travel writing

Hill walking

After various trials and tribulations — the book disappeared under my bed for a while and is suitably water damaged — I have finally finished Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson. I read it because he's good at travel writing, which is something I'd like to be good at and enjoy reading, and because he's from Calgary and we all need some yyccon in our lives.

He's great at descriptions and does lots of things I need to work on. His adventures never feel like a laundry list. They just move. My manuscript doesn't always do that very well.

The last bit of the book brought me back to Scotland and why I'd been drawn there. It made me want to wander over hills and get lost in the rain. It reminded me of the endless draw of long-distance hiking, something I'd like to do but am not sure I am well-suited to — something something bad knees, ankles and back. I now feel like hoping on a plane and going to explore for a while, something that feels more natural to me than slogging through trying to find work even though I'm both underqualified or overqualified for basically every job I could do.

It ties into that what am I doing here? How am I going to pay rent? Where do I belong? Nowhere and everywhere voice.

I want to find my place. I thought it was here but it doesn't feel like it is. So then where? The hills, the trees, somewhere else.

Then there's the end. A bittersweet end as he searches for his origins, how his Irish grandfather came to Canada and he ended up here. The same sentiment led me to Scotland where I lived a couple of blocks from a street that bears the name of one of my family lines, a place where I felt very much at home, a place that I felt so very connected to. A story so many Canadians have.

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.

Ho asolato

I continue, as ever, through the Best American Series. This time it is The Best American Travel Writing 2010. Unlike many library books — especially older ones — the book feels new and the pages are not worn at the corners and there is nothing sticky joining certain sections.

So far all of the stories have varied greatly in length and content. They are all about travel, which can be mean just about anything.

The foreword is magnificently well written. Unlike many forewords it doesn’t ramble on about what the book is about or give details one doesn’t really care for — in the case of The Best American Series some kind of yearbook, explanation or theory about the genre. Instead, it is a story from the editor’s travels. I think he — Jason Wilson — is trying to make the point that travel is magical even though we don’t always know why.

Wilson talks about being trapped in Italy because of the explosions of the Icelandic volcano last spring. He passes his time leisurely and no one feels too bad that he is stranded. He briefly discusses the enigma of his sightseeing, “During her exile, the Italian verb asolare — meaning “to pass time in a delightful but meaningless way” — came into usage. Perhaps that’s how I can sum up my brief stranding in Italy. I visited some more wineries. Made some friends. Ho asolato.” Wilson can’t help but turn the foreword into something that would fit in with the articles that were selected to make up the rest of the book.

The travel writing is much more personal than other forms of journalism. Beyond what is found in travel books and advice sections — the basic game reports and election results — are stories of journeys and experiences that people have taken. It is predominantly in the first person and can be about whatever happened to someone, somewhere, when they weren’t at home. This is more like a novel or a memoir than it is reportage. This is a series of events that unfolded, memories, wanderings, a story. This is the complex phenomenon that we all save up for — except those who are lucky enough to get paid to write about it — and go off in search of.

This writing is personal, someone is sharing their experience with you. It is not about being objective or gathering sources, it is about telling a story.