Saturday, September 20, 2008

About Travel Writing

Maybe modern day books like "One for the Road" can be called travel journals, but I'm not sure. Something has changed. The age of the classical travel journal seems to have passed.

Marco Polo had an easy job amazing his temporary Europeans with tales from the Far East. He mentions a place "so far to the North that the Polar star shines from the south", and he talks about a forest inhabited by myriads of unicorns. To us these claims are clearly just lies. Back in his time, however, although many doubted him, no one could prove him wrong.

Likewise, few questioned the "slightly biased" reports given by early jungle-bound Europeans who wrote home about the pure, godless evils of cannibals and head-hunters hiding deep in the green wilderness. Even our own grandparents willingly brag about the dangerous odysseys they went through just to get to school. Oh, the beauty of accounts that cannot be verified!

Today, however, a trip to remote regions is no longer just for reckless people who are willing to risk their lives to experience something different. Pretty much anyone with four weeks to spend can find out for themselves what life is like at the Mount Everest Base Camp. On any given day in January there are almost as many American and European retirees on the beaches of Antarctica as there are penguins. Even Outer Space receives its share of flabby, filthy rich tourists these days.

Hence, a travel journal today must do something more than to astound, to glorify and to mystify. Instead the writing must be both informative and entertaining, and it must just as much take the reader on a journey through the author's mind as through the locations he or she visits. If it leads to a more wide-spread understanding of the world still being a diverse and place full of problems that needs to be solved, that's excellent.

To achieve this understanding, the author must travel at a slow pace, much like the way young and well-off Europeans did when they sought out formative travel experiences a century or two ago. Their mission was to familiarize themselves with the foundations of their culture, and they did this by going to historical places around the Mediterranean Sea.

The difference between then and now is that we can and must do better. It is no longer enough to visit the places that shaped our civilization, to where the old Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, French, and British performed their art and fought their wars. To see, describe and realize what we could have become, if history had played out differently, that is the challenge for modern day travel writers.

I put forward that travel writing has turned into a branch of philosophy, or at least that modern day travel book authors should try to dig deeper into what he or she sees than what has typically been the case until now.

My travels have gradually become a way to create some distance to my life at home. It's a space that lets me compare my everyday concerns with real problems, problems on a scale rarely seen in my own country.

It's a wake-up call to see a boy on a skateboard not because he thinks it's great fun, but because he lost his feet when he stepped on a land mine, and there just is no wheelchair for him. You learn something from going to a shop where loudspeakers are installed not to play sales-inducing muzak, but because they need to be able to inform customers that the price of bread has risen again, for the third time that day. It is scary to visit a region where 35 percent is not the share of the population who can't be bothered to vote, but how many of those between 14 and 30 years of age who are infected by HIV. In surroundings like that, you may discover that your worries are not really problems at all.

To those of us who live in one of the sweet spots of planet Earth, it's all too easy to think that it's other people's faults and our own merits that have made some places good and other places not so good. After having traveled a bit, I think the most important lesson I've learnt is this: Nothing in the world is fair, and just because some of us have won the lottery, it doesn't mean we can allow ourselves to ignore all the problems we don't encounter at home.

Although I certainly prefer a cheery tone and funny observations to tales of doom and gloom, I hope that travel writers now and in the future will point out this unfairness of the world to their readers. The world is becoming a smaller village every day, and we need to understand what goes on around the increasingly closer corner.

Both travel writing and journeys we make on our own can and should help us improve this understanding.