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The Best American Travel Writing 2001 (Best American Travel Writing)by Paul Theroux
Foreword I have been sent many odd promotional items by wrongheaded public relations people desperate for me to write about their clients. Nothing, however, has been more misguided than the Kwikpoint® International Translator that I received a few years ago.
The Kwikpoint® International Translator is a laminated, legal- sized card, folded three times, with full-color illustrations inside and out. On the front cover, the Kwikpoint® International Translator proclaims: Say It with Pictures!”; Point to Pictures and Make Yourself Understood Anywhere in the World!” Above those proclamations is a cartoon drawing of a tourist, a man with a camera strapped around his neck, seated at a restaurant table. His ignored menu sits beside him on the table and in his hands is a trusty Kwikpoint® International Translator. The man points at a simple illustration of a cup of coffee, while above him, inside his cartoon dialogue bubble, the same image of a cup of coffee is rendered. Meanwhile, the smiling waitress stands before him and dutifully writes down his order. In her cartoon thought bubble is the exact same image of a cup of coffee. The cartoons message is clear: An international crisis has just been averted. Without ever having to learn that pesky foreign word for coffee, our tourist friend has successfully conveyed his beverage choice to the smiling waitress, who has understood him — even though shes made it very difficult for our friend by not speaking his language.
But coffee isnt the only image that the Kwikpoint® International Translator provides. Open the thing up and there are hundreds of tiny pictures for the tourist to point at, and presumably resolve any situation that might arise. There are, of course, images for police, fire, hospital, pharmacy, currency exchange, hotel, train station, toothpaste, and the red-circle-with-a-slash international sign for No.” But there are also more advanced images for specific needs — massage, diving equipment, casino games, squat toilet, male and female contraceptives, jumper cables, pipe-smoking supplies, poached egg, frog legs, life preserver. By following the guide at the bottom of the page, you can create compound ideas. Pointing at a glass of ice cubes plus a cup of coffee would equal iced coffee, for instance. Pointing to the red-circle-with-a-slash plus a jar of mustard equals No Mustard.” Almost as an afterthought, in tiny letters, at the very bottom of the back page, the following advice is printed: Learn a few key words in the local language: Yes, No, Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, Please, Love, Peace.” I believe that we have reached a very strange place in the evolution of travel when a product like the Kwikpoint® International Translator appears. And I cant help but feel sorry for the person who feels compelled to tuck one of these into his fanny pack, next to his electronic currency converter, just in case he finds himself separated from the tour bus and suddenly in a place where no English is spoken.
I dont want to suggest that everyone who plans to travel should learn to speak a new language in order to do so. Nor do I want to get into another silly debate about what separates a real traveler” from someone whos simply a tourist” — I happen to agree with Paul Fussell, who, in his seminal book Abroad, wrote: We are all tourists now, and there is no escape.” I bring up the Kwikpoint® International Translator here because it strikes me as the antithesis of what travel is supposed to be. The person who uses this item is a person who, at worst, has an absolute, almost colonial, need to exert control over any people, place, or situation he encounters. The message: I cant understand a word youre saying, but it doesnt matter, because I can point to a picture of pancakes and syrup, and you will fetch it for me. At best, the person who uses the Kwikpoint® International Translator is sadly incapable of leaving any part of his trip to serendipity. He deprives himself of the full experience that travel offers. Strolling through the marketplace of travel opportunities, one cannot help but recognize that preparedness has become an obsession,” writes Edwin Dobbs, observing the proliferation of travel guides and packaged tours in Where the Good Begins,” an essay published several years ago in Harpers. This obsession with preparedness is perhaps part of a larger obsession in our society: to eradicate fear, from every situation and at all costs. But fear and travel nearly always go hand in hand.
Without fear, travel has no meaning,” writes Keath Fraser in the introduction to the anthology Bad Trips. In the finest travel writing the storyteller resolves his fears through the ccatharsis of narrative.” Dobbs, in his essay, says that to travel well, one must court difference.” While certainly far from the only barometersssss of great travel writing, these are very good places to start. Most often, the fear is simply of the unknown. And since the unknown differs so wildly from person to person, its one of the reasons why travel writing is a rich genre. An experienced adventurer like Scott Anderson may be at home in war zones and, as his humorous and poignant memoir in this collection shows, it may take the odd brush with a land mine for fear finally to rush in. But your bookish relative from a small town in Minnesota who has never been to Europe may also travel well — if he courts difference and embraces fear and allows the world to work its magic while observing intently.
Over thirty years ago, that relative — my fathers cousin Bob, in this case — arrived in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese. On his first night in town, he found himself in a restaurant, unable to read the menu. The waiter, finally exasperated with Bobs linguistic attempts, sat him at a table with a young, well- dressed Portuguese man, who spoke just enough English to help Bob order his dinner. Though the two men could barely communicate, they struck up a friendship, and continued to dine together for the next three nights. The young man took Bob to wonderful, hidden, traditional restaurants in the gothic streets of the Bairro Alto, where they both ate heartily and the young man never let Bob pay for his meals. The dinner conversation never got beyond the basics, but over several evenings Bob learned that the young man had once lived in Lisbon, but no longer did, and that these restaurants had once been his familys favorites. On their last night together, the man became very serious and teary, and tried to explain something important to Bob. But in the end, the language gap was too great.
Several months later, after Bob had returned home from his European tour, he received a letter, in Portuguese. He presumed it was from the young man hed met, but the postmark was from South America. Unable to read the letter, he threw it in a drawer, and didnt pick it up again until many years later, when he found it and asked a Brazilian friend to translate.
The translation was heartbreaking. The letter had not, in fact, come from the young man, but instead from his wife. She explained that the young man had died soon after their dinners together. His wife went on to write that the young man had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, with only a few months to live. The mans family had been aristocrats of some kind, and lived in exile for many years. He had longed to return to Portugal once again before he died, above all to taste the food of his homeland. She expressed her gratitude to Bob for keeping her husband company during his emotional journey. Bob wept uncontrollably, and suddenly the strange encounter took on the power of a very personal myth.
Over dinner last year, Bob told my family this story. Thirty years later, the naive, chance event still brought him to tears at the dinner table. Perhaps it goes without saying that if Bob had been able to point to a picture of a lamb chop on his Kwikpoint® International Translator, this encounter would never have occurred.
The wonderful stories that Paul Theroux has chosen for this years Best American Travel Writing all deal on some level with fear and misadventure and serendipity. That, along with memorable storytelling, gives them power and significance over what generally passes for magazine travel writing — the overedited, reader-friendly text bowdlerized by fact checkers, published with a layout of breathtaking photographs” that Theroux decries in his introduction. Among the stories inside: Salman Rushdie returns to India for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeinis fatwa. Gretel Ehrlich fights cold and hunger on a hunting trip with an Inuit family in Greenland. Susan Minot seeks the truth about the abducted children of Uganda. Philip Caputo treks Kenyas Tsavo National Park among its notorious man-eating” lions. Andrew Cockburn enters an Iran that now welcomes visitors from America. Michael Finkel stows away on a Haitian refugee boat. Russell Banks confronts Aconcagua, the Andes highest peak, as well as himself — and at a climactic moment in the story, he remembers this telling quotation from Rilkes Duino Elegies: Every angel is terrifying.” While many of the stories here deal with serious and gripping topics, there is no lack of humor to be found in this collection. Peter Hessler is robbed in his Chinese hotel room in the first line of his story View from the Bridge.” Yet Hessler maintains his great sense of humor and wit throughout. Li Peng gave me free food and drinks at the beer garden,” he writes. I had become a local celebrity — the Foreigner Who Broke His Finger Fighting the Thief.” Ian Frazier searches out Charles Mansons desert hideaway after tiring of golf in Death Valley. Susan Orlean hangs with the international mélange of backpackers on Bangkoks funky Khao San Road.
I think its safe to say that none of the writers in this collection would ever be caught dead with a Kwikpoint® International Translator in his travel bag.
The stories included in this anthology are selected from among hundreds of stories in hundreds of diverse publications — from mainstream and specialty magazines to Sunday newspaper travel sections to literary journals to in-flight magazines. My eyes are far from perfect, but I have done my best to be fair and representative, and in my opinion the best one hundred travel stories from the year 2000 were forwarded to Paul Theroux, who made the final selections.
And so with this publication, I begin anew by reading the hundreds of stories published in 2001. I am once again asking editors and writers to submit the best of whatever it is they define as travel writing.” These submissions must be nonfiction, published in the United States during the 2001 calendar year. They must not be reprints of excerpts from published books. They must include the authors name, date of publication, and publication name, and must be submitted as tear sheets, a copy of the complete publication, or a clear photocopy of the piece as it originally appeared. I must receive all submissions by January 30, 2002, in order to ensure full consideration for the next collection. Further, publications that want to make certain their contributions will be considered for the next edition should make sure to include this anthology on their subscription list. Submissions or subscriptions should be sent to Jason Wilson, The Best American Travel Writing, P.O. Box 260, Haddonfield, New Jersey 08033.
It was an honor to work with Paul Theroux, whose work I have long admired. I want to thank him, and would like to mention that much of the work for this collection happened as Paul was preparing to make a lengthy and difficult journey from Cairo to Cape Town. I enormously appreciate his efforts in the weeks preceding this trip. I would also like to thank Tammy Powley for her invaluable assistance on this years anthology, as well as the people at Houghton Mifflin who helped put this anthology together: Deanne Urmy, Liz Duvall, Ryan Boyle, Don Hymans, and Janet Silver. But, of course, the writers included here deserve the greatest praise. The Best American Travel Writing is dedicated, as always, to them.
Introduction It is not hyperbole to say there are no Edens anymore: we live on a violated planet. Travelers are witnesses to change and decay, and when they write we are entertained and sometimes enlightened. But the mode of expression, like the world, has changed.
In the past it was fairly easy to describe travel writing. An intrepid person — say, Isabella Bird or Sir Richard Burton — went on a long trip to a remote place and wrote about it. Bird produced nine books, her subjects ranging from Kurdistan to Hawaii. Burton traveled to this hemisphere and so did his compatriots Trollope and Dickens; American writers went in the opposite direction — Emerson, Twain, and James to Europe. Many others set sail. The books reflected the travelers personality and literary style as much as the journey. American Notes is Dickensian, English Hours is Jamesian. Even Henry David Thoreau, who scorned foreign travel, wrote magazine pieces about his jaunts to Cape Cod and Maine. So much for the nineteenth century, a time when much of the prowled-upon world still awaited discovery.
Bridging the gap between these writers and those of the 1930s — the next great traveling era — is Kipling as well as the underrated traveler Somerset Maugham, notably in The Gentleman in the Parlor, about his trek through Southeast Asia. This in-between era also saw some subtle works of travel-exploration, such as Fridtjof Nansens about the Arctic and Apsley Cherry-Garrards about Antarctica. There were also curiosities by such accidental travelers as E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerly, who like Kipling (d. 1936) lived on well into the twentieth century. Some critics assert (mistakenly, I think) that the thirties produced the best travel books. The rationale is that it was a time when, as Evelyn Waugh wrote, the going was good.” This implied exoticism, escapism, no passports necessary — unlimited access in Mexico, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere for Waugh, Peter Fleming, Graham Greene, Robert Byron, and others. Greene was seeing hidden Mexico, Waugh was observing deepest Abyssinia, Fleming was bushwhacking in Brazil and China — exuberant writers traveling off the map.
It is true that Waughs Remote People and Byrons Road to Oxiana are marvelous books, but they are of their time. Every age offers its own peculiar destinations and modes of reaching them, the work of the travelers always reflecting that peculiarity. It goes almost without saying that Greene would not be walking through the anarchic and bloody hinterland of Liberia today with his young cousin Barbara. Journey Without Maps, difficult hike that it was, would be a nightmare now.
In postwar traveling, there has been more latitude and less luxury, but still a sense of adventure and high spirits — Rebecca West, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell are transitional figures, not so lighthearted as their predecessors. More recently, other travelers (and in nearly every case they have also been novelists) have continued the tradition: V. S. Naipaul, Norman Lewis, Ted Hoagland, Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin, Redmond OHanlon, Jonathan Raban, yours truly. But, sad to say, even this recent writing will soon be history.
The world has turned, and these narratives are little help in understanding an age when just about the entire earth has been visited and revisited. Even the world I was peregrinating less than forty years ago I hardly recognize now. Am I a fogey, or has the world actually been transformed? The latter, I suspect — or maybe both.
This seismic change happened fast. For example, less than thirty years ago, Lago Agrio, a large, hideous oil boomtown in northeastern Ecuador, did not exist — not even the name. Texas drillers named it after a town back home called Sour Lake. Erosion and toxic waste and brothels and 30,000 interlopers have displaced the indigenous people who lived in a traditional way, fishing in the Aguarico River, watched over by shamans, with a rich dream life — from peaceful slumber, from psychedelic drugs. Where there is blight now, there was rain forest, and among those trees there were jaguars. I am not saying that Lago Agrio is not a travel destination, but it is a different one from that other, tranquil, undrilled place, requiring a different sensibility and different expectations. The result of a trip to this hellish place will be different — travel writing of a sort, but I am not sure what.
Travel writing these days seems to be many things; but in my opinion it is not what usually passes for travel writing. It is not a first-class seat on an airplane, not a week of wine tasting on the Rhine, not a weekend in a luxury hotel. It is not a survey of expensive brunch menus, a search for the perfect margarita, or a roundup of the best health spas in the Southwest. In short, it is not about vacations or holidays, not an adjunct to the public relations industry. Travel writing is certainly not an overedited, reader- friendly text bowdlerized by fact checkers, published with a layout of breathtaking photographs — and, heretically, travel writing is not necessarily tasteful, perhaps not even factual, and seldom about pleasure. Come to think of it, the horrific town of Lago Agrio is perhaps a perfect subject.
Travel writing — a pair of words that makes me uneasy because it reminds me of a label on a cracker barrel, because it is a label for so many different sorts of narrative, serving so many purposes, some of them utterly bogus — as I was saying, travel writing at its best relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale.
This postmodern view of travel as adversity was well expressed by Martha Gellhorn, who, having been married for some years to Ernest Hemingway, knew a thing or two about adversity. (Among other traits, Ernest was unbelievably accident-prone, as conflicted people often are.) In Credentials,” an apt title for the preface to her account of her love of foreign places, Travels with Myself and Another (Ernest was another”), she reflected on travel as a rewarding misery. She had taken a trip to Crete and found herself in a rundown village on a littered beach (a sewer”): I had the depressed feeling that I spent my life doing this sort of thing and might well end my days here. This is the travelers deep dark night of the soul and can happen anywhere at any hour. I was reduced to a contemptible muck heap outside Kastelli. The future loomed coal black; nowhere to go that was worth going to. I might as well stop traveling.” And then: Stop traveling? Come, come. That was carrying despair to preposterous lengths. Id been in much worse places than Kastelli. Furthermore, millions of other travelers set forth with high hopes and land symbolically between a water-logged shoe and a rusted potty. I was not unique, singled out for special misfortune.” In the subsequent pep talk she gives herself, she says, If you cant learn from experience at least you can use it. What have you done with your long rich experience of horror journeys?” Any serious traveler can attest that horror journeys are the most memorable, the most valuable, the most instructive, and the most pleasurable to write about because invariably the horror is recollected in tranquillity. The traveler makes notes en route but writes the finished piece at home, in comfort: finishes the crossword puzzle over toast and marmalade and a lightly boiled egg in the bosom of the family and then nips upstairs to resume that episode about hunger and foul weather and hostile locals. This may account for the note of gloating self-congratulation in travel writing, since so much of it — these days especially — is about survival.
More recently, such writing has also become personal to the point of idiosyncrasy, quirkish in the extreme. I dont say this is a bad thing, but it is an obvious thing. In the past a traveler might casually jeer at the natives — Waugh did it, so did Naipaul, and even in the late seventies Martha Gellhorn was writing breezily of how her love for the natural world did not extend to mankind in Africa or its differing ways of life.” Incredibly, she did not see how offensive this attitude was, and how unrewarding.
There is greater penetration among recent travelers — socially, sexually. True, Sir Richard Burton hinted at sexual liaisons in his travels, but these days such episodes are likely to be elaborated upon. There is an insistence today, in all aspects of writing, on the confessional — and this includes travel confessions. But of course writing is invention, and approximation, and selection. So much is left out or edited out or skewed or spun, I sometimes think that everything is fiction and that travel is something that happens in your head.
Travel is an attitude, a state of mind. It is not residence, it is motion. A traveler to Hawaii in January would write of high surf and strong winds and think the place has been nailed down in that description. The traveler to Hawaii in July will describe lakelike seas mirroring unmoving palms and will believe that to be the truth of the islands. The traveler who gets mugged on the beach reports the destination to be villainous, while just a few feet away a snorkeling traveler is thinking: paradise!
What is the reality of a place? Think how just the notion of New York scares people, how it is the City of Dreadful Night for some and Fun City for others. Like any huge city, New York is many things: Babylon, Xanadu, a jungle, a horror, a pleasure, a snake pit, a nuisance. It depends on who is writing about it. Perhaps the only reality is the sum of all the travelers tales.
Unless there is a strong sense of place there is no travel writing, but it need not come from topographical description; dialogue can also convey a sense of place. Even so, I insist, the traveler invents the place. Feeling compelled to comment on my travel books, people say to me, I went there” — China, India, the Pacific, Albania — and it wasnt like that.” I say, Because I am not you.” It seems paradoxical that in an age of accurate information there is so much opinionated travel writing — but of course there are also more travelers. Never before in history has the world been accessible to so many people. The conventional view is that the countries and the cultures are being evaluated, and in many cases this is demonstrably true, yet one of the dominant themes in the modern travel narrative is self-evaluation, not the country being described but rather the traveler. In many books and essays, travel writing is a form of autobiography. This is not to belittle it — and in this sense the modern tendency was prefigured by such books as Isabella Birds A Ladys Life in the Rocky Mountains (1893). The travel narrative with the gloating theme This is me having a terrible time in a foreign country” can also produce subtle results. And there are many other forms: the spell in the wilderness, the letter home from foreign parts, the dangerous adventure, the sentimental journey, the exposé, the shocking revelation, the eyewitness report, the ordeal, the quest. There is also the traveler as the bringer-home of news. It is the desire of all travelers to be able to say, with Othello (though Shakespeare cribbed the details from a travel book), that they have seen the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.
This collection represents many of these tendencies in travel, some of them modern; nothing in travel is older than the quest. I am puzzled by one tic in contemporary travel writing, a love of the present tense. What is it about this tense that turns travel writers heads? I regard it as unfortunate — precious, self- regarding, a distraction — but there is nothing I can do except deplore it. There is a shared sensibility among travelers, though. How very odd that one bends ones own twig and it stays bent,” Martha Gellhorn wrote. Who could have foreseen the effect of childhood journeys on streetcars?” How true. I grew up in a large family and began my travels to get out of the house.
The challenge for the serious traveler in the age of globalization is to prove that the word globalization is fairly meaningless. A traveler never really need leave home, in a virtual sense: You can go on a gorilla safari and still talk to your stockbroker on your cell phone (Fax me in Kampala!”). Or, seeing this as a crock, you can take a leap in the dark to understand that some places are out of touch. And to understand them you need to be out of touch. The challenge lies in finding the independence and self- sufficiency to make discoveries. So much of the world is so well trodden that since few of us can find places that are truly off the map, we look for places that have changed, or places to visit in a new way. No one would want to go to the dangerous tropical slums of Port Moresby or Lagos, which might be the very reason they qualify for a travelers attention.
After the camera crews and the reporters and the research teams move on, and the dust settles, then we need the independent eyewitness, the scarcely visible budget-conscious traveler who simply ambles along, becoming lost in the shuffle, lingering, making notes.
The Best American Travel Writing 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2001 by Paul Theroux
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