The Best Travel Writing 2009:
True Stories From Around the World
Edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly
Travellers’ Tales, distributed by Westland
Rs 790, 351 pages
In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the main character has a highly covetable visiting card: “Holly Golightly: Travelling”. Today’s passport officers would call in security if anyone was so unwise to state “Traveller” as their profession, though: it’s not a respectable job in the same way as “journalist” or “writer”.
As Pico Iyer observes in the closing piece in The Best Travel Writing 2009, travelling is something you do as a summer job, a detour between other kinds of work: “Now, doing the same thing twenty-five years later, I see that the jobs we stumble into often teach us more than all the ideal gigs we so patiently stalk. And getting lost or going on a detour is how we find the places we’d otherwise miss.”
Travel writing in 2009 is especially difficult, compared to what it would have been just a century ago. There are no places on the map marked “Here be Dragons”; Google Earth, Wikipaedia and streaming video give all of us the illusion of having charted every last place on earth. Adventure tourists have replaced fearless explorers. And the greatest fear of modern travellers is not the probability of disease or death—it’s the fear that they will turn out to be tourists, not travellers, after all.
The editors have selected their pieces wisely, given the times. Some writers embrace the tourist’s eye-view, but with a skewed perspective. Chris Epting tracks the motel and hotel rooms where music legends died, sleeping in the same room where Janis Joplin spent her last night, wondering whether Gram Parsons still haunts the Joshua Tree Inn. Cecilia Worth attends an unusual music performance inside an empty oil drum in Antarctica, Gabriel O’Malley battles his own sense of distaste as he visits the Stalin Museum in Georgia.
Patricia Dreyfus captures the experience of seeing a tiger in Chitwan National Park; Jill Paris goes boldly in search of the perfect dirndl. Marc-Edouard Leon attends the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Brighton, where the Beard Liberation Front pleads for an end to discrimination against the hairy, and where anxious contestants may use a snood—a whisker hammock—to protect the shape of their locks when they sleep.
The lure of reading 14th or 18th century travel writing often lay in the traveller’s description of the perils of the profession, and this is no different—though the dragons have changed, become more metaphorical. Read Jeff Greenwald, accompanying his mother to India, Susan Van Allen, wryly watching as Italian men become the pursued instead of the pursuers, or Rolf Potts, negotiating Cambodia via the wrong phrasebook. Even the casual traveller must deal with the shock of a new culture, confused signals and flawed assumptions, or the inescapable reality of being the foreigner.
In ‘The Bamenda Syndrome’, one of the most haunting pieces in this book, David Torrey Peters describes his sense of spiraling downwards into an alternate mental space in Cameroon. He witnesses a medicine man pulling worms out of a friend’s teeth, or does he? “Rather than admit to myself that I had arrived unprepared for certain experiences, I narrated my own explanations to myself,” he writes. “But much like a lie built upon a lie, I found myself unable to revise stories to fit events without admitting that I knew nothing, and so my stories … grew more and more fantastic.”
Some pieces are small gems. In ‘I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Quran’, David Grant explores the ins and outs of ‘dating’ in Ghana, where the norms of the Islamic culture forbid actual contact: “If you’re a DJ up in this country, this is how you get around social stricture when you run out of the music with the pious lyrics. You create a hot mix that has no lyrics at all.”
As with all collections, this one has its flaws. The insistence of some of the writers on finding an epiphany in even the most banal travelling experience is puzzling until you note the high number of MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) candidates and teachers among the contributors. And while the pieces criss-cross the globe, the contributors are chiefly Europeans and Americans, as though there were no African or Asian travel writers to be found, barring the ubiquitous Mr Iyer.
But I would still add The Best Travel Writing 2009 to my backpack. Like the best companions, it has much to offer in any given situation, a smattering of practical advice, eminent portability, considerable humour—and it travels well.