenly my own emotional agenda?
More to the point, would it matter? And further… who am I to take up this endeavor?
I suppose the answers to those questions are what will indicate my status as a “Travel Writer.”
FYI: Some other notable books I consider to be brilliantly fantastic travel literature include: The Motorcycle Diaries, The Rabbit Proof Fence, Shutterbabe, and Long Way Round [I mean, Ewan McGregor in leather…?]