Death of an Adventure Traveler: My new story in The Smart Set


Last week I had a new story debut in The Smart Set. Entitled “Death of an Adventure Traveler,” it is a kind of sequel to a story I wrote for a Lonely Planet anthology several years ago. In the original story, I recounted a quirky tale told to me by my barber in Thailand, an old Burmese man named Mr. Benny; in the new tale, I return to Thailand to hear persistent rumors that Benny has died.

As I search a Thai-Burmese border town for Mr. Benny, reflecting on the colorful details of his life (including his stints as a gem poacher, tin smuggler, CIA translator, wildlife poacher, and pearl diver), I run into folks like Ezio, a local Italian expat, who calls into question my work in adventure-travel journalism:

Ezio teased me about my latest magazine assignment as he stood in the kitchen, his hulking mass bent over a tiny espresso pot. “These American magazines don’t even know what adventure is,” he said. “They want you to write about camping toys and sports vacations. They want you to make people think adventure is something that costs $8,000 and lasts as long as a Christmas holiday. They want you to make rich people feel good for being rich.”

I didn’t argue with him. Twenty-five years ago, Ezio had left Rome for a winter holiday in North Africa, and he’d never returned. He’d taught himself Arabic in Algeria, learned to live in the desert, bought a few camels, and made a living as a tour guide. Intrigued by wars, he eventually wandered on to Uganda, and then Lebanon, and then Sri Lanka, picking up languages as he needed them. He eventually landed in Southeast Asia, where he fell in love with Thai women — all of them, from the way he described it — and he’d been based in Thailand for over 10 years now. What Ezio had done with his life was unusual, but not unique. Every out-of-the-way province in Southeast Asia, it seemed, had a few guys like him — aging expats who’d lived remarkable lives, and enjoyed their anonymity with no plans of going home. Whenever I talked to Ezio I was reminded of how the storied travelers of history invariably discovered they were not alone in their wanderings — how William of Rubrouck arrived in Karakorum to find Ukrainian carpenters, Greek doctors, and Parisian goldsmiths; how Marco Polo encountered Lombards, Germans, and Frenchmen in the streets of Cambaluc. These people’s stories were never told because they never went home.

As my fruitless quest to find Mr. Benny drags on, I begin to question the contradictions behind the Western notion of “adventure.” How, after all, is kayaking a remote Chinese river more notable than surviving on its shores for a lifetime? How does risking frostbite on a helicopter-supported journey to arctic Siberia constitute more of an “adventure” than risking frostbite on a winter road-crew in Upper Peninsula Michigan? Is it not telling that bored British aristocrats — not the peoples of the Himalayas — were the ones who first deemed it important to climb Mount Everest?

My full essay, which is particularly timely given recent events in Burma, can be found here.

Posted by | Comments Off on Death of an Adventure Traveler: My new story in The Smart Set  | September 30, 2007
Category: Rolf's News and Updates

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