November 24, 2014

The best travel writing has always been subjective

“It is safe to say that the lasting travel accounts are quite subjective, that — within limits — the more subjective they are, the more readable, the more “valuable” they are. Travelers, like novelists, learned long ago the truth of Todorov’s statement of a universal law: “The best description…is the one which is not description all the way.” That is, the best description is combined with, cannot really be separated from, narration, reflection, interpretation.”
–Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (1983)

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November 17, 2014

For expatriates, America-bashing is a kind of recreational activity

“I’ve found that, for expatriates, America-bashing can become a kind of recreational activity (“re-creating,” in a the process, a sense of home), a way of both justifying your choices and reminding yourself, in a playful and not-too-disturbing way, of the country and culture that — despite anything and all you may do to have it otherwise — are yours. Part of the pride and pleasure of being an American, after all, is that there’s so much to make fun of.”
–Michael Blumenthal, “Western Union,” from In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (1999)

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November 10, 2014

Foreign reporting can be depressingly narrow

“Out in the great wide world, foreign reporting can be depressingly narrow, especially in the post-9/11 climate. Sometimes it seems as if there are only two possible subjects for stories: people we should fear and people we should pity. But those aren’t the individuals I met while living abroad.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)

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November 3, 2014

Elizabeth Becker on the economic contradictions of tourism

“Since the end of the Cold War and the opening of the world for travel, tourism has become an important source of foreign exchange for the world’s poorest nations, often the only one. While tourism requires some infrastructure, from airfields to modern highways, it is less expensive than building factories. In theory, poor countries should be able to use the new revenue from the tourism industry to pay for the infrastructure whole raising standards of living and improving the environment. One hundred of the world’s poorest nations do earn up to 5 percent of their gross national product from foreign tourists who marvel at their exotic customs, buy suitcases of souvenirs and take innumerable photographs of stunning landscapes. * But just as tourism is capable of lifting a nation out of poverty, is it just as likely to pollute the environment, reduce standards of living for the poor because the profits go to international hotel chains and corrupt local elites (what is called leakage), and cater to the worst of tourism, including condemning children to the exploitation of sex tourism. Like any major industry, tourism has a serious downside, especially since tourism and travel is underestimated as a global powerhouse; its study and regulation is spotty at best. Tourism is one of those double-edged swords that may look like an easy way to earn desperately needed money but can ravage wilderness areas and undermine native cultures to fit into package tours: a fifteen-minute snippet of a ballet performed in Southern India; native handicrafts refashioned to fit oversized tourists. What is known is that tourism and travel is responsible for 5.3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and the degradation of nearly every tropical beach in the world.”
–Elizabeth Becker, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (2013)

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October 27, 2014

What makes us blind is that we think we see

“This is a truth about leaving the culture that raised you and crossing into another: We leave home with an arsenal of things we know about the place we’re going. There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we’re trying. What makes us blind is that we think we see.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)

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October 20, 2014

Travel writing is about what the place brings out of the writer

“What raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what a place brings out of the writer.”
–William Zinsser, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)

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October 13, 2014

Tourism is like a quick fix of empathy

“This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy. We take it like a shot of tequila, or a bump of coke from the key to a stranger’s home. We want the inebriation of presence to dissolve the fact of difference. Sometimes the city fucks on the first date, and sometimes it doesn’t. But always, always, we wake up in the morning and find that we didn’t know it at all.”
–Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)

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October 6, 2014

Off-the-beaten-track adventure is still possible

“Rather than lament the fact that trips would have been better in some golden age of travel, we might as well celebrate the fact that we are enjoying the tail-end of an era in which a certain kind of off-the-beaten-track adventure is still possible.”
–Nicholas Danforth, World travel can be all about timing, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/20/2012

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September 29, 2014

Tourism has a way of spoiling the unspoiledness you are there to experience

“I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes: As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
–David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster, Gourmet, August 2004

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September 22, 2014

Ariel Levy on the anxiety that hits just before a journey begins

“I always get terrified right before I travel. I become convinced that this time will be different: I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-English speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable. I know that my panic will turn to excitement once I’m there — it always does — but that doesn’t make the fear before takeoff any less vivid.”
–Ariel Levy, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” The New Yorker, 11/18/2013

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