Category Archives: TRAVEL WRITING

The World Laughs With Travel Writers

laughing monksBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In the Davidsonian, Katie Lovett gives an account of a recent lecture delivered by travel writer Doug Lansky. (This Lansky character, by the way, turned down the offer of a steady gig from The New Yorker, so you gotta know he has a sense of humor.) Lovett says of Lansky:

His big break as a travel writer came with the syndication of his humor-adventure column “Vagabond”… “Vagabond” chronicled the seemingly fearless Lansky’s global exploits which included braving hotels in third world countries, mastering white water kayaking in Chile and pony trekking in South Africa.

He also goes to tamer places, like the world’s biggest indoor beach, which happens to be located in Japan, within walking distance of a real beach. He also rode an Australian ostrich and tried a little sumo wrestling, if such an expression can be used of a sport so imbued with largeness.

As we’ve seen over and over again in literature, travel and humor seem to go together like popcorn and butter. Mark Twain was hip to their compatibility, as are several contemporary writers including F. Daniel Harbecke, who offers a fascinating look at the similarities between travel and improvisational theater at Brave New Traveler.

Many seasoned travelers warn against canned humor. Most jokes just don’t translate. What does translate is a nifty attitude of openness, and willingness to be the butt of other people’s jokes. So, did you see “Zang-e-Khatar” the other night? This is almost impossible to believe, but Afghanistan is now the source of TV shows that satirize the country’s own government and government wanna-bes. Of course, some of the TV stations are owned by medieval warlords – but if you’re the Kabul version of Larry the Cable Guy, you’ve got to work with what’s available, and Afghan humorists seem to be doing just that. This report from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Issam Ahmed is a real ray of sunshine. And while we’re recommending links, here’s a funny story.

But the best stories (no, we’re not the least bit biased) come from Kevin Dolgin in The Third Tower Up From the Road. Well, the darn book had better be good for something, being as how the author promises that it contains “pretty much no practical advice.” In fact, Kevin can be downright unhelpful, as the following paragraph will illustrate:

Midnight swims are nice anywhere, but nowhere more so than in Corsica. There are no big beaches on the island, only a succession of little coves, more or less difficult to access, most of which you really have to know about in order to reach. I know of several, and, of course, there’s no way I’m going to tell you how to get to them.

Thanks a lot, Dude! But we forgive him, because he does provide plenty of tips you’ll get nowhere else, like a bar bet you might be unfamiliar with — you’ve got to finance that trip somehow, right? And the directions to an interesting locale that “could serve as a kind of polar opposite to a Zen rock garden-a place to come and screw up your head.” Irresistible, no? Within these pages are sightings of unorthodox taxidermy, the secret recipe for giant bubble liquid, and much, much more.

But it’s not all fun and games, oh no. Do you appreciate integrity? Kevin’s got it. For instance, only if he has personally test-ridden a merry-go-round will he report back to us that it’s a great merry-go-round. You can’t ask for fairer than that! On the other hand, he does tend to be the teensiest bit of a complainer once in a while:

French mountain dwellers have an inconvenient habit of roofing their buildings with corrugated metal, for the unconvincing reason that the snow slides off it nicely. How dare they ruin my aesthetic experience for the sake of mundane practicality!

But then, we’re talking about a guy who gets his kicks from accosting total strangers in foreign climes and saying silly things about hedgehogs. So, consider the source.

photo courtesy of Swami Stream , used under this Creative Commons license

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

Everybody’s a Travel Writer: Quotations about Travel

quotesBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

One of the best parts of travel is all the wild or wise things you are then entitled to say about it later. We found some places where great quotations about journeys of various kinds have been brought together for our contemplation. One is called “80 Greatest Travel Quotes of All Time,” put together by Kevin Visser, a travel professional who books cruises and has personally been to nearly 40 countries. World Backpackers offers a nice bunch of quotes, and the rest of the site is pretty interesting too. Especially the “Stories from the Road” section, which is attractively various. Another great collection has been compiled by Susan Breslow Sardone, who used to be the marketing director at New York Magazine and is now the go-to gal when it comes to planning romantic honeymoon trips. A blogger known as Gramma Ann has gathered a small but quirky bunch of quotations. And here are some of our favorites from a number of sources:

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
Susan Sontag

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
Dagobert D. Runes

“I love old globes. They’re really wrong.”
Kevin Dolgin

“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven and hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”
Mark Twain

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”
Lawrence Block

“I quickly found that writing about traveling is much better than traveling on its own.”
Kevin Dolgin

“All very large cities are jungles, which is to say that they are dense and dark and full of surprises and strange growths; they are hard to read, hard to penetrate; strange people live in them; and they contain mazy areas of great danger.”
Paul Theroux

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
G. K. Chesterton

“I deplore the presence of borders and cross them whenever possible, sometimes just to spite them.”
Kevin Dolgin

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
John Steinbeck

“When you travel for business you almost inevitably end up having some kind of local contact, often (although not always) these people are themselves interesting and are pleased when you show interest in their home and their background. As such, you can often become immersed in local history and culture more easily than if you are traveling as a tourist.”
Kevin Dolgin

“Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.”
René Descartes

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
Martin Buber

“I must admit that bookstore density is one of the criteria by which I judge a city.”
Kevin Dolgin

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
Mark Twain

“It’s a drug, travel. It’s the drug of discovery, and it perches on your back banging on your head if you don’t feed it from time to time. Hold out to me the opportunity of discovering someplace new and it’s very difficult not to go.”
Kevin Dolgin

“I really have enjoyed my stay, but I must be movin’ on.”
Supertramp

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Lao Tzu

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Clifton Fadiman

“Traveling can open windows to a wide world, because once you start swimming around in it, you realize that the world is both far more vast and far smaller than you thought.”
Kevin Dolgin

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

The astute reader will have noticed a certain preponderance of quotations from one particular travel writer here, namely the author of The Third Tower Up From the Road. This is no coincidence.

Send us your favorite travel quotations!

photo courtesy of joiseyshowaa , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing as Symptom

scarred buildingBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s a very special kind of travel writing that involves risking your life, if you’re any good. To do it, you have to go put yourself in the middle of somebody else’s bloody conflict. Nobody, for instance, wrote about Greece like Orianna Fallaci.

One of the grittiest war correspondents is Anthony Loyd, who lately has been reporting from Sangin, Afghanistan, on the sad mess that’s still going on over there. In The Times (UK), he describes the low voter turnout in the recent election as a win for the wrong side. It’s actually pretty harrowing. As a matter of bureaucratic convenience, the fingers of voters are marked with ink, so the citizens can’t sneak back and vote again. Apparently, the Taleban promised to chop off any ink-stained fingers, and they probably wouldn’t stop there. Loyd says:

By the time polls closed and the final echoes of air strikes, artillery and gunfire died away, barely 500 Afghans had managed to vote in a district of 70,000 people, a number signifying victory for the Taleban’s power of fear and intimidation.

Loyd also tells us what the British soldiers write about their prime minister on the latrine walls, and many other details essential to creating a sense of place. Which he surely managed to do when describing Bosnia and other wars he ranges over the globe to experience. Loyd started as a photographer, but found that pictures couldn’t express what he wanted to say. He has written for all kinds of major publications, and his articles draw out serious, informed discussion. Unlike some war correspondents whose contributions range from ineffectual to ridiculous, Loyd is respected by the blokes who are actually fighting the war. And hated by the politicians, as Tory Rascal illustrates with an anecdote.

The thing about Loyd is that he wrote this hellaciously intense book called My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about his heroin habit, and how being in a war zone is the only thing that cures it. The scary part is that by the time you get done reading it, you see exactly what he means by “I feel sane as anything in war… It is peace I have got the problem with.”

Of course, Loyd isn’t the only writer whose dedication is tinged with what might be seen, in some circles, as pathology. There’s always Sebastian Junger. There’s a great publisher called Travelers’ Tales, and one of their books is Testosterone Planet, an anthology of essays by people who go to great lengths and travel great distances to do extreme feats. Junger also put in his Sarajevo time, which is described in “The Lure of Danger.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that here is a person who simply thrives on crisis. He is unnaturally good at it — good at finding it, surviving it, swallowing it whole. He interviews others who feel the same way, like a guy named Brown who says, “I’ve always reacted well under intense insane circumstances.” He quotes a friend who places the thrill of battle on a chemical basis, a drug in fact, that gets you “completely amped.” Junger says the high comes from dopamine, a chemical the brain is swimming in after a terrifying encounter with mortality.

Junger issues a disclaimer, warning potential imitators that “the most dangerous circumstances don’t always produce the greatest epiphanies.” This is something you don’t usually find adventure-crazed men admitting. But he too missed his war, saying:

All I wanted was to go back to that strange city where everything I did seemed big and important and was, potentially, the last act of my life.

Scarred building photo courtesy of MuntyPix , 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

Ireland: Communication, Imram and Beer

slea head irelandBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Today we take as our text one of the recent contributions of Kevin Dolgin to the annals of travel writing. This narrative is found at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and its title, “The Best Pint of Guinness in Dublin,” is self-explanatory. It’s all about visiting with members of one of the most loquacious of all ethnic groups, the Irish, in their native haunts. This was done on the advice of a cab driver, whose considered opinion was that the most Irish characteristic is communication — particularly the kind carried on over a measure of excellent brew. Actually, the more measures, the better. But first, Dublin must be navigated — and here’s how Kevin describes the venerable city:

It’s made of bricks: the buildings, the sidewalks, everything is made of brick. I find brick cities to be cold, industrial. You expect to see Charlie Chaplin skittering around the corner with a bevy of incompetent cops running after him.

Confiding in the barman that they are in search of the best pint of Guinness in Dublin, Kevin and his friend are promised they’ve come to the right place, because of an elusive factor called the “sharp draw.” Indeed, it is an article of faith among the Irish that their Guinness will have a different taste, depending on the architecture, fittings, and ambiance of each particular pub. Various other bars are recommended, and as the two seekers journey on, helpful bystanders recommend yet more not-to-be-missed watering holes, including one housed in a former morgue. As the Irish communication skills blossom, the writerly note-taking diminishes, and the details of the last few stops are a bit blurry, except for a sudden return of awareness re: an interesting vending machine in the gents’.

Now, we must not get the idea that Ireland is all kegs and drafts. Remember the communication aspect? For that, you’ve also got your literary festivals, a roaring great crowd of them. Poetry Ireland, for example, offers a complete roundup of all Irish poetry festivals throughout the year. July saw the 11th West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, only one of many such cultural gatherings. The granddaddy of them all, at 18 years, is the Aspects Irish Literature Festival that occurs in Northern Ireland, not far from Belfast, whose mission is “firstly to promote exclusively Irish writing in all its forms.” Declan Burke outlines the past and future prospects of the crime novel as an element of the Irish lit fest in “Plots of crime masterminds” at the Irish Independent. As the host of “Crime Always Pays”, a blog dedicated to Irish crime writing, Burke has the whole scene covered.

Upcoming is the 6th Dromineer Literary Festival, to be held from October 1st to 4th in County Tipperary. It’s probably a bit late to arrange for attendance at “Let Me Take You To The Island,” namely Rathlin Island, a lovely spot in the Irish Sea near Ballycastle, or to make it to Dublin’s IMRAM Irish Language Literature festival, which is in progress even as we speak — but keep them in mind for next year. This IMRAM bash is beyond eclectic, with such offerings as “the Russian poets of the Silver Age translated into Irish and English,” and the Dylan Project (Dylan Thomas, not Bob Dylan). The imram, by the way, is a rowing voyage, sort of a pilgrimage or walkabout, only by sea. In the tradition of the Celts, it’s also an inner voyage to the realms of vision and dreams. In fact, imram designates a whole genre of Irish literature.

That festival is not to be confused with the Immrama Literary Festival, which in June drew 4,000 travelers to Lismore, County Waterford. “Rory Maclean literally blazed the Hippie Trial taking his audience from Istanbul to Kathmandu and on to Burma and Russia, his presentation ‘Creating a Traveller’s Tale’,” reads part of the gathering’s description, and in fact the focus of this particular festival is on travel writing.

But for those who avoid both communication and festival multitudes, here’s a bit of Ireland whose praises are sung by John G. O’Dwyer: An Daingean, or Dingle, a windswept part of the western coast with no golf courses or luxury hotels. (The photo on this page is Slea Head.) According to O’Dwyer, “It is often said that the Irish countryside is a giant storybook seeking readers.” He says it, and a lot more besides, in The Irish Times.

photo courtesy of Frankensteinnn, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writers Unleashed: The Smithsonian Six

moroccoBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Jan Morris, author of 40 books about travel and history, reflects on the current relevance of travel writing in Smithsonian Magazine by way of introducing the project it instituted. The September issue is devoted to the dream destinations of six name-brand travel writers. Morris tells why these folks are top-notch. Among other things, she says:

They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments-recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy… It is not invention that you will find in these pages, but something subtler: the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic. It is more real than fiction, but more genuine than mere fact, too.

Paul Theroux has said the greatest reward of travel is not so much in seeing exotic things, but in experiencing everyday things for the first time. Travel writers are addicted to the unfamiliar and the new — but only in their own self-defined ways. Theroux, for instance, says it is against his temperament to go sightseeing. His choice for the Smithsonian assignment was to drive across the United States, a journey he had never made before, and which he approached in I-Am-a-Camera mode. In “Taking the Great American Roadtrip” Theroux says, “My idea was not to linger anywhere, but to keep on the move, as though to create in my mind one long panning shot…” The cross-country drive led to his being chosen to write the foreword for Joseph Sohm’s Visions of America, a book of classic photographs, as reported by Alyce of At Home With Books.

Frances Mayes is a very well known writer about the Italian region called Tuscany. For this challenge, she chose Poland. Her husband and a lot of other people in his hometown were of Polish descent, and they had employed some very nice Polish builders in Italy. Geoff Ward, we are told, grew up in India, and went back many times as an adult, but had never visited the Punjab region. Susan Orlean chose Morocco, and Caroline Alexander made a return trip to Jamaica to see the fabulous botanical gardens of a village called Bath. Francine Prose decided to report on the western coast of Japan.

Now, here’s the question you just had to know was coming: What would be your dream destination, and why?

photo courtesy of Gret@Lorenz, used under this Creative Commons license