“Unlike the oil industry, which is scrutinized at all levels, travel writing has become an extension of the industry. With few exceptions, travel writing and travel sections share the singular goal of helping consumers spend their money pursuing the dream of a perfect trip. They seldom write critical reviews; only articles about what to do and what to buy and how to experience a destination. This “feel-good” approach is rare even in lifestyle journalism, which is where to find the travel sections. Other lifestyle or back-of-the-book journalists thrive on critical reviews, explaining how and why they judge movies as great or miserable; whether the food at a restaurant is mediocre or exquisite; and describing music concerts as electric or boring. Imagine if movie reviewers only discussed their favorite films, if restaurant critics only wrote about their preferred haunts and music critics never wrote a scathing review of a badly performed opera. That is what travel writing has become.”
–Elizabeth Becker, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (2013)
“A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.” — Rolf Potts
I had the pleasure of connecting with Rolf in person this week. I’ve written on his blog since 2012 and we’ve passed a few notes back and forth as we’ve shared the occasional orbit in cyber-space but there’s something different about connecting at eye level and feeling someone’s presence and intention. I spent the evening studying the man behind the author bio and really listening as he shared his vagabonding life, his passions for education and writing with a roomful of students. I learned a lot. Woven into stories of bagpipes in Cuba and the ethical dilemma of tribal photography in remote corners of Africa was an underlying message that he summed up in one line that stopped the universe spinning for a moment. I’m not sure anyone else noticed it, but I did, and it reminded me of the urgency of pursuing our dreams:
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
Doing all of the “right things,” doesn’t guarantee a damned thing. Pinning all of your hopes on your “golden years” is worse than a crap shoot. Travel is not some gold medal that will be draped around your neck as a prize for a race well run. It’s not something you earn by playing someone else’s organized game. Travel is a building block of a greater life. Travel can be a life in and of itself. If it’s seen as an optional bonus round of life it’s unlikely to happen, or at least not in the way you’re dreaming of now.
A virtuous life doesn’t reward you with travel.
You want to travel? Go. Go now. Create your life to include travel. Build your life around your dream of travel. It’s a very simple mental shift, a change of paradigm and priority structure. You can travel sooner rather than later. If it is in your heart, then you must work to make it a reality and not put it off until some elusive “one day.”
“Impatient people…find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay — that there’s no instant gratification. Or that there’s only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven’t got the patience for it but that’s what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers. But they’re not always the right answers.”
–Paul Theroux, Gadling interview, May 7th, 2013
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.
— Vera Nazarian
Our first year traveling full time we spent on bicycles. It was a beautiful way to see the world. The drumbeat of pedal strokes become meditation, if you do it long enough. The predictable pattern to days is comforting in its simplicity: Pack the tent, ride 25 miles, picnic in the sun, ride 25 miles, set up the tent. Wash, rinse, repeat. Cycling forces an interaction with the landscape and the people who inhabit it that travel inside a vehicle does not. I love that.
But then, we turned a corner, our gap year became our life and we realized that we were going to keep going, keep traveling and our approach changed. We slowed down. We took to renting places for a few months at time instead of packing the tents every day. In sitting still we see a place differently than we do if we’re moving through, even if we’re moving in the slowest, most interactive way possible.
What is new and exotic to me is mundane to someone else. My favourite beach and dive vacation spot is on a stretch of ocean that is life and economic stability to someone else. The secret place I love to spend the winter might be heaven to me, but it’s a status quo prison to my friend who cannot escape it.
I don’t think about this enough. Most people don’t, I’d wager. If we did, we would travel differently, perhaps. Can we talk about that? How does the knowledge, and a growing understanding, of the fact that everywhere we go is someone else’s home and backyard change how we walk through this world? How should it?
“Wit, style, a keen and original mind, an eye for the unusual — these are what delight us in the travelogue writer. The compiler of a guidebook, on the other hand, must be a totally different kind of person. His job is to report the location, dimensions, age, and life-history of the monuments, and only incidentally, if at all the emotions or associations they arouse in his breast. Wit and originality have no place in such an assignment; in fact, they might very well get in the way. What he requires above all are the matter-of-fact virtues of thoroughness, diligence, and accuracy.”
–Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (1974)
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Why do we go away? An interesting question to ponder.
And what Terry says is very true as well: we travel so that we can come back.
Homecoming is an integral part of journeying. Almost everyone does it at some point. It’s a surprise when we first discover that home did not wait quietly for us, preserved like an exhibit in the museum of our minds. It is sometimes a shock to find that, although we have returned, we are not, in fact, home in the same sense as when we left it. When we take off to travel, we are, in many senses, the place we leave. Indiana is taken to Borneo, Borneo is seen through Indiana’s eyes. When we return, we bring Borneo with us, and he points out things in Indiana we never noticed before he shared his lenses with us. To me, that is the single most important function of travel: the ability to see home through new eyes, to evaluate the common from an angle we’d never considered. Instead of looking at the world through our cultural telescope, we begin to see the world like a marble at the end of a kaleidoscope. Same place. Entirely different view.
What about you? Why do you travel? What have you noticed upon coming home?
“Sometimes I thought of the Peace Corps as a reverse refugee organization, displacing all of us lost Midwesterners, and it was probably the only government entity that taught Americans to abandon key national characteristics. Pride, ambition, impatience, the instinct to control, the desire to accumulate, the missionary impulse — all of it slipped away.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)
You can trust me when I say that any morning beginning with vomit and a side order of anti-diarrheals with breakfast for two thirds of the family is a harbinger of things to come. Add the words “chicken bus” to the breakfast conversation and it’s the perfect storm of endlessly horrific possibilities.
Every single chicken bus ride is worthy of it’s own blog post somewhere. I’ve yet to ride one in which I did not have a near death experience, sit within a whirlpool of humanity that just begged for comment, or just suffered enough to feel justified in a good rant; and that’s without giving time to the animal passengers that enliven the experience from time to time.
There really are no words adequate to the experience of being whisked aboard an old Bluebird bus, painted like a time machine, pimped out like a seventies low-rider and covered inside with enormous neon coloured stickers of the Virgin Mary and others reading things like, “God bless your entrance and exit of this bus,” “Please don’t mistreat the signs,” “Your children’s safety is our priority” (a Bluebird original) “Jesus is my co-pilot” or “Driving slowly saves lives.”
Taking a page out of the Mayan mujeres book it seems entirely reasonable to genuflect slightly to the Mother Mary sticker, cross one’s self and say a quick prayer to the patron saint of the slightly insane for deliverance from this necessary evil.
The bus up from Antigua to Chimaltenango gets a gold star for being the most harrowing thus far. I really did see my life flash before my eyes, and I was reminded of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz as I, like Dorothy, watched the swirl of cows, bicicleros, old men with goats and numerous small cars whirl just out of the way of the flying bus. More than one expletive was uttered, in more than one language by the passengers and there was a muttered undertone, that didn’t need translation, as to the appropriate description for our confident driver.
Getting seven people ON to one chicken bus is one adventure. Making sure you get the same seven OFF at the same stop, is quite another. I confess, on our previous exchange in Chimaltenango, to actually chasing the departing bus down the main street shouting, “HEY!! I’ve got one more kid on there!! Dang it!!” in Spanish before realizing that there were actually two kids, and Daddy too, being whisked away at lightning speed.
Tony was off circulating between the tiendas up and down the block looking for ginger ale with real ginger for Ruth and Ez, who were both feeling green, while the rest of us held down our piece of sidewalk with the crowd of hopeful passengers waiting for their next bus on the corner of Washington and Jefferson on the main drag when it happened:
Ezra groaned, threw back his head in his signature “Oh man!” look and announced, “I have a personal problem!” Which is quite an improvement from where he started at three, in Mexico when he had “a personal problem” and threw himself down in the Cancun airport shouting, “I’m POOPING TO DEATH!”
I rolled my eyes on the inside and asked, as cheerfully as I could, “I’m sorry, what it it?”
“Remember what Dad said about never trusting a fart… well…”
I rolled my eyes on the outside as the news passed between the children met with varying degrees of guffaw and disgust while Ruth just laughed. Tony wandered by, without ginger ale in hand, and muttered under his breath, “It’s a party now!”
After several moments of drama and debate that I’ll leave to your imagination I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with my red haired cousin, our backs to a niche in the concrete wall, giggling, uncontrollably.
“You know all those people that send us gushy e-mail, wishing they could travel and have our life? THIS is totally what they’re missing. EVERYONE wants THIS life!”
Ruth, also giggling uncontrollably nodded beneath her straw hat and we peered over our shoulders just in time to see Ez finishing his clean up with what was left of his underwear and getting back into his drawers, commando.
Emerging looking only slightly scathed he settled under his Dad’s big eyeball trained directly on his two little beady ones and they made the agreement, one more time: Never, NEVER trust a fart.
“China is easier to write about than Cheyenne, Leningrad easier than Louisville. But to see Cheyenne and Louisville written about well, to see the dailiness of America brought to life with freshness and humor, is to watch one of the hardest high-wire acts in travel writing.”
–William Zinsser, They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)