Travel writhing

Robert D Kaplan writes in the CJR:

Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing. Travel writing is more important than ever as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports. In and of itself, travel writing is a low-rent occupation, best suited for the Sunday supplements. But it is also a deft vehicle for filling the void in serious journalism: for example, by rescuing such subjects as art, history, geography, and statecraft from the jargon and obscurantism of academia, for the best travel books have always been about something else….
…If anyone deserves a public service award for peeling back the curtain on distant societies, it is less the publishers of major newspapers and magazines than those of the Lonely Planet Guides and The Rough Guides. These two series combine historical and cultural depth with intrepid, solitary research by young travelers who get to every remote location in a given country; and in the course of informing the reader about where to stay and where to eat, say much about public health, crime, the economy, and politics in a society.

The Australian takes a look at the history of guidebooks:

Guidebooks have undoubtedly been around for millennia – what were the Ten Commandments if not a travellers’ guide to Mount Sinai? – with the oldest surviving guidebook written by a peripatetic doctor named Pausanias in about AD 160. Believed born in present-day Turkey, Pausanias travelled extensively around the Mediterranean, through Jerusalem, Jaffa, Cairo, Macedonia and Italy but it was a decade spent in Greece that resulted in Descriptions of Greece.
Written for wealthy and erudite Romans as both travelogue and guidebook, Descriptions of Greece was no 20-countries-in-200-pages handbook. Stretching across 10 volumes, it was as detailed as an instruction manual. It trawled through every moment in Greek history bar toilet stops and contained virtual brick-by-brick descriptions of Peloponnese towns, indulging especially in the sights of Delphi and Olympia.

And Pankaj Mishra returns to his days as a fellow traveller of the Soviet Union at the tender age of 11:

In 1980, shortly before my 11th birthday, I wrote my first essay in English. The subject was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – or the Soviet “intervention”, as I termed it, in a “fraternal communist country threatened by imperialism”. I had followed events in Afghanistan anxiously if somewhat fitfully; we had no television, and the newspapers, arriving in Jhansi, our small Indian town, from Delhi a day late, reported American threats to boycott the Moscow Olympics but said little about what was going on inside Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I boldly predicted that the Soviets would modernise a backward and feudal country, revolutionise its relations of production, and set it on the path of prosperity and peace, inflicting, in the process, another crushing defeat on the forces of reaction and imperialism.
In December 2004, I travelled on the road from Uzbekistan across the Oxus River on which the first Soviet convoys had rolled into Afghanistan 25 years before. Fearful of ambushes, the Soviets had mined the surrounding desert right up to the verges; and venturing out of the car for a pee I walked into a minefield – one of the many across Afghanistan that had killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people – and then had to learn, for some long minutes, how hard it is literally to retrace one’s steps.
What goes around comes around, even if the intense fear of losing one’s life, or a limb or two, seems a very severe karmic punishment for some youthful cliché-mongering. Later that evening, drinking alone and hard in my gloomy hotel room in Mazar-i-Sharif, for the first time in many years I remembered my essay, and I couldn’t help but wonder: what the hell had I been thinking? Perhaps I was no more deluded than people in Europe and America who thought that the Soviets wanted to conquer the world and who had made elaborate plans to fight, and survive, a nuclear war. At least I’d had the excuse of being 10 years old. But it was still odd to remember how during my childhood and adolescence I was an admirer and supporter – unpaid and thus very sincere – of the Soviet Union.





3 responses to “Travel writhing”

  1. qaminante Avatar

    What a great post. I love travel writing, whether of the reflective sort, like Colin Thubron, or the purely practical, like LP and the Rough Guides, for the way in which these bring together the whole world of place, people, landscape, history, art, language and the links between countries and peoples at different times. I have also enjoyed Pankaj Mishra’s writing and wasn’t familiar with this piece.

  2. Peggy Payne Avatar

    I agree about guidebooks and about Pankaj Mishra (he and I have both published novels set in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.)I saw the power of the India Lonely Planet guide one day in Delhi, while I was standing at an ancient observatory in Delhi checking what Lonely Planet had to say about it. When I looked up, I saw another solo traveler a few feet away, staring into the same fat guidebook, and a few yards beyond her was a guy with his nose in his copy. We were all lined up like a choir with identical books.

  3. Hurree Avatar

    That was Sister India, right, Peggy? Any more India books coming our way from you? Love that description of all of you “lined up like a choir”, and I suspect the next wave is almost here: the travel Podcasts. Saw two people in Calcutta at the Victoria Memorial with the tell-tale iPod earphones; one of them was listening to a Podcast about Cal, the other, alas, was merely listening to Jethro Tull.

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