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~You can write, you can travel, but can you 'travel write'?~
There's a big difference between being a traveller and going on holiday. Some who go on holiday also travel, but many who travel are not on holiday. It may seem an odd distinction, but if you're going to buy a book about travel writing, it's worth being aware that these are not going to be holiday stories. Equally, they are not going to be holiday or location 'reviews'. When you buy 'Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing' you will not get facts and figures about when things were built, who the architect was, and what it costs to go in. That's not travel writing - that's a guidebook. What you will get is a series of really well written 'travellers tales' collected together, drawn from the enormous stock of writing built up by Lonely Planet over decades of publishing.
This was not the book I intended to buy. I actually wanted the latest Lonely Planet guide to travel writing but I was far too mean to pay £13 for a copy. Instead I browsed in search of cheaper options and I found this collection of short travel stories by the great and the good of travel writing. I realise that what I did was a little like buying a DVD of flamenco dance because I didn't want to pay for the DVD that teaches you how to flamenco, but I was in the mood to be inspired. Whilst I wouldn't part with the money to be told how to write, I could buy a book stuffed with some fine examples of the art and craft of travel writing instead. Instead of the £13 for the 'how to' book, I paid just £2.81 for a second hand copy of the stories themselves. I bought from Amazon and thanks to my membership of their Prime scheme, that tiny £2.81 included next day delivery. My copy was so immaculate that I doubt it had ever been looked at.
~The Good, the Bad, the Ugly~
I'm a bit ambivalent about travel writing. I remember once being stuck at the house of a friend who was determined to impress us by reading his favourite extracts from a Bruce Chatwin book. I was bored out of my brain and was forced to drink far too much cheap wine in order to get through the evening. I dabbled in Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux over the years, sometimes impressed, sometimes not so, enjoyed watching Michael Palin but rarely actually READ his books, and bought nearly everything William Dalrymple has written about India but never actually read any of them either. Best Of Lonely Planet Travel Writing gave me something that other books had failed to deliver - short, punchy stories of life on the road, of things going horribly wrong, of the kindness of strangers, and of utterly miserable times when all you want to do is go home. Each is delivered in just a few pages, long enough to lure you in, short enough to pick up and put down as a before bed or in the bath read. There are some similarities of style that help you to get a sense of what works and what doesn't.
'Best Of' delivers twenty six travel tales written by what seem to be world class travel writers. Each chapter starts out by explaining who the author is and what they've written or for what they're best known. I found that very useful as I had only heard of a small number of the writers and even those I'd heard of, I hadn't previously read. Many of the writers are of retirement age or above, many of the events described date back by several decades to a time before the Wi-Fi and mobile phones, a time when some of the countries were very different than they are today, when travel was both more of a physical challenge but also sometimes less of a physical risk. The tales have wide geographic coverage - Africa, South America, plenty of Asia and even Australasia. There's even one quirky little story set in London but I don't want to spoil it by telling you too much about that one as it's a tale that plays with the reader's perceptions of 'otherness' and alienation. Several of the stories tell of the unexpected kindness of strangers - the hulking great muscled native who appears with a coat hanger and breaks into the writer's locked rental car, the lad on the bicycle giving a diarrhoea tormented young woman a lift home when the sun sets and leaves her lost. Others tell of just how weird those foreign folk can be - the taxi drivers who think they are Michael Schumacher, the military men watching porn videos in a hut on a posting a long way from home and asking if all Americans are really like that. There are also refreshingly honest admissions that the desire to get off the beaten track and find yourself rather than going where everyone else wants to go can be a massive mistake. Sometimes nobody goes to that obscure little monastery not because it's in the middle of nowhere, but because there's sod-all to see when you get there and the monks won't appreciate your visit.
Not all the stories are in dangerous places doing unconventional things. There's a lovely story of a Jewish American family flying down to Ecuador to attend the wedding of a Jewish girl and her Ecuadorian lover. When the girl suggests her friends and family chip in to buy her groom's family a pig, the irony is not lost on any of us. When the writer's dad provides the DJ at the wedding with a 'dancefloor hits' CD, there's nearly an international 'dance off' incident. In another story a girl in Prague picks up a pretty young man in a bar, goes back to his place and realises just how incredibly alone you can feel away from home. There are war-zones a plenty, lots of places you'd have to be paid to go rather than be willing to pay to visit, there are people sent to strange places for their jobs, for fun or for family. There are cautionary tales about being the newest writer on the Lonely Planet team and getting assigned to the Central African Republic and finding almost everything in the book they've been sent to update has been bombed, closed or otherwise destroyed. The glamour of travel? No, there's not too much of that in this book. This is warts and all, diarrhoea and vomiting, squat toilets and bed bugs. And I loved nearly every story. I skipped a couple of dull ones towards the end, but if this were a box of chocs, it was heavy on the pralines and the nutty centres and refreshingly light on the strawberry creams that nobody really likes.
~Did it work?~
My aim was to inspire myself to think differently about how I observe the world. This time next week I'll be back in India and I hope it will have given me the confidence to write what I want to rather than what I feel I ought to. I've been feeling like my travel reviewing is getting into a bit (sometimes a lot) of a rut. I want to write about how a place feels, sounds, smells, tastes and looks and not just list how many towels you get and whether there's somewhere to plug in your laptop. When writing for Ciao and Dooyoo, I'm periodically irritated by having to cater to people who will condemn the review to obscurity and non-payment by rating it down if I don't include whether the restaurant is accessible to disabled people (generally asked by someone who is not disabled), accepts dogs and whether it serves gluten free/kosher/hallal/organic cornflakes. Never mind that such pedants wouldn't go to Libya/Iran/Mozambique in a million years - they want to know stuff they'll never need to know. I want to write about feelings rather than facts and review sites are clearly not the place to do that. When I started on Ciao back in 2006, I soon got shown that was the wrong thing to do. So I snapped into line, conformed with the norms, I counted the towels and the sockets, I kept note of what time breakfast was served and whether they had freshly squeezed juice or stuff out of cartons. A little bit of my soul died each time I did it and yet I know I'll continue to do it because I'm as addicted to reviewing as the next person. On the other hand, I'll use other sites to be more reflective and write about issues rather than the hardness of mattresses and pillows, I might well start a blog where I can post what I want to rather than what will earn me more pennies on the review sites. Let's see. Reading Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing has given me a little more confidence that the words in my head are not so far away from those on the written page and for that I thank Lonely Planet and the 26 writers in the book.
What do you really remember 20 years later when you look back on a trip? It's not the towel origami in the hotel room (actually, maybe it is), it's not the waiters' uniforms. What I remember are the little things that happen that make me laugh, the things that go wrong and miraculously go right again as a result of fate or good karma. I remember the man who gave me a mango to welcome me to Malawi and refused to take it back when I got stroppy and assumed he wanted something from me. I remember the chicken that fell off the bus roof in Mozambique, I remember the bizarre discussions with small boys outside Indian temples who really want to know what I think about Kevin Peterson and the young girls in Iran who giggle and ask if I know Cristiano Ronaldo. Those are the deposits in life's experience bank, thank you very much, and it's time I started to collect more of those and less reviews of Holiday Inns and Novotels.