Category Archives: ASIA

No Voyage, Great Lies: Take a Lie-cation

uluru
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Ever wondered how to survive in troubled economic times, and yet extract your share of fun from life, too? There’s an old Italian adage, “Long voyages, great lies.” Well, guess what? The world has changed, and things are different now. The new proverb goes, “No voyage, great lies.” Take that, old Italians! We want the best of both worlds: bragging rights to a ripsnortin’ experience that will make our friends faint with envy, and a budget demand that approaches zero. So, when the going gets tough, the tough go on a “lie-cation.”

The guru who turned us on to this concept is Scott Carmichael of Gadling. His very pragmatic and helpful article is rife with useful real-world hints on how convince everyone that you’re back from fascinating journey, and did not, for instance, spend your hard-earned two weeks holed up in your own basement rec room, screening a porno-thon. Carmichael’s technique brings finesse to every detail of how to create a fantasy vacation and make it credible to the most discerning ear. Here’s one of his tips for getting away with it:

Want people to think you are in France? Find yourself a French webmail service, sign up, and send emails to your friends. You’ll need to be able to read or translate the site in order to sign up, but before you know it, you’ll be emailing people from your bigfatliar@ French webmail account.

This guide covers picking the destination; photos and other physical evidence (both pre- and post-liecation); souvenirs; and necessary homework to avoid being tripped up by details. You will, of course, check the weather in the place where you’re supposed to have been. And Carmichael also recommends a last-resort escape hatch, if you’re uncomfortably close to being busted for your tall tales. It cannot be revealed here, but he also suggests other ploys.

For instance: go for the mystery. Concoct one enigmatic, “heavy,” all-purpose phrase to stymie every inquiry. Maybe your story is that you’ve been doing “disaster tourism.” One way to go about it is, name a trouble spot, and start describing. All crumbled buildings and roasted automobiles look pretty much the same, after all. But if that is too much of a strain on the imagination, this genre has an advantage over some others. If the questions become too specific, you can always threaten an emotional meltdown: “I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about it.”

If, on the other hand, verbal embroidery is meat and drink to you, then by all means choose a lie-cation that leaves plenty of space for improvisation — for instance, by planning an itinerary composed of Weird and Odd Hotels. At Budget Travel, John Rambow offers a splendid list of such establishments, including those where you can sleep in a wine cask or a coffin. Jason Cochran at the same site actually published one of these fabulous lists first. These places are supposed to be odd and weird, right? So you can make up just about anything. Maybe get a few postcards through eBay beforehand, and you’re all set.

As long as you didn’t go anyway, make it a good story. Make it really outrageous. So bizarre that you couldn’t possible be inventing it. Tell your astonished listeners that you were one of the chosen beta-testers in the brand new space tourism industry. (Examiner Jay Hammond tells more about this.) Speak knowingly of physiological effects of acclimation during space flight.

Or make it really boring. Tell people you hooked up with one of those genealogy travel specialists, and start tracing for them the roots of your family tree. We guarantee, they will soon lose interest and stop pestering you. You could say you went on a Famous Gardens tour, but were so captivated by Sissinghurst that you jettisoned the group and stayed on there, and then you could branch out into a gossip tangent about the love life of famous gardener Vita Sackville-West, and before you know it, you’re out of the woods.

elephantIn the realm of the mystical, there are plenty of ideas to choose from. Tell everyone you went walkabout, and then joined up with the last wild group of Aborigines in Australia. (Hey wait, hasn’t that already been done?) Tell them you went on a Vision Quest with Stalking Wolf. Tell them you traveled for altruistic reasons. Don’t name a group like Medecins Sans Frontiers — it’s too easy to check up on. But you can safely claim to have flown over to Bangkok — they keep terrible records over there — to join a volunteer task force and help get the begging elephants out of the city.

In the New York Times, James Estrin introduces and presents an amazing suite of photos , taken by Brent Lewin, of the Thai elephants. In July, it was reported that about 200 beasts are routinely turned loose by their mahouts, on the streets of Bangkok, to scrounge for food. The government decided that the best solution would be to buy the elephants. So far, an organization called “Smiling Elephants” has purchased a total of one elephant, using funds donated by the public. We’re thinking this lie-cation will probably remain viable for quite some time.

Tell us about your dream lie-cation!

Uluru photo courtesy of bobster855, used under this Creative Commons license,

Elephant photo courtesy of Joe Hastings, used under this Creative Commons license

Advertisements

Travel Writing and China: The Giant Dragon of Henan and More

dragon 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Kevin Dolgin, the author upon whose book this column embroiders, is fond of both dragons and statues. So, in a veritable explosion of inspiration, we Googled up “statue + dragon”, and found a story from the Xinjua News Agency. It’s complete with pictures, including one that looks like an aerial photo, but must be an artist’s rendering.

In the middle of China, in Henan Province, there’s a mountain called Shizu, with a long backboney ridge and an expanse of national forest around it. The entrepreneurial Zulong Company set out to build a 13-mile-long dragon along the crest of the mountain, pretty much like the Great Wall, actually, only this structure would have a 100-foot-high dragon head at one end and additional tourist attractions like museums and shops inside its body. The symbolic purpose would be to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic.

The article reads:

Some 5.6 million pieces of white marble and gilded bronze are to form the dragon’s scales as a move that is “symbolic of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.” Display rooms offering themes of filial piety and patriotism are to be set up in the dragon’s hollow body. For a fee, people will be able to have their names and messages inscribed on the scales, and companies can advertise on the dragon’s head.

What an audacious concept! The company got as far as constructing half a mile of the body, plus a large portion of the head, when the press and the public got wind of it and started to raise hell. Bitter controversy ensued, with the opposing sides saying the same things opposing parties everywhere always say. One faction claims it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment; the other says tourists will come, and local residents will be employed. The builder says the government promised to support the project. But the government apparently changed its mind. (“One thing to keep in mind in China: never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy.” – Kevin Dolgin)

Okay, now the plot thickens. From a very official-looking web page simply titled “Tour,” we learn that Shizu Mountain and its surroundings constitute on official beauty spot, with a recreational park for “tourism and sightseeing, holidaying, and patriotism education.” But not, apparently, a giant dragon. What has been done or will be done with the parts of the dragon already built is a mystery. There is, however and incidentally, another dragon project mentioned on the page, this one in Puyang City, called the “Restoration Project of the ruins of the First Dragon in China.” It concerns the construction of a dragon theme park to include a sage’s musum, a sage’s temple, an ancient school, and best of all, a mythical paradise.

But there’s more on the Shizu Dragon elsewhere: a report by Jeffrey Hays called “Facts and Details” says, “The project was halted in 2007 for lack of a permit.” Such a shame, after all that work and expense, and besides, the trees were already cut down.

At “Eat, Run, Read,” Mollie shares her impressions of a book called Lost on Planet China: On Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost, with some interesting excerpts from Troost, and a yummy noodle recipe thrown in. In “Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire,” Edward Wong, who has written extensively on Asia for The New York Times, talks about the Xinjiang autonomous region and its troubles, some of which stem from the immigration of many former Henan residents (who might have been able to stay home, if the 13-mile dragon project had survived bureaucratic entanglements). There’s a marvelous-sounding book called Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, that includes centuries worth of travel writing by Chinese authors, and can apparently be downloaded online for free.

Kevin has been to China, specifically to Grand Epoch City, which is the subject of one of his most entertaining dispatches in The Third Tower Up From the Road. The titular tower is part of the Great Wall, and what it’s up the road from is Huanghuacheng, in a section of the Wall that was only recently opened for public consumption, and it’s not the part that tourists usually visit. This tale is also dragon-related — not the long slinky fiery type of dragon, but the lady Kevin and his friend had to pay, so they could climb her ladder.

Do you have an example of the mystery and illogic of China? Send it in!

photo courtesy of gwydionwilliams , used under this Creative Commons license

The Other Most Beautiful Place On The Planet

kashmir

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

A lot of people have called Kashmir the most beautiful place in the world, and nowadays it has other names, too. Here’s a sobering tale. Film director/producer Rahul Dholakia arrives in the capital, Srinagar, with a sizeable production team and a lot of equipment, expecting to spend a month and a half on location shooting his newest work, Lamhaa. Three different varieties of government agencies tell him the country is in turmoil, and martial law could snap its jaws at any moment, with the population at the mercy of a strict curfew and a fire-at-will policy. For crowd control, he’s given some government protection, and hires some security, too.

So, he’s got 60 actors and crew at the vegetable market outside the city, and at first, some of the locals are hospitable. The film company goes to work. Word spreads, and about a thousand local men come out to watch. (In these parts, women don’t gawk at public spectacles, especially if foreigners are involved.) The crowd multiplies tenfold, and the director is taken hostage and brought before the local council, which tells the police, who are supposedly protecting the visitors, to get lost. Here’s part of Dholakia’s later account:

We had survived this almost six-hour ordeal, brushing death and mentally screwed. If this was day one, I dread to imagine how the rest of the shoot was going to be. A line in my film best summarizes our first day – “Welcome to Kashmir, the most dangerous place in the world”.

And that’s all we’re gonna say, except that it has something to do with local political squabbles, and also with international problems such as hating India, where Rahul Dholakia was born. He gained extensive production experience in his home country, then moved to the U.S. to earn a Masters degree from the New York Institute of Technology, and now lives in California, India, and wherever he happens to be making a movie. In India’s 2006 National Film Awards, his Parzania won in two categories.

This “most beautiful place” thing is, of course, strictly a matter of taste. But that doesn’t stop anybody from nominating their favorites. There are people who swear Patagonia is the most beautiful, and they make a good case. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux both liked it so much they wrote books about it separately and together. Francis Ford Coppola recent filmed part of Tetro there. It’s a region, not a country, being part of two countries, Argentina and Chile. It’s the home of the Andean condor, the biggest bird there is, and has two very noteworthy mountains, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and a glacier called Upsala.

In the Argentine portion of Patagonia, we learn from Physorg.com, there’s an area called Bajada del Diablo or Devil’s Slope, which at some time in the past was pockmarked by a rain of meteorites that left at least 100 craters. Some of those little hummers are 50 meters deep and 500 meters across. Bajada del Diablo is in fact the second biggest crater field in the world. The biggest is in Siberia, and it kind of makes you wonder why meteor showers would go out of their way to fall on two such bare, unpopulated places.

Ever notice how many of the very most interesting travel writers are the folks who are primarily in a place for some other reason? Example: Paul Theroux started writing about Africa because he was there with the Peace Corps. Kevin Dolgin travels for business, and writes because he has something to say. One kind of travel narrative is what comes out when you’re somewhere for another reason, and writing en passant, as it were. Another kind results from going somewhere just for the purpose of writing about it. Possibly, writers of science fiction (or speculative fiction, which many of its practitioners prefer to say) should be considered travel writers. If the ability to convey a sense of place is the criterion, maybe it shouldn’t matter if the place is imaginary. What do you think?

photo courtesy of madpai, used under this Creative Commons license

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: Ibn Battuta

al_aqsa mosqueBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

So who exactly was Ibn Battuta, other than a guy who had a mall in Dubai named after him? We’re getting answers from a very extensive website called “The Travels of Ibn Battuta – A Virtual Tour with the 14th Century Traveler” that seems to be designed for grade school students. Frustratingly, many of the graphics don’t show up. But most of them do, and the text is thorough and clear. Nick Bartel is the author, and he says:

Ibn Battuta started on his travels when he was 20 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj, or a Pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims want to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 75,000 miles visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries…

At Damascus, things really got serious — 820 miles to go to Medina, where the Prophet is entombed. Ibn Battuta saw Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Anatolia, Delhi, even the ruined Alexandria lighthouse before its stones were recycled. He went just about every place that people knew there was to go in those times. This site lists of the types of foods a traveler in the old days would find in the various places, which is rather delightful.

Of course the fame of Ibn Battuta grew explosively with the release earlier this year of the 45-minute IMAX-format movie Journey to Mecca, which has by now been seen in every corner of the world. At Islam Online, the lecturer and aspiring filmmaker Azad Essa thoughtfully reviews that film and says the man’s knowledge and experience made him welcome in every country he passed through. “He functioned as a judge and ambassador for various rulers as his vast perspective as a traveler and his command of Islamic law held him in good stead everywhere…” In The Jakarta Post, Martina Zainal looks at the movie from the spiritual perspective:

For Muslims who have performed the hajj it is a nostalgic reminder of their own heartfelt quest for righteousness; for Muslims yet to go, a very up-close-and-personal look at what they can look forward to when they do make their own journey to Mecca.

Meam Wye also has plenty of good information and food for thought at a site called Shining History – Medieval Islamic Civilization, whose purpose is to focus on the contributions of Muslim innovators to the fields of science, technology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and more. A very erudite look at the deeper meaning of Ibn Battuta’s influence is found at Pragati, written by Jayakrishnan Nair, who covers history, archaeology and current affairs. A fellow who calls himself Young B Emcee says “Ibn Battuta was probably the driving force in my exploration appetite. His writings intrigued me so much that I tried to recreate his steps…”

Naturally, not everything we hear is wonderful. Maryam Omidi, who writes from the Maldives, quotes Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed: “Referring to the Moroccan scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, who worked as a judge in the Maldives in the 14th century, Shaheed said a number of Maldivians fainted when Battuta ordered a thief’s hand to be amputated.” Timothy Burke says, “Read Ibn Battuta’s accounts of his journeys and you’ll see him offering distortions and exoticizations galore, generally based on surface impressions and gut reactions.” Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. At Rethinking Islam, he says “Ibn Battuta was, of course a bad traveller and a fussy tourist…” and also adds some even more unkind remarks.

Back on the bright side, publisher Marcus Wiener offers the traveler’s own book, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Noel Q. King and edited by Said Hamdun. Taylor Luck took a fine picture of an ancient fort in Jordan that Ibn Battuta visited. And Shari toured the Ibn Battuta Mall and posted some great photos of it. She describes the mall’s five sections: China, India, Persia, Egypt and Andalusia, and says, “This roughly covers the area that Ibn Battuta covered in his world travels, the entire known area of Islam in his time.” The picture on this page is not a mall, but Jerusalem’s ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque.

photo courtesy of hoyasmeg , used under this Creative Commons license

Singapore – Foreign, Yet Familiar

singaporeBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

From the Malaysian news service Sinchew comes a vital article by prolific journalist Martin Abbugao explaining what Singapore natives and visitors will be drinking. This island republic is rich in many things, but water is not one of them. Water reclamation is an emerging industry with huge potential for profit, and science has tackled the problem in a big way. The key, according to Khoo Teng Chye, chief of Singapore’s water agency, is membrane technology, a large-scale and relatively inexpensive way to purify water using semi-permeable filters and no chemicals. Abbugao says:

The government has turned two-thirds of the island into a massive catchment for the abundant rain that falls all year round to supplement the water piped in from Malaysia.

A 7,000-kilometre (4,340-mile) drainage network directs rainwater into 15 reservoirs, a number that will increase to 17 next year.

Stormwater harvesting on such an ambitious scale is far from usual in the urban centers of the world. The plan includes canals made to look like natural streams, which is not a bad idea.

That’s all well and good, but what about the famous Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented? It will surprise no one to learn that Kevin Dolgin has written elegantly of Raffles in The Third Tower Up from the Road. Nevertheless, Singapore is, alas, not exotic. Far too many people speak English for any exotic ambiance to survive, apparently. Except in Chinatown, which still has old-timey pastel-colored buildings with retro window shutters.

Singapore recently made the news when pictures of a couple having sex in a park were circulated through cyberspace. And because of its annual Airshow and trade show, which sent its managing director Jimmy Lau to the Paris Air Show to learn more about how to manage all the delegations and meetings smoothly. This was reported by Satish Cheney, who says next February’s Singapore Airshow is already 95% booked.

While waiting for the Airshow to happen, what might a person do in Singapore? Well, a person might visit the new Coins and Notes Museum. Or one might go to the ten-day Singapore Food Festival which features “Peranakan” cuisine, and that’s a Malay term that means “locally born.” The city also offers an annual 12-day Cultural Heritage Festival, attended by a million and a half people. And there’s an annual horse race, the Emirates Singapore Derby, which appears to be a very posh occasion indeed.

As the HQ of literally thousands of multinational companies, Singapore is a tempting target. But it’s also a place to feel safe, because the administration is quite serious about anti-terrorist drills. Although it’s an expensive area to live in, it’s also a place not to worry about that, because Singapore has recently legalized the sale, by their owners, of human organs. So relax! If you run out of money and have to sell your kidney, just tell them it was owned by a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays.

photo courtesy of Singapor3, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: Paul Theroux

near Herat
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s an annual event called the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, that happens over in Denton, Texas. The 2009 edition, which runs July 24-26, features travel writer Paul Theroux. This we learn from Alyssa Aber, spokesperson for the University of North Texas. But we learn even more from George Getschow, who is writer-in-residence and describer of the event. About Theroux, Getschow says, “Readers depend on his uncompromising, sometimes brazen reportage, his witty, acerbic asides and the tremendous breadth of literature he brings to his work.”

He goes on to explain the scope and consequence of Theroux’s work, of which travel writing is only a part, and the aspect of a many-faceted career that interests us. Oh, it’s cool that Theroux is an authority on V. S. Naipaul and Graham Greene. But we like the wheelbarrow full of travel books. This guy has been on a trip in Malawi where he had to go through 14 roadblocks to get from Point A to Point B. He informs us, “The daily annoyance of living in a dictatorship…is like suffering an unhappy family in a locked house.” Theroux is a very smart man who says that watching television results in severe brain trauma.

From Malaysia in 1973, Theroux wrote about a native tree that smells ghastly, but is adored by bats. And about the riots that caused the US military to quit sending its soldiers to Penang for R&R leave, and how this decision caused economic ruin for several hotels, hundreds of trishaw drivers, and most of the hookers.

About another particular place, Theroux says, “Herat is a town of clumsy craftsmen, who have forgotten the fine points of their trade,” and speaks of “women in spooky pleated shrouds.” In 1974, the year after the king was deposed, he arrived in Afghanistan and made the immediate decision to book on out of there ASAP. Due to lack of transportation, he ended up staying a few days, and found the Afghans he met “lazy, idle and violent.” When a seasoned world traveler is so sharply negative about an indigenous population, you have to wonder. On the other hand, the only two local sites he visited were a “hotel” without electricity, water, or food, and an insane asylum.

But if Afghanistan ever pulls itself together, what a great opportunity for literary tourism the country will own. Without even straining, we can think of three books to read before joining up with the traveling book club tour. One is Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. Two are nonfiction accounts of lives so unfathomably different from Americana that they might as well be fiction: West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary, and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad.

Anyway, back to Paul Theroux. There’s more to this travel writing game than describing one particular place or another. There’s the drawing of conclusions about things that are true everywhere. For instance, here’s a typical Theroux saying: “Any country which displays more than one statue of a living politician is a country which is headed for trouble.

(Speaking of statues, no reader of this page will be surprised to learn that Kevin’s book contains a piece called, “In Search of Frank Zappa: Vilnius, Lithuania.” In fact, he seems to pay pretty close attention to statues, so if sculpture is your bag, some nice discoveries are in store.)

Paul Theroux traveled for many years without a camera, though it doesn’t seem to have been a lifelong rule. The point is, there’s a whole philosophy around being camera-free, having to do with how you don’t really see a thing when there’s a device between you and it. In the spectrum of meditations on the relationship between photographer and subject, the dark end inspires such works as Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool, and in fact an entire genre of philosophical fiction and nonfiction devoted to exploring the boundaries of that voyeuristic relationship.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are folks like Kevin Dolgin, who admit to holding the camera backwards. Even this is amenable to a philosophical explanation. Kevin says, “Instead of taking pictures, I have always simply counted on the formation of memories, sitting back from time to time just to reminisce about a place in all its lush (or squalid) detail.”

One of Paul Theroux’s sayings is, “Travel is a creative act.” Another is, “Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain.” He also says, “My way of traveling is completely personal.” Exactly. That’s what all these top-drawer travel writers have in common. Nobody else could have done it, seen it, or said, it like they do.

Near Herat photo courtesy of Jayanth Vincent , used under this Creative Commons license