Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Travel Writing

I'm back. You probably figured that out from, you know, a new post being up, but I feel like it's the thing to say. For years I haven't traveled abroad because of illness, except to go to Israel, but this year I said, "Screw it, I'm doing okay" and went to Asia, and surprised everyone by not getting sick. Of course I mainly ate trail mix, so that probably contributed to it.

If you're a writer, you should really travel. If you've been saving up for years and you're not dipping into that savings to pay rent, do it now. My plane ticket was cheap, my tour was like half their regular cost, and there were all kinds of free upgrades at hotels because they were deserted. Of course now I have to be really careful with my spending, but I'll manage. As they say, "You can't take it with you." But really, it's important to get out and see something completely foreign, which opens your eyes to so many different things that contribute to the creative process. Man, I hope this is the last time I ever use the words "creative process."

Every once in awhile we get a travel memoir at work - today was one of those days - where the traveler is obviously racist. You can tell because they talk at great length about how open-minded they are and how they're really throwing themselves out there, and then go on to say how like every Middle Eastern guy tried to rape them. You would think that extensive international travel would broaden horizons, not limit them. Of course stereotypes are based on fact, and there is horrible shit out there that will harden your stance on things, but usually if you come out of a place with no respect for its culture and a bad opinion of its people, it's justified because something bad happened to you.

For example: I have friends I met through the SCA who were shot at by a Palestinian sniper on a regular basis, and knew people who had died because the windows of the car weren't bulletproof. They could point to the sniper site, actually, from their backyard. The problem was, they lived on the border with Gaza (a lesser border, with just some chicken wire up), and a blue-topped UN car would drive up and down the road every once in a while to make sure that the Jewish townspeople weren't violating Palestinian territory by, say, arresting or killing the one sniper. Or just destroying his nest. Nope, the UN is there to safeguard the Palestinians. Thank goodness.

Now obviously that's an isolated situation, and the politics are vast and complex and the Palestinians are really suffering, not entirely but mostly because of Israel, but I would see a lot of situations like that, and they would harden me, whether I wanted them to or not. Like seeing a blown-up bus or having a friend who was on a bus that blew up, but she got off just in time because she was in the back. These things are events that shape your perception because they're just so terrible, and if you happen to write about them, you should probably do so with every attempt at perspective (that sniper felt the Israeli community had stolen his home even if it wasn't true, he was given a gun by the government but not food, he sincerely felt that the situation was desperate enough to call for violence, and if he had his own home and good plumbing and and a job, maybe he wouldn't pick off kids walking from the school building to their houses with a rifle, i.e. some of this is our doing for not helping him). People have called me a racist for telling the sniper story, though people have also called me a racist for saying that Scientology is a dangerous cult, so I feel that word is just thrown around a lot. Also, Scientology is a dangerous cult.

It bothered me that this writer, who was talking about the 1970's when she traveled around Asia Minor and the Middle East, discussed her various fears based on ignorance (she wouldn't be allowed in mosques, she would be raped, she would get involved in some Arab honor killing somehow) and then described a trip where none of those fears manifested into reality, and she had no attempt to justify her early assumptions or say something like, "How foolish I was to think that all Turkish men are gay." It just astounds me that a person could be that way, and then have the gall to write about it as if she did a great thing by traveling to these horrible countries where the food was all bad because she didn't know what it was and so she ate bread and onions the whole time.

So, travel. Then consider what you actually want to say before you write about it. We will judge you.

Note to commentors: I am not interested in turning this into an Israeli-Palestinian political discussion; I was just using that as an example. I will reject comments that are about that and not writing or travel writing and instead are attempting to inform me of how racist I am.


TheMuffinMom said...

Right on! Exactly why I chose to write about teen life in a backwater Idaho town--it's a cultural phenomenon more astoundingly, fantastically unreal than anything an urban fantasy author could ever create, LOL!

Michelle said...

You can write about a bad travel experience without slamming an entire country. I've done it. Had a horrible experience in Portugal with a cranky bus driver who left me stranded in the middle of nowhere. But that doesn't mean I went ahead and accused the Portuguese as a whole. The essay ends with a kind shopkeeper helping us out.

Bad experiences are part of good writing. They make a reader want to root for the character, which in a memoir is the author. That doesn't excuse negative generalizations of a country or its people.

Judith said...

This reminds me of some self proclaimed "foodies" (oh, how I hate that term!) who refused to eat local prized foods because these snobs thought the food too low for their palates. I argue these people are not foodies if they are unwilling to try something new, particularly regional specialties.

And, my god, Middle Eastern food is awesome! Ok. I'll eat almost anything. But I'm openminded. Really. *snicker*

Now, please let me never type or utter the word "foodies" again.

Tena Russ said...

Dear Rejector,

A quote that has always stayed with me:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Mark Twain

Welcome home.

K.M. Cruz said...

Scientology is a dangerous cult!

Anonymous said...

every time I travel, I come away with a plot bunny (new idea for a story). Every. Time.

The last one turned into a novle of 136k words. Epic Fantasy. Of course ;-)

amberargyle said...

One day I will travel. But right now, all my money (which isn't much) goes to my kids.

Anonymous said...

Oh I agree. I've been to Argentina twice and Japan once. I've had some interesting experiences--robbed my first trip to Buenos Aires, licked on the neck in a milonga my second trip. But the amazing outweighs the bad every time. Black bees the size of my thumb, dancing until I can barely walk any more, and the most amazing food I've tasted. Ah, now I want to travel again and I just got home.

Queen of the Road said...

I'm a convert - to travel. Always liked it, just didn't love it. Then, we traveled in our RV. (My husband suggested we get it and travel the U.S. for a year. I wondered why he couldn't be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette.) Now, we're selling our house so we can live in the thing.

I can't wait. My agent is waiting for my next travel memoir. I'm now officially a "travel memoirist."

Go figure.

JuLo said...

Some people just don't like being out of their comfort zone. Those people shouldn't travel. You don't need to travel halfway across the world to have a bad experience. There are crazies everywhere, the only difference is that crazies at home are explainable. I've had a nut-job shake bells tied to a stick in my ear. But it was Berkeley, and I already knew my chances of running in to some bum who friend his brain on drugs 40 years ago was high.

Those are the same people who travel the world, only to eat at McDonalds. From my experience, the food is better everywhere than here. Well except that time I had Mexican food in Greece, but I knew what I was getting myself into there.

On the flip side, wouldn't it be nice if other countries realized that drunk off their arse college kids and stuck up yuppies didn't comprise the whole of our country as well? I had a Scottish woman tell me and my parents that she had never met an American family before and had no idea we were so "normal".

Christopher said...

So - that being said. What are really great examples of travel memoirs?

We can strike Jack Kerouac and Elizabeth Gilbert from the list. Let's just put them on there for arguments sake.

Dena said...

I just lived in India for about 6 months and it was the most amazing experience. I know, "amazing," what does that mean anyway?

Well, in the book spawned by that trip, I'm going to have to balance the incredible happiness, satisfaction, and financial and cultural wealth with unsanitary public hospitals, caste systems (yes, plural, with religion as another system of separation), and intense financial poverty.

It is an "amazing" task, but it's hard to write about India for an American audience. I don't want to reinforce negative stereotypes, but I don't want to ignore difficulties in Indian people's lives. Very tricky.

Me, Myself and a Rubik'S Cube said...

"If they're going to come to America, they need to learn the language."

My grandmother was German and even though she spoke English, she'd get that, because she had an accent.

After I left the USA to work, I now hear the opposite: "If they want us in this country they should learn English." (Clue Artillery: If everyone knew English, we wouldn't have a job!)

And little story if you will:

Not so long ago I traveled with a woman in the Philippines. And while talking with the Taxi driver who wanted to come to the US, she told him he was much better off because the economy was so bad she had to live at home with her parents.

We'd left the resort- all around us were one room shacks, dirt floors, and no running water.

On one hand its easy to complain about this kind of behavior. On the other hand the id has to protect the ego.

She saw the poverty but couldn't register it with anything she'd ever experienced... she was trying to find common ground. We're both poor, let's commiserate about it together. But she was comparing Steak to rice. Not the same thing, at all.

Anonymous said...

I write about crazy small town life in Southeast Texas, which can be it's own country and sometimes it seems maybe its own planet. I know it up and down and sideways and every possible direction, so very little research needed. :)

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

I remember the time my friend and I were in Italy in this amazingly beautiful town called Positano. It was carved into the cliffs, on the Mediterranean Sea. The view, the food, the fresh air and the clear water were heavenly. We talked to some local guys about their travel experiences. One guy looked at me, sighed and said in a thick Italian accent, "The most beautiful city in the world?" I'm thinking - 'The one you're living in.' He replies, "Las Vegas!"

Hysterical! I guess it's all POV.

shell said...

My senior year in college our French class took a three week trip to Paris. Was warned beforehand by those who'd already been and gotten wind of my trip that the French are very snobby. Towards americans, especially, so I should expect to be treated badly.
Need I say the opposite was true. Most everyone we came in contact were friendly and fun.
(One caveat. The Parisians were a bit more reserved. When you got out of the city, folks seemed more open.)
The one exception? College kids our own age. Invariably they were snarky and dismissive. Tho usualy we couldn't see them thru the cigarette smoke haze.
This was in the late 1970's. I;m still amazed that France recently banned smoking in public places.

Taz Lubkey said...

I was in France two months ago and decided to buy a French novel without knowing what it was about, but by the time I got home, I found it was about a man who travelled to America to live with his cousin and study American Universities. Didn't think much of it until your post showed up. :)

Randi said...


I was in France in '91 and I noticed that if I tried (emphasis on tried) to speak French, I usually got a friendly response. In English. ;) However, some of my peers (it was a school trip) didn't even try to speak French and they got serious attitude everywhere we went. I will say, that I sort of had the opposite experience of yours. In the outlying towns there was more reservation towards us, than there was in Paris.

I remember the night we got to Blois, we walked to a restaurant for dinner. A group of cute French guys came walking past us. They asked if we were Americans; we said yes; they looked us up and down and said, "Too bad"! LOL.

Mame said...

Scientology really is a dangerous cult. It makes people jump on couches on Oprah.

I'm not kidding. If I ever do that, have a sniper shoot me.