Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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 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

Travel Writing Highlight: Paul Theroux

near Herat
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