Reading: Travel Writing Marches On | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: Travel Writing Marches On

Has the consumer-oriented guidebook supplanted the curious, literate travel narrative? Is the modern sensibility too sour to take any pleasure in foreign places?

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Is travel writing dead, killed by mass tourism and tourist guidebooks? According to Paul Fussell, whose book Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars revived scholarly interest in the travel genre, its heyday has long passed. As editor of The Norton Book of Travel, an anthology devoted largely to the glory days of travel writing--the last century and the first half of this one--Fussell laments that we are in the twilight of both travel and travel writing.

Fussell is right to see a fundamental difference between tourism and travel. Tourism, he writes, "is to travel as plastic is to wood. . . . Tourism soothes you by comfort and familiarity and shields you from the shocks of novelty and oddity. It confirms your prior view of the world instead of shaking it up. You go not where you want to go but where the industry has decreed you shall go. . . . Tourism can operate profitably only as a device of mass merchandising, fulfilling the great modern rule of mediocrity and uniformity, 'Unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.'"

And he's also right to see an unbridgeable gulf between books for tourists and travel books. "Just as tourism is not travel, the guidebook is not the travel book. The guidebook is to be carried along and to be consulted frequently for practical information. How many rials are you allowed to bring in? How expensive is that nice-looking hotel over there? The travel book, on the other hand, is seldom consulted during a trip. Rather, it is read either before or after, and at home, and perhaps most often by a reader who will never take the journey at all. Guidebooks belong to the world of journalism, and they date; travel books belong to literature, and they last."

Where Fussell may have gone wrong is in supposing that mass tourism--and the industrial world it represents--has somehow spoiled even the most remote places, and in supposing that the modern sensibility is too sour to take any pleasure in travel.

He may be delivering the eulogy while the patient is still breathing. In late 1987, the very time when his anthology appeared, two publishers began series of contemporary travel books. The Vintage Departures series has 11 titles in print, and the Atlantic Monthly Press Traveler series has 9. Both provide handsome paperback showcases for reprints of recent books by young writers who have the itch to travel, the sensibility to savor it, and the wit and verve to write about it.

Fussell cites writers like Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul as exemplars of jaundiced "posttourism," the travel writing of entropy and enervation. But three of the writers in the Vintage Departures series show a very different side of travel and travel writing. Like the writers Fussell admires from the heyday of travel writing--Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene--they have a sense of adventure and of wonder. Their books are filled not with weary distaste for an unpalatable world (the signs of posttourism), but with zest for what they see, for the human richness of the men and women they meet along the way.

Vikram Seth's From Heaven Lake is a good example. Seth was an exchange student in China in 1981 when he decided to get back to his native New Delhi by hitchhiking through the deserts of western China into Tibet and Nepal. He wasn't intending to write a book about the experience; he was just fascinated by Tibet (about which he knew almost nothing) and intrigued by the idea of traveling through China without the usual chaperones. Mostly, though, he did it as a lark, because he was young, and had the opportunity, and was willing to take a chance. (Compare this with the jadedness of the posttourist travel writers. Paul Theroux, at the beginning of A Kingdom by the Sea--which is about walking around the periphery of England--writes of searching for a reason to travel that isn't just a gimmick for writing a book.)

Seth's trip comes about in part because of his distaste for tourism. He complains in the book of sweltering on a desert bus ride with other foreign students on an official tour, of the irksomeness of group travel, of being "hustled by the Group Will into rushing from sight to sight, savoring nothing."

At every town, more to divert himself than in any hope of success, Seth (who speaks Chinese fluently) tries to talk the local police into stamping "Tibet" on his travel pass as an approved destination. At one sleepy desert town, he surprises himself by getting what he wants. Seth takes a quick look at a map, sees that a few unpaved roads lead to Tibet, and conceives the "pleasant hallucination" of hitchhiking through the desert and over the Himalayas. And even though at the last minute he loses what would have been his traveling companion--a good-humored English student with a practical manner and a "sound core of madness," ideal qualities on such an adventure--he goes ahead on his own.

Seth's book is dedicated "to the people I met along the way," and they are the most striking feature of From Heaven Lake, even more than the natural wonders he sees, the comedy of his struggles with an ever-present bureaucracy, and his insights into Chinese society. For most of Seth's ten-day journey to Tibet (about 1200 miles), he rides in a truck driven by a savvy, eccentric Chinese, Sui, who lives in Tibet and drives for a state-owned transport unit. Other passengers are Sui's sulky 15-year-old nephew (apparently adolescence is a disease that knows no boundaries) and another hitchhiker, a tall, silent Tibetan.

It's often said that traveling to exotic places is like going back in time, to a place that's less commercial, less industrialized. This trip seems to belong to the world of horse-drawn vehicles. Sui is like the coachman, and the ill-assorted crew in his truck are his passengers; Seth's book has the episodic quality of Fielding's Joseph Andrews or Dickens's Pickwick Papers. As in these books, the journey is frequently interrupted--by floods that knock out bridges so the river has to be forded; by thieves; and most of all, by the driver's erratic sense of time. Sui has traveled this route for years, and "his pleasures along the road are mainly social: talk, food where good food can be obtained, haggling in the market, visiting friends. . . . For Sui, unlike us, this is not just a journey: it is a style of life. He spends more time on the road than in Lhasa [with his family], and it is the contacts and acquaintances along the route that lend relief and flavour to his hours behind the wheel."

To his friends, scattered in lonely houses along the way, Sui brings books and fruit and news of the outside world. They give him warmth and companionship. No wonder a stop to drop off a watermelon can take hours. It is such leisurely encounters that give From Heaven Lake its wonky charm. Even though the latter part of the book is filled with the spectacle of Tibet--a funeral where bodies are fed to eagles, monasteries ravaged by the Chinese--it's the camaraderie of the road that stays in the mind.

Tom Miller's The Panama Hat Trail has one of the classic structures for travel books. It's a quest--in this case, to trace Panama hats back to their origin. That's not as simple as it sounds. Panama hats aren't made in Panama but in Ecuador. Americans on the way to the California gold rush discovered them in Panama as they made their way across the isthmus, but the hats even then came from Ecuador.

Miller, an American who has also written a book about the Mexican-American border, speaks Spanish well. Like Seth, he doesn't hurry toward his goal; he made several journeys over a three-year period in Ecuador, with much doubling back along the trail and many leisurely byways. In a coastal village, Miller becomes the distinguished foreign judge of a parade. In a college town, when he is taken for Henry Miller's nephew, Miller tries to clear up the mistake but eventually gives up and is much feted. He visits almost every part of Ecuador--including the newly oil-rich jungle, which has nothing at all to do with hats but occasions some of the best writing in the book.

Along the Panama-hat trail he speaks with everyone from a pistol-carrying aristocrat to peasants who make a few cents a day weaving the hats, and he finds time for digressions on Ecuador's comic-opera coups (so "folkloric"), its coffee (shockingly bad), the taste of roasted guinea pig ("spongy, like overcooked rabbit"), the Jews of Ecuador (a tiny minority, many of whom originally fled the Holocaust), and the main goals of 19th-century American consuls in Ecuador (to survive yellow fever and to somehow obtain decent American flags to fly).

He also becomes an expert on avoiding bus plunges: "Bus rides through Latin America have always induced fear in me, brought on by years of reading one-paragraph bus-plunge stories used by newspapers in the States as fillers. . . . The datelines change, but the headlines always include the words bus plunge,

as in 12 DIE IN SRI LANKA BUS PLUNGE. . . . 'We can count on one every couple of days or so,' an editor at the New York Times once told me. 'They're always ready when we need them.'" Avoiding them doesn't hinge on obvious factors like brakes--one driver tells him, "Look, the bus is stopped isn't it? Then the brakes must work." And the driver's sobriety isn't a factor--but the presence of his wife or girlfriend is. She may sit in his lap, and he may want to impress her with his daring, but he will go to great lengths not to injure her.

Miller is aware that his goal of tracing the Panama hat's route "from the basement of the Third World to the penthouse of the First" has occasioned unanticipated twists and turns and unexpected pleasures. He's aware that the hat has almost become secondary, the "pretext" for the journey, but ultimately the book is about the hats and the exploitation of the peasants who make them. Intellectual curiosity motivates Miller, and The Panama Hat Trail has a core of anger, of outrage at a system in which a hat considered a luxury in the States is woven by workers paid less than a dollar for labor and materials.

Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo is ostensibly another quest, but it's at least as much about adventure for its own sake. O'Hanlon, an English naturalist, and his friend, the poet James Fenton, conceive a two-month excursion into one of the last unexplored places on the globe to find the Borneo rhinoceros, thought to be extinct. Or at least that's the pretext. Two fat, middle-aged Englishmen and three native guides don't add up to a high-powered scientific expedition, but they are enormously good companions.

O'Hanlon has also written a book about the English novelist Joseph Conrad, and his trip in some ways mimics Conrad's art. Into the Heart of Borneo, like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is a book about a journey up a river, down the social scale, and into a place unaffected by time. Unlike Conrad, though, he doesn't find darkness in the jungle but hospitality, generosity, courage, and above all, humor.

Paul Fussell says that travelers, if they are lucky, learn humility. Experiencing "a world different from their own, they realize their provincialism and recognize their ignorance. . . . Travel at its truest is thus an ironic experience, and the best travelers . . . seem to be . . . able to regard themselves as at once serious persons and clowns." O'Hanlon points up his feeble attempts at preparation--feverish reading, a crash course in survival from old jungle hands--to expose his own helplessness and utter dependence on his Iban guides.

These are, in ascending order of importance and age, the boy Inghai, the young man Leon (swimmer, dancer, and prodigious lover), and Dana, reputed headhunter, chief of the tribe, and true leader of the expedition. "Dignified, intelligent, full of natural authority, at forty an old man in the eyes of his tribe, he was the law-giver and judge of conduct. . . . He regarded us with protective amusement. We were like the white men he had met in the war, Leon had informed us in hushed tones; we had stayed in his longhouse and behaved like guests he could trust, not offending against custom, well-mannered. James and I, in turn, decided that Tuai Rumah Dana, Lord of the House, a Beowulf, or, more accurately, a warrior-king out of Homer, was a great improvement on all our previous headmasters, deans and wardens."

The schoolboy imagery is a tip-off to O'Hanlon's stance throughout the book. No one is more alive than he to the absurdity of the venture and his own unworthiness. Most of the book's humor is directed at his own fear. He compulsively reads about the astonishing variety of snakes and leeches in Borneo, and he and Penton visit a museum just after they land to see what lies ahead: "On the way out we paused to look at a hairball taken from the stomach of a crocodile, Sarawak river. It was a round mass of fibres, the size of a soccer ball, and in a small depression on its top left quadrant a handwritten note proclaimed: 'Dental plate found here.' We went for a gentle stroll in the gardens, to recover."

And here he is practicing with a syringe from their medical kit in case he needs to inject Fenton with morphine: "I practised my subcutaneous perforation technique on a lone banana. As I pushed down the plunger on my waterfilled spare syringe, stuck in the fruit, a jet of liquid hissed out the other side and shot across the room. I resolved, in the event, to inject James in a buttock rather than an arm."

A good deal of the book's humor comes from the Iban themselves. They tease O'Hanlon and Fenton into singing, dancing, and drinking contests in the longhouses they visit along the way and, in one memorable scene, play headhunters to the dozing Fenton's victim.

One of the great difficulties in travel writing is to strike the proper attitude toward the native populations encountered. The Western writer in the third world has to avoid the stock response of romanticizing the noble savage and the equally facile response of condescending to a different culture. O'Hanlon walks this tightrope successfully. He acknowledges the poverty and the prevalence of disease and unnecessary death--one gangrenous woman will die because she stepped on a fish bone and the wound became infected--but he respects the Iban's grace, gentleness, and good humor. Even though the modern age is impinging on Borneo--in one longhouse he is beseeched to teach the "seven-step disco" and responds with "motor manifestations of imminent nervous collapse"--the Iban have a strong culture that seems to provide a solid sense of self.

These three books are about very different parts of the globe. They're written by an Indian, an American, and an Englishman; each traveled for a different reason. Yet the writers have a lot in common; the desire to educate as well as entertain, the ability to enter into the lives of the people they encounter along the way, the skill to tell a story.

These books show not only that travel writing is alive and well, but that travel itself can still be magical. In The Panama Hat Trail there's a lovely passage that captures one of those moments for which we endure the disappointments and discomfort of travel. Miller is on a small bus along the coast:

"By synchronizing his route with low tide, the driver was able to use the hard-packed moist beach for a highway as we headed south. If he strayed too far to the left we'd get stuck in the looser, drier sand; too far to the right and we'd be swamped by the onrushing tide. As dawn broke we passed fishermen rowing their wooden crafts out to sea. A bracing mist slapped my face. I reached out my right hand and practically touched the Pacific Ocean. At that moment I wanted to ride that bus, uncomfortable as it was, forty-five hundred miles straight down the coast through Peru and Chile, and all the way to Tierra del Fuego."

From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet by Vikram Seth, Vintage, $5.95.

The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey From South America by Tom Miller, Vintage, $6.95.

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon, Vintage, $6.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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