Tag Archives: humor

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

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Travel Writing Highlight: George Borrow

wandsworthBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Here’s a pithy note on a guy who’s maybe not as well known as he should be: George Borrow, born in 1803. (The Gutenberg Project offers a picture of his birth home.) These words are from Thomas Swick, whose blog observed Borrow’s birthday not long ago:

Wild Wales is the account of a trip he took in the summer of 1854 with his wife and stepdaughter. He of course had learned Welsh, and read the national poets in the original, and rambling around the place…he talked to everybody, an antecedent of Paul Theroux who once used the verb “buttonhole” to describe the travel writer’s modus operandi.

Thomas Swick, by the way, is former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World. He’s lived in Washington, D.C., France, Alsace, London, Poland, and Greece, and he’s a very funny guy. We know this because of his list of “Seventy Ways Travel Magazines Address the Economic Crisis” at WorldHum. In a depleted publishing arena, Swick imagines such articles as “The 12 Best City Parks to Sleep In” and “Forget Exotic Places – Visit Exotic Dancers” and “Two Places to See Before You Die.”

But we were talking about George Borrow who, as a young Englishman, began his travel career by walking around in France and Germany. Later, via other means of transportation, he went to Portugal, Russia, Morocco and Spain. He was an incomparable linguist, speaking many tongues and translating, for instance, the works of Alexander Pushkin from the Russian.

As a Protestant, a proselytizer, and a demonizer of the Pope, Borrow was thought by some to be a fanatic. It’s true he did most of his wider traveling under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But he also knew how to have a good time. He liked his Burgundy wine, saying, “It puts fire into your veins,” and he was known to be a practical joker, though the example we unearthed is too complicated to go into here. Borrow was a gentleman and a scholar, but not as well socialized as some. He tended to be blunt and tactless in the name of resisting baloney, but he never cussed. There may not have been a Polar Bear Club back then, but when Borrow was 70, he’d still plunge into an iced-over pond.

In Borrow’s day, his powers of description were recognized as second to none. He not only loved Wales and the Welsh, which was a lowbrow taste, like admitting that you loved hillbillies, but specialized in the despised nomads of Europe and the British Isles, the Gypsies. Indeed a contemporary detractor said Gypsies were “nine-tenths of his stock in trade.”

It was all very well for a British subject to learn Greek or translate Russian, but this oddball took things too far, for heaven’s sake. Oh yes, he was looked down on for hanging out with the riff-raff. Four of his published books are about Gypsies, starting with The Zincali: The Gypsies of Spain. Then a pair of volumes called Lavengro and Romany Rye were published in the mid-1800s, about Borrow’s travels with the Gypsies. Even today, scholars are unable to agree on their fact/fiction ratio. But there’s no doubt he knew the language; Romano Lavo-Lil is a dictionary of Romany terms. The photo on this page was taken in Wandsworth, near London, one of the places where Borrow visited the Gypsies long ago.

As a tourist on foreign soil, Borrow was most impressed by St. Petersburg, writing:

Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.

A page at Peter Greenberg’s comprehensive travel website gives you a pretty good idea of why visitors are so impressed with the city. It was put together by Karen Elowitt, who collected tips from savvy locals who recommended the best places to visit. Greenberg is a multi-media personality who has served as travel correspondent for Good Morning America and travel editor for Today.

And what of The Third Tower Up From the Road? You’ll find St. Petersburg in Kevin’s book, for sure. He checked out the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya Place and the Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoyed the city very much. But we’re waiting for his report on traveling with the Gypsies.

photo courtesy of Ewan-M, used under this Creative Commons license