The writer goes overseas but brings back news about a tedious inner crisis, leaving undisturbed any insights about the places visited. Eat, Pray, Love — to take only the easiest target as an example — is a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.
Travel Writing Is Dead
The simplest reason for this catastrophic turn is that it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well. The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross. The bad news for readers is that those inconveniences are the very stuff that concentrates the mind and transmutes narcissism into something approaching insight.
With travel so easy, the ability to prophesy in a valuable way on the strength of a quick impression looks more and more to be a dying art, like guessing weights at a carnival. When V. Naipaul, a deft practitioner of this art on several continents, visited Iran soon after its revolution, the society was even more closed than it is today, and stolen moments among the mullahs were rare and precious. The effect of his writing is astonishing, even if you object to his scorn for Islam.
Unlike contemporary writers, who cast away pearls of time and experience in order to spend more time with themselves, Naipaul treats them with the value they deserve. These small elements fit neatly together, with not a whiff of triviality, and the net effect is like looking through a high-powered microscope and enjoying an exquisite but fleeting view.
Nowadays, reports of Qom and other previously arcane hideaways are more numerous, and yet our views far less exquisite.
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Naipaul had set out to travel among " converted peoples "; we could argue about the sense in which Iranians are "converted" in any meaningful way, but what matters is that the goal — a deep engagement with Islam — was profound enough to sustain pages of meditation, humor, and observation. And when Theroux traveled during the s and 80s, he focused intensely on how the human and physical geography of the Earth changed underfoot. The focus was the place, and the insight came from the focus. Contrast this with Road Fever , the high-speed travelogue of Tim Cahill, about his crossing of the globe longitudinally, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, in a month.
What Cahill describes is certainly an adventure, and amusing in the extreme. Cahill published his book in , an inflection point in the political history of Latin America, when the Sandinista era was ending in Nicaragua, political violence was waning in Guatemala, and Colombia was reaching one of several gory moments in its perennial drug wars. From his book we learn little about any of these, and it is difficult to imagine that sort of indifference — in favor of careful attention to corporate sponsors and spare automotive parts — in any serious writer of an earlier era.
Edward Said criticized Naipaul along Emersonian lines, writing that "What he sees he sees because it happens before him and, more important, because it confirms what, except for an occasional eye-catching detail, he already knows. He points to the elite, educated Malawian youngsters who have fled to jobs in London, Las Vegas, and Omaha, and the medical school graduates in Zimbabwe who want nothing more than to work somewhere where they are paid in a currency that is not so devalued that it is also used as gauze.
ONE of my recurring nightmares is dropping my bum bag into a public lavatory in rural China - probably the worst fate that could befall any tourist, short of serious injury. On waking, I always ask myself the same question: would I fish it out or not? Of course, it depends on the contents. Passports can be replaced, plane tickets too, as long as you've written down the numbers. A camera I would happily leave down there.
But my travel diary? For my diary, I would fish. I started the first one when I was 18, Greyhounding across the United States for three months. Reading it now makes my toes curl. It is arch and full of stuck-in tickets to Knotts Berry Farm and the Empire State Building and oblique references to dope tried and people fancied. But it is certainly a document of that year and of that time in my life and - occasionally - of the US in I've kept diaries ever since. Now it seems that there is an expanding fraternity of travellers whose journeys aren't complete until documented.
Frank Watson, retail director of the book-and-map shop Stanfords, has watched in amazement as sales of blank diaries and journals have soared. We're selling roughly 3, a year - that's a big increase over the past couple of years - and with the Moleskines [an Italian-made journal, recently relaunched] we've quadrupled sales. Stanfords is not alone. The guidebook publisher Lonely Planet produced a journal three years ago in response to thousands of requests for "more blank pages" at the back of its guides; it now sells 5, of them a year.
Absolute Press, which publishes a popular soft-cover travel journal, has reprinted it four times; the Bond Street stationer Smythson has added another blank book to its travel range to meet demand and the tour operator Steppes East gives diaries to all its clients. The first Royal Geographical Society travel journal, produced by an independent publisher, recently went on sale in British bookshops. There is clearly a need for travellers to mark their grand tours with words and illustrations - even in an age when it is easier to take photographs or send emails home.
They all thought they were Jack Kerouac. The travel diary has a lengthy pedigree. Medieval Europe was transfixed by Marco Polo's Asian journeys, dictated in prison from his original notebooks. In 18th-century Britain, James Boswell and Celia Fiennes wrote indefatigably about their travels; he journeyed as far as the Hebrides with Dr Johnson, and she, a young and curious member of the gentry, visited great houses and sights with clear-eyed enthusiasm.
Throughout the 19th century, classicists such as Colonel W M Leake - who influenced generations of travellers - recorded their Mediterranean fossickings, while the artist Edward Lear wrote illustrated and hilarious diaries of his painting trips. Among modern explorers, Wilfred Thesiger is just one of many who kept meticulous notes of his travels. The published travel diary, however, is usually cut and polished; far from what the author Jonathan Raban refers to as "the loose and baggy monsters" of his notebooks.
When I asked him if he kept travel diaries he said no, the form was too self-conscious, and that he saw his notebooks as being more personal, with no attempt at narrative structure. The discussion progressed to Robert Byron's influential travel book The Road to Oxiana, written in the form of diary, but actually worked on assiduously over a couple of years. Confidence is what gives it away.
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Byron's prose has none of the qualities of reverie or self-doubt common in the authentic travel diary. It does not muse; it states. Ideologically, he's well behaved. At worst, he's agnostic on the question of the American-led invasion, though a late passage in the book offers a blistering, if mostly forgiving, critique of the foreign workers and diplomats, some of them Stewart's friends, who work " or hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives" on "democratization" and "sustainable development.
Early in his trip, thanks to a noncommittal blessing from the warlord Ismail Khan "A big journey," Khan adjudges his mission, "which I would like to support" , Stewart picks up three Afghan traveling partners with predictably tangled loyalties. He grows to like these men, despite their fondness for threatening to shoot children, even as they cause him almost as much trouble as their protective presence otherwise curtails.
Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin.
During a hilarious dinner with a village headman, one of his companions confidently announces that Stewart is from Ukraine, speaks Russian, is a doctor and works for the United Nations. By this time, Agha Rory has become his mendicant protectors' bipedal A. Stewart resentfully walks them all into the ground, and they take their exhausted leave of him. View all New York Times newsletters.
Armed only with a wooden staff tipped with a metal nub scavenged from an old Soviet armored personnel carrier, Stewart meets a new friend who will help him complete his journey — a retired fighting dog "the size of a small pony" whose teeth have been knocked out and whose ears and tail have been snipped off. Stewart names him Babur, in honor of the descendant of Tamerlane who retreated from modern-day Uzbekistan across Afghanistan on his way to found India's Mogul dynasty.
Babur's 16th-century autobiography, the "Baburnama," is among the books Stewart packs, and "The Places in Between" details the haunting continuities between Babur's meticulous impressions and what Stewart experiences. The inclusion of a canine companion threatens to transform Stewart's journey into "Travels With Charley While Dodging Kalashnikov Fire," but Stewart is admirably allergic to sentiment. At one point, about to collapse from cold and exhaustion, "half buried in deep powder," he looks up to see Babur barking at him.
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If he was going to continue, so would I. The book is replete with fascinating, if fearfully context-dependent, travel tips. If you are forced to lie about being a Muslim, claim you're from Indonesia, a Muslim nation few non-Indonesian Muslims know much about. Open land undefiled by sheep droppings has most likely been mined. If you're taking your donkey to high altitudes, slice open its nostrils to allow greater oxygen flow.
Don't carry detailed maps, since they tend to suggest affinities. If, finally, you're determined to do something as recklessly stupid as walk across a war zone, your surest bet to quash all the inevitable criticism is to write a flat-out masterpiece. Stewart did.