The Extraordinary Ordinary of Traveling
In this week’s Saturday Read: Most travel writing misses the best part of travel—the mundane
Admitting that you don’t like travel writing is almost like admitting you don’t like travel. What, you don’t want to know an insider tip about that marvelous little fusion cafe in Toronto that mixes French bistro mainstays with Ghanian spices? No, I do not. I wouldn’t mind going there, but reading about someone else’s visit is like listening to people describe the plots of movies you haven’t seen. Especially if the movie is about a little fusion cafe in Toronto.
I don’t like travel writing about places I know I will never visit, like Ghana. I don’t care about your guide and his stories and the way the dust smelled at dusk. I would like to go to Tuscany, but I don’t care that you found a little fruit stand while biking, and the owner gave you an orange that was as sweet as the light that streamed through the trees in the early hours of the evening. Good for you! But I’ll be over here reading something else, thanks.
You could ascribe this to my own boring Philistine parochialism, I suppose, but here’s the problem: One of my jobs, now and then, is travel writing. I go along with the conventions because no one who reads travel writing wants to read “nothing happened at all, but at least it happened in Tuscany.”
But I’d read that. My idea of the perfect travel section of a newspaper would consist of locations around the world with a paragraph along these lines:
“It’s a second-tier European city, so you know the drill. It has a big broad boulevard with standard-issue 19th century buildings, a twisty, narrow street district where you can get the national dish, which is probably called Spritzlhund or garbonella. Nice museum with one painting by a famous guy, and 758 landscapes. We spent three uneventful days, the details of which cannot possibly be of any interest to anyone else. Coffee’s good and you can smoke in the cafes.”
That’s all I need to know. I’d probably go there. Oh, it would be fine if something happened. But it’s not necessary.
I am, in other words, an unadventurous traveler. I do not want to zip-line across a verdant gorge (which is probably full of rabid nasty monkeys), or parasail above an azure sea (which is probably teeming with many-toothed eels), or even bike through Tuscany, unless it’s all downhill. What I want to do is go to museums, look at buildings and talk to strangers. Not because they might be descendants of a duke who died in World War I when he raised his sword to rally the troops and a bullet ricocheted off the blade and struck him in the heart, a metaphor for the old ways of war and its modern mechanized horrors, no. It’s because a stranger might have the answer to a nagging question I have about American potato production.
Let me explain. My wife and I go to a tennis resort in Mexico every so often. She plays tennis; I listen to her talk about playing tennis. The food is diverse, abundant and mediocre. The resort is tucked away in the jungle away from the crass party hotels of Cancun, a modern marvel with an ersatz downtown full of cafes, bars and restaurants. A canal runs through the grounds, ferrying you from brunch to the gym. The beach is beautiful and regularly patrolled by masked men in black toting submachine guns. We’ve been there five times. Nothing happens. Perfect vacation.
Last March, before we boarded the plane to Mexico, I was sitting in the Minneapolis airport having a good hot cup of Dunkin’ coffee (cheaper than Starbucks, and there’s never a line—insider tip!) looking at a video ad for the food court. It showed crinkle-cut french fries tumbling out of the fryer basket. For some reason, I thought: We used to think crinkle-cut fries were special, but they always underwhelm. Modern fries with the skin on, they’re much better. The time of crinkle-cuts is drawing to a close.
Fast-forward 44 hours, and we're sitting at the Aqua bar on the canal, outside of the ersatz downtown. Perfect warm night. We can hear the music from the Indian wedding in the convention center. Since it’s Silent Rave Night, people are wearing headphones and dancing to music only they can hear. We’d struck up a conversation with a lively group. Because I am an American who believes our work helps define us, I always ask what people do. You learn so much. I’ve talked to a guy who took 911 calls for one country while living in another. A Canadian real estate developer whose father was a beloved broadcaster. A man who ran a small-town motel when he was 25. And, in this instance, a potato broker.
He said he supposed it sounded pretty dull.
No! No, not at all! Listen, I have a question about crinkle-cuts. Is it just me, or are they really underwhelming these days? Is there a reason?
His eyes brightened. Yes! Yes, there was a reason! I turned to my wife and said, “Hon, you know how I was talking about crinkle-cuts at the airport? This fellow knows all about them!”
It had to do with a type of potato, and starch content, and creaminess, or something. (Permanent acquisition of the details may have been hampered by the tequila.) The point is, a random conversation a.) answered a question, and b.) gave a fellow the certainty that someone actually wanted to plumb the extent of his potato knowledge.
And what do you do? they ask. Oh, I just type. I use vampiric alchemy to convert other people’s interesting lives for my blog.
I’ve taken cruises all around the world, and while I remember the museums and twisty streets, I have to admit that the experiences of seeing the Hermitage on a private tour on a bright-sky midnight, or tapas at a tiny place in Barcelona, are equaled by the long conversations in the bars and cafes on board the ship. Perhaps I just assume that all these places in the wide world are interesting, with their own particular charms and demerits, and because they are interesting and different, I should go there. Give me enough time and perhaps I will. But I’m not going to read a thousand words about the shops in St. Lucia.
“I got a good tan, and a stranger at the bar confirmed a suspicion about potatoes” is not good travel writing. But it would make me want to go there.