CELEBRATING GREAT TRAVEL WRITING
Travelers’ Tales publishes books about the world and life-changing experiences that happen on the road. The Best Travel Writing, Volume 11 is our latest collection of great stories guaranteed to ignite your wanderlust.
Includes Grand Prize Winners, Solas Awards
Introduction by Rolf Potts
In The Best Travel Writing, Volume 11, readers will:
- Piece together the puzzle of life in rural Cambodia
- Reawaken the joy of travel on a bus ride through Mexico
- Reexamine war memories with former soldiers in Vietnam
- Learn the ropes and the art of sailing with a “good captain” on the Pacific
- Find a true soul sister in the highlands of Ecuador
- Follow Vincent van Gogh’s footsteps in France
- Survive (or not) a home invasion in Brazil…and much more
By Rolf Potts
Earlier this year, while road tripping through the American South, I wandered into a New Orleans bookstore and wound up dropping $250 on a nineteenth-century travel tome entitled Picturesque World. I typically wouldn’t have spent that much on an unwieldy old book, but something about it sent me into an imaginative reverie that felt a little bit like time-travel.
Most any journey can, at moments, have a way of making a traveler feel like he’s navigating a blurred line between present and past. Walk through the urban slums at the outskirts of modern Mumbai, and you can get a sense of what New York’s Lower East Side might have felt like in 1900; lose your smartphone in Copenhagen and you may well find yourself trapped in 1999 (that distant age when travelers still used paper maps and the kindness of strangers to find their way around). In New Orleans, I often saw the present-day city through the lens of the previous decade, when I’d spent the first few months of 2005 living out of a rented apartment at the edge of the French Quarter, blissfully unaware that hurricane-triggered floods would soon transform everything around me. Discovering the two-volume heft of Picturesque World in Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur Street sent me back even further in time. Paging through the book’s exquisitely detailed engravings of landscapes and monuments and village vistas from distant lands, I felt like I’d discovered some long-forgotten steam-punk incarnation of Instagram.
At first glance the Instagram comparison might seem spurious, since Picturesque World clearly was designed for an elite readership. Published by Boston’s Estes & Lauriat in 1878, the two 576-page volumes are bound in blind-tooled Moroccan goat-leather and accented with gilt-stamp detailing and gold-painted endpapers. Its full title reads: The Picturesque World; Or, Scenes in Many Lands: With One Thousand Illustrations on Wood and Steel of Picturesque Views from All Parts of the World. Comprising Mountain, Lake and River Scenery, Parks, Palaces, Cathedrals, Churches, Castles, Abbeys, and Other Views Selected from the Most Noted and Interesting Parts of the World; With Original and Authentic Descriptions by the Best Authors.
Picturesque World was assembled at a time when the very definition of travel writing was shifting. For millennia, going back to Herodotus and beyond, the bulk of travel writing was at heart an empirical endeavor, dutifully describing faraway peoples and places for the imaginations of the home audience. By the late nineteenth century, however, the rise of new engraving and photographic technology meant that the reading public could see the world in pictures rather than envisioning it from text descriptions. National Geographic debuted one decade after the release of Picturesque World, and before long the monthly geographical magazine came to be known more for its full-page photographs than for its scientific data. Around the same time, the Exposition Universelle in Paris sparked a fad for picture postcards, which by the turn of the century were being sold in the billions in Europe and North America.
As images of the world continued to proliferate in mass media, cultural critics on both continents began to wonder if something was being lost in the process. Much like Plato once worried that writing would stunt people’s ability to memorize, early twentieth-century academics and newspaper editors worried that images would impoverish the imagination, inhibit cultural literacy, and oversimplify our understanding of the world. In 1906, American writer John Walker Harrington satirically suggested that the world was succumbing to a disease known as “postal carditis,” asserting that “unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain.”
More than a century later, it’s easy to draw parallels between that fin de siècle image boom and the current-day ubiquity of digital photographs on picture-sharing apps like Instagram. Century-old anxieties that postcards might trivialize one’s understanding of the world reverberate in current-day critiques of social media—with the added concern that “selfie culture” lends a veneer of narcissism to the equation. Whereas the postcards of previous generations were inscribed with “wish you were here!” sentiments, artfully filtered Instagram photos imply something along the lines of “don’t you wish you were me?” In this way, critics worry, as more and more travelers reflexively post scenery-fringed selfies to social media, journeys have become less about an inquiry into other places than a roving performance of the Self.
While I can appreciate this concern, I would contend that a degree of superficiality has always been a part of travel, particularly as it has become more and more accessible for middle-class tourists over the past two centuries. The engravings in Picturesque World triggered my fascination not because they were somehow purer than the travel photos one sees on Instagram, but because they are essentially the same as their social media equivalents. Search Instagram for photos of Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal, the Pantheon or the Parthenon, and you’ll find tens of thousands of digital snapshots that share the exact same angles, lighting, and framing as the images in Picturesque World. Regardless of whether these pictures feature a selfie, the most viral social-media travel photos have a way of depicting places in terms of iconic beauty (i.e. the “picturesque”) rather than experiential nuance.
Around the time Picturesque World first appeared in libraries and bookstores, conventional wisdom held that ongoing advances in photographic technology and scientific empiricism would soon render travel writing obsolete. What this assumption overlooked, of course, was that the best travel writing had always shrugged off the conceit of objectivity and embraced a personal point of view. The ancient Egyptian traveler Wenamun is memorable less for his description of the Mediterranean than for his weeping jag of homesickness in Lebanon; the fourth-century Galician pilgrim Egeria is at her most profound when she expresses gratitude for the kindness of strangers who showed her hospitality in the Sinai; the fourteenth-century Moroccan wanderer Ibn Battuta is most relatable when he longs for the lifestyle of a simple weaver on an idyllic island in the Maldives. And, around the time Picturesque World was published, the most telling travel book was not some exhaustive colonial monograph, but Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which exuded self-deprecating chagrin at the prescribed rituals of tourism.
In a way, the flood of travel images stretching from Instagram back to Picturesque World has freed travel writing from the pretense of objective description and underscored its importance as a subtle, open-ended, ragged-edged undertaking. Beholden neither to the panic-driven tropes of news journalism or the forced cheerfulness of tourism publicity, the best travel writing blends reportage with reflection, seeking out the complex humanity of places through a subjective, self-questioning personal lens. Simple attention counts for more than overarching analysis, and wrestling with questions is more important than outlining answers.
The travel stories collected in this book illustrate how, on the road, the most vivid lens into a place and its people is often revealed in the smallest moments and the simplest encounters. For Laura Resau, this means consenting to wear a traditional Quichuan dress while going out on the town with her indigenous host in Ecuador; for Darrin Duford, this means exploring the idiosyncrasies of Panamanian culture through a quixotic quest to find a new Panama hat; for Amber Paulen, this means gaining perspective on her own life by baking bread with a self-described “spinster” in Italy. Mario Kaiser’s experience of Iran is transformed by the fact that, against all conventional wisdom, he and his wife have chosen to travel there in the throes of their honeymoon; in Malaysia Christina Ammon learns that what at first feels like an exasperating inconvenience—her truck breaking down in an obscure provincial town—can, in time, be a window into the joys of friendship with the people who live in an unfamiliar place.
Many of the stories in this book show how, as first-world travelers, the most affecting lessons we learn in distant lands often involve people who don’t enjoy the same privileges that we do. Olga Pavlinova Olenich discovers this while sharing a train compartment with a Moldovan migrant whose travels are motivated not by leisure, but the promise of “illegal” work in Portugal; Michael Sano gains perspective when, far from his out-of-the-closet life in San Francisco, he falls into an ambiguous flirtation with a young gay man in the conservative confines of small-town Nicaragua. Time and movement also have a way helping us understand our relationship to distant places: for James Michael Dorsey this means experiencing Baja California by bus; for Glenda Reed, approaching the Marquesas Islands by sailboat; for Peter Wortsman, digging deeper into the idiosyncrasies of France as his language skills improve over the course of many years. The passage of time also takes on a poignant resonance when—in an inversion of the dynamic insinuated by Picturesque World or Instagram—Marcia DeSanctis reflects on how, as often as not, the most powerful narrative contained in a travel photograph is not found in the subject it depicts, but in the person who chose to leave herself out of the frame.
In the end, the best travel writing risks a kind of vulnerability that is intrinsic to experiencing the world in a meaningful way. In the essay that concludes this book, Don George’s emotional epiphany during a moment of rain-sodden exhaustion in Cambodia reveals how, in travel, getting “closer to the wild heart of life” is often inseparable from embracing uncertainty and keeping your eyes open in unfamiliar places. “I follow the compass of my heart,” he writes, “venturing off the map, making connections, asking questions, going deeper, trying to penetrate the essence of a place, so that I can understand it better and bring back precious pieces to share.”
So long as this attitude underpins the journey, travel writing will always remain relevant.
~ ~ ~
Rolf Potts has reported from more than sixty countries for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, Slate, Outside, The New Yorker, The Believer, Sports Illustrated, and the Travel Channel. He is perhaps best known for promoting the ethic of independent travel, and his book on the subject, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, has been through twenty-four printings and translated into several foreign languages. His newest book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer, won a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers, and became the first American-authored book to win Italy’s prestigious Chatwin Prize for travel writing. Each July he can be found in France, where he is the program director at the Paris American Academy’s creative writing workshop.
The Good Captain
Love and Lies in Iran
Playing Dress-Up in the Andes
My Mexican Bus
James Michael Dorsey
When the Journey’s Over
Olga Pavlinova Olenich
Sacrifices, Desires, New Moon
I Am a French Irregular Verb
A Love Song
K. M. Churchill
The Train to Harare
We’ll Always Have Paris
Time or the Sahara Wind
Honey Colored Lies
An Occurrence of Nonsense at N’djili Airport
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Spinster of Atrani
Speaking in Hats
In Vincent’s Footsteps
Jill K. Robinson
Paddling with Marigolds
Piecing Together Puzzles
About the Editors
A souvenir becomes a symbol of hope.
At the end of my first trip to Paris, I had come to the Place du Tertre to buy a painting. I could not afford this. I’d just finished an MFA in creative writing and financed my trip with my student loan. But intuition told me that I should not leave Paris without a piece of artwork. I didn’t realize then that I would buy something more significant than any souvenir could be. Something I would have paid any price for: hope.
I walked around the carré aux artistes twice, dismayed by the caricaturists and the cookie-cutter pictures of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. My flight back to Pennsylvania left in eight hours and a dispiriting panic set in. Not wanting to give up, I made one final lap around the square.
To this day, I believe I conjured that oil painting wedged between two larger canvases. I’m not sure how I missed it before. It was a café scene, and I knew instantly this was the artist I’d hoped to find. I do the majority of my writing in cafés and have always thought of them as sacred spaces, portals to that meditative space where words I never expected flow into my head and shape narratives that help me make sense of the world.
This artist used splashes of color: scarlet and persimmon, cobalt and jade, everything infused with luminous patches that bordered on being abstract. Only under scrutiny did you notice people and tiny tables. In the foreground of one I liked, two ghost-like figures sat together, one in shades of blue, the other in greens and rust. Their small round table glowed yellow, as if with possibility itself. It reminded me of the dreamy blur that cafés can become when I’m in the midst of creating.
I thumbed through the other paintings. “Vous êtes l’artiste?” I asked the woman sitting nearby, wanting to know if she had painted them. A petite woman in her forties, she had dark hair and pale skin and a pursed-lip look of persistence.
“Oui,” she said.
I thought about how to best phrase that I liked her work. “Ils sont très beaux,” I said, then realized that the word for painting is feminine and I should have said elles sont très belles. Despite seven years of French and my strong desire to converse easily, my travels had showed me that I was only useful in restaurants and train stations. Every other encounter quickly stymied me. As a Francophile, struggling with the language left me feeling like I was dishonoring France. As a writer, not being able to find the right words was one of the most troubling fates I could imagine.
“Combien?” I asked pointing to a painting. The woman rattled off the price and I tried to quickly translate the number in my head then convert francs into dollars. About $125, I figured. A splurge, but at nearly twenty by fourteen inches, it was far bigger than I ever dreamed I’d be able to buy.
I narrowed it down to two cafe scenes, the one in blue and another, predominantly red.
“Entre les deux…” I pointed from one to another, “laquelle préférez-vous?” She looked at the paintings and I held my breath, hoping I’d spoken correctly. She pointed to the blue one.
“Pourquoi?” I asked.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand her explanation. For the first time my entire trip, I was having a conversation that didn’t involve the words croissant or le train. It felt momentous. Like I belonged in Paris. This feeling lasted until I asked “Carte de crédit?” which prompted a series of sentences and gestures toward a nearby establishment.
“Vous comprenez?” she asked.
The only part I understood was “vous comprenez?” but I smiled and nodded like a dumbstruck fool until she led me toward a storefront then pantomimed the process as she repeated herself. Finally, I understood, though I had misheard the price. It was $250. I flushed, too embarrassed to admit it was beyond my budget. It was art, I consoled myself. It would appreciate, right?
The transaction complete, she led me up a tall, narrow staircase to an apartment overlooking the square where she’d wrap my souvenir for the journey home. Paintings leaned against the walls in thick stacks. Other canvases hung on a clothesline. She gave me a postcard showing a different café scene and her name on the back. Catherine. I stood enthralled by her productivity. I hadn’t yet published any stories, and though I had finished a draft of my novel, it was still in need of much revision. This was what I wanted: evidence of my creativity, finished and ready for the world to see.
When I returned home, I had the painting framed and settled into my post-grad life as a writer and lecturer. But within three months, I slipped into a severe depression that left me unable to write creatively for what would turn out to be five years.
My notebooks during that time catalogue my demise. A typical writing session of ten pages quickly dwindles to one, mostly the opening three paragraphs of my novel. The same sentences, about a fourteen-year-old girl driving alone at night, with slight modifications. Often, I complain that the cafés were noisy or the tables wobbly. I’d been working in these spaces for years. It was I who’d become disagreeable.
Days when I found it hard to leave the house, I’d sit on my couch and stare at the painting, the smears and bursts of color transforming into shadowy spirits. The whole thing floats on the canvas like a suggestion or a lovely dream. One figure, possibly hooded, watches from the corner. I imagined that spirit as divine inspiration itself and waited for it to find me.
Weeks of not writing at all became months. I moved to Boston and the painting sat boxed while I mustered the energy to unpack. Unwrapping it was a revelation. I remembered the intuition that had led me to Catherine’s work. Now, the glowing table in the foreground seemed a message.
I made room in my studio apartment for a similar café table, and I’d sit with my notebook and pen and envision a tide of words rushing forth, my creativity turning incandescent. At most I’d write a couple of paragraphs of stilted sentences before my attention would drift, but at least I was writing.
On difficult days, I’d look at the painting and remember that the enchanted zone I was currently denied access to did indeed exist. It was there for Hemingway, Colette, Picasso, and the long line of artists who had claimed Paris home. And it was there for Catherine, who’d let me glimpse the life of a practicing artist with her apartment overflowing with canvases. This is how it’s done, she seemed to be saying to me. You will find your way here.
Eventually, words did return to me, and fifteen years later, I revisited Paris. By that time, I had published stories, signed with an agent, and begun another novel when my first didn’t sell. I had planned this weeklong visit to be a creative retreat to sit in cafés, write, and wander. I also wanted to search for Catherine. I’d Googled her name over the years and found only one mention, in an online gallery. If she was still on the Place du Tertre, I imagined telling her how she had gotten me through dark times; that when language all but left me, her painting was hope hanging on my wall.
I didn’t know then that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of seeing Catherine, if she was even exhibiting. The nearly three hundred artists annually selected to sell their work in the carré aux artistes share their one-square-meter spaces and display on alternate days. Even though there’s a ten-year waiting list for a spot and some ten million tourists visit the Place du Tertre each year, a part of me hoped Catherine had moved on to more prestigious venues.
As it turned out, Catherine was sitting right where I had left her, though I recognized her painting’s saturated palette first. Seeing it gave my heart a lift, as if something significant was about to happen.
But Catherine herself shocked me. Her hair and skin had the thinness of a woman in her seventies. Had I really misjudged her age before, or had time not been kind to her? She wore a brown plaid blazer and buff-colored Oxfords, the androgynous style popular with Parisians. There was none of the pertness that I remembered. Sitting with her chin on her hands, her eyes cast down, she looked bored. Like she had nowhere else to go.
I considered how to address her, suddenly aware that I had not taken a picture of her painting hanging on my wall. It would have been so easy to show her and say, look, I bought that. Fifteen years ago. I look at it every day.
Finally, I approached Catherine, exchanged a simple bonjour, and leafed through her paintings. These were slightly more abstract, depicting the arches of doorways and hints of buildings, instead of cafés. I glanced at her twice, wanting her to recognize a kindred artistic soul. But Catherine didn’t look up. I leafed through her work a second time, trying to form the words that would tell her what a profound effect she’d had on my life.
But I couldn’t remember how to say fifteen years ago—il y a quinze ans? Ça fait quinze ans? Depuis something? Why hadn’t I planned out what I would say?
I wanted to ask about the changes in her art and whether she still painted cafés, what work lined her apartment walls. But I couldn’t force words out of my mouth. I was too aware that my bumbling French would never convey all I wanted to say. And I wouldn’t understand her response anyway.
I also couldn’t shake the fact of Catherine, old and tired, sitting in that same spot on the Place du Tertre. In retrospect, I think I feared hearing weariness in her voice, when I needed to know that all the time I clung to her hope, all the time I spent waiting to be surprised again by words, hasn’t been in vain. That the result of a creative life is a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, not despair.
We owe it to artists to tell them when they’ve touched us, but I can only imagine what it would have meant to Catherine. I wish I’d had the courage to tell her in my imperfect French. All I have now is the next best thing: honoring Catherine by using the very language her painting ensured me I’d find my way back to.
Amy Marcott has published fiction in Necessary Fiction, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, Dogwood, Memorious, Juked, and elsewhere. An essay is forthcoming in the anthology Wither: Stories of Acute Shame and Humiliation. She has earned fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Somerville Arts Council, as well as a scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest, among other honors. She received a BA in English from Wesleyan University and an MFA from Penn State and has taught and consulted for Grub Street in Boston. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is at work on a novel.
James O’Reilly, publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in Oxford, England, and raised in San Francisco. He’s visited fifty countries and lived in four, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, rafting the Zambezi, and hanging out with nuns in Florence and penguins in Antarctica. He travels whenever he can with his wife and their three daughters. They live in Leavenworth, Washington and Palo Alto, California, where they also publish art games and books for children at Birdcage Press (birdcagepress.com).
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has visited more than fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the Arctic to equatorial rainforests, the Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the 1980s he coauthored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and for thirty-one years wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch.” Habegger regularly teaches travel writing at workshops and writers’ conferences, is a principal of the Prose Doctors (prosedoctors .com), and editor in chief of Triporati.com, a destination discovery site. He lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Sean O’Reilly is editor-at- large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Virginia with his wife and three of their six children. He’s had a lifelong interest in philosophy and theology, and is the author of How to Manage Your Destructive Impulses with Cyber Kinetics and Authority. He is also CEO and founder of the Auriga Distribution Group, Johnny Upright, Fifth Access, and Redbrazil.com, a bookselling site.