Defining travel writing

As I come close to finishing The Best American Travel Writing 2010 I can’t help but wonder what if anything most of these articles have in common. They have all been very good articles but I sincerely wonder if some of them are about travel.

The introduction discussed travel and the feeling of being abroad, while most of the pieces don’t fit this theme. “The Ghost Course” by David Owen also appeared in The Best American Sports Writing 2010. Despite being about a golf course in Scotland and mentioning at one point that the town hopes to attract tourists through the upgrades to the course it is not a travel piece. It is maybe a sports piece, maybe a magazine piece, maybe a news piece but I wouldn’t put it in a travel collection.

“The Ponzi State” by George Packer is a remarkable account of the real estate boom and bust in Florida. Aside from a brief mention of the decline in tourism in Florida it’s not a travel piece.

This collection is moving and thoroughly enjoyable but not what it’s title suggests it would be. Perhaps authors should develop stricter guidelines of what constitutes travel writing and which publications are eligible to ensure a more consistent adherence to the theme in the future. I have only read the 2010 edition thus far and can’t comment on the past but this volume has thrown many curve balls and has been highly inconsistent.

For me travel is about not being at home, not sleeping in your own bed, visiting strange places and being a tourist. Many things can be enveloped in the theme of writing about that but first and foremost it must be about somewhere away from home that someone is either visiting or working in for a period of time.

“In Defense of Tourism” by Peter LaSalle presents a defense — as the title would suggest — of why being a tourist isn’t a bad thing. Many times I’ve thought Tourist would make a great title for a travelogue. In my experience when one is backpacking they are not a local. Often times it is cool and fun to pretend you are a local or to go where the locals supposedly go, LaSalle speaks about this and defends the idea of “touristy” things:

As for cynical travelers, they can arguably learn, or relearn, something from the wide-eyed “tourist” — from the sense of wonder and unmitigated joy he brings those top-of-the-Eiffel-Tower, crest-of-the-Cyclone, edge-of-the-Grand-Canyon moments that all travelers, no matter how jaded, long for. This involves surrendering to the inherent awkwardness of being a stranger in a foreign land, yet somehow losing yourself — and your self-consiousness — at the same time.

To be a tourist is not something inherently terrible or unhip, it is one of the joys and inevitabilities of travelling. Certain things are indeed a tourist trap and a nice walk to explore a place can be much better — if ever in Bruges avoid the chocolate museum. However, other things are simply enjoyed because you don’t live in a place.There are certain places and things in one’s own home town that you never do because you are not a tourist.

The unfortunate thing about being a tourist is that after a while it becomes exhausting to keep up the energy to do it day after day — especially when backpacking for an extended period of time. Locals can get up and do nothing for a day and they’re not missing out on the wonders of their city because they have all the time in the world to enjoy it.

When you arrive in a new city you become acquainted with the area around your hostel or hotel. You find your breakfast spot, your coffee shop, that place with the great shawarma but instead of hanging out there with your friends you spend a few days — just long enough to find a couple of spots — and then leave.

Travel is impermanent. You go from place to place, hostel friends to hostels friends. In some ways this is good and in others bad but fundamentally it is the difference between travel and living somewhere. You are just a visitor. That is all.