The Best Travel Writing 2011
is the eighth volume in the annual Travelers’ Tales series launched in 2004 to celebrate the world’s best travel writing—from Nobel Prize winners to emerging new writers. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes encompass high adventure, spiritual growth, romance, hilarity and misadventure, service to humanity, and encounters with exotic cuisine.
In The Best Travel Writing 2011 readers will:
- Sweat, suffer, and fall in love in Guyana
- Find friends, many friends, traveling solo in India
- Make your way across an Icelandic ice cap in winter
- Dig up your own past in Greece
- Break down on your motorcycle in rural China…and much more.
With an Introduction by Pico Iyer
Seeing the World Anew
by Pico Iyer
Ten people walk into a crowded room, and every one of them comes out with a different story; the Rashomon effect plays out in all our lives pretty much every day. Someone sees the Donna Karan sunglasses and the Paul Smith stripes, and reads the strange figures in the room accordingly; someone else starts to talk to as many people as possible, and learns who they are from whether they like Massive Attack or Sigur Rós. Someone else starts to talk about “golden” and “blue” and “light-filled” auras. The travel writer is the one who can do all these things at once—listen more closely, see more deeply and bring some personal question into the room—so that we feel that we’re seeing a shadow story, a secret narrative visible to few, and everything is at stake.
There are a hundred ways of describing good travel writing, but really they all come down to much the same thing: does the piece make you see the world anew, while offering you a place or a feeling you instantly recognize? Does it—as a Jan Morris essay does—take in all the surfaces so attentively that you catch not only the way a place looks, but the way it thinks, and mutters, and hides from itself? Does it—as Peter Matthiessen’s writing might—take on the qualities of an allegory, the story of a soul looking for the gold it’s lost? Does it—I’m thinking now of V. S. Naipaul—have such an ache of unsettledness that you can feel that the writer himself is on the line? The great travel writer makes you see yourself anew, too, by introducing you to things you perhaps never allowed yourself to observe.
Not long ago, I was driving through the Outback with my old college friend Nicolas: the most brilliant student of our generation, thirty years before, but so individual and restless that we were sure he would end up somewhere dark (he left the university, physically, after only two years and wrote his final exams so illegibly he had to be summoned back to read them aloud to an examiner for two weeks). I hadn’t seen him in a quarter of a century, but I’d begun to get to know him again through the haunted, solemn, questing books he’d started to write about the Red Continent’s interior, full of Central European exiles and memories of war. On my way to meet him in Alice Springs, as I got onto the plane from Sydney, he e-mailed me, casually, that we might be meeting his “wife” Alison, too (Nicolas, a legendary classicist who had been covering wars for The Australian for many years, living for months on end in hotel rooms in Iraq, with nothing but his copies of Proust and Kafka, was the least marriable soul I knew).
As we scuffled about the scruffy town—a smiling young soul from Bombay checked me into my hotel, Singaporeans ran the Tea Shrine and even the fanciest place in town served mostly beef vindaloo and Nonya specialties in its restaurant—we saw huge signs for “Alison Anderson”: Nicolas’s partner turned out to be a significant politician, and the rare Aboriginal who went back and forth between her people and the state -government (speaking six indigenous tongues). As we drove across the red-dirt emptiness to visit some “old ladies” who paint (Aboriginal artists who sit on the ground outside a shed and dab patterns on canvasses that fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in the West), I took note of the sign at the airport prohibiting tomatoes from entering the territory, Nicolas took inner notes on a strangeness that had become his second home, as familiar to him as recent patterns in his dreams. And Alison quietly told us about the “Dreamtime” stories associated with each tree or patch of desert, and how this “dingo dreaming,” amidst the cordwoods and the ironwoods, marked the place where the dingo ate the caterpillar and got separated.
The parallel paths, the disparate stories each of us began to develop as we drove along the same empty road came roaring back to me when I took the stories you’re about to read out onto my thirty-inch-wide terrace in suburban Japan and, in the radiant sunshine of an early November day, lost myself in them for hour after transported hour. I wouldn’t say these are necessarily the “best” travel essays of the year, because the phrase makes as little sense to me as talking of a “best” color, a “best” love, or even a “best” child. But many, many of them did what only the most memorable trips—and the most deeply felt essays—do, which is to deposit me back in my life someone different from the person who set out.
When I sat with Gary Buslik, musing on the wistfulness of old slides and long-ago lives; when I began, excitedly, to find the secret treasures of an unprepossessing part of the Lorraine (with Mieke Eerkens); as I learned about what happened in Minsk, thanks to Carolyn Kraus’s hard-to-forget excavations; as I found myself in a realm of meditation and allegory, learning how to see again, in the Iceland of Cameron McPherson Smith, I felt I was touching a part of the world, and of experience, that I hadn’t known was there and could no longer think of cruise-ship honeymoons, look at Belarus, even reflect back on the Iceland I knew and loved in quite the same way as I had before.
One thing that exhilarates me about this book is that so many of its writers are women (you would not have found that thirty years ago, when I began writing), and many of these women are in places that I would be afraid to go to even as a shifty male—alone in New Delhi’s train station after midnight, on the edge of the Sahara with a mother and a sometime lover, in Guyana after the exodus of most white folks, or looking for mass graves in Minsk. There is a sense of personal investment, of openness and soulfulness, a heartfelt introspection in many of the pieces here that would have shamed (and surely could have taught) the “travel writers” I grew up on in my youth, mostly tight-lipped British men remarking wryly on the natives.
So many of these pieces, too, show how our world is moving as much as we are, growing multiple and diverse, newly complex, as the entire planet, so it seems, is on the road or spinning on its axis. An American and his Polish girlfriend are looking for the Mona Lisa; a Canadian and her African lover are watching her mother receive news, in a cyber-café among the mosques of Africa, of a death in the family. Women are traveling to ski resorts with their eighty-three-year-old fathers, and young men are going all the way to Hiroshima or My Lai to say sorry, after a fashion, for what their country has done. In a meticulously crafted piece like Michael Shapiro’s account of rafting down the Colorado River, even that most famous of poster images, the Grand Canyon, is made human and mysterious and new.
When a piece of travel writing is truly transporting, it works a small transformation in our lives, so that we are carrying around with us not just a new pair of eyes, but a fresh heart and an awakened conscience. And many of these essays take me back to some of the great works of travel-literature, old and new, that have permanently altered the way I think about the world. I cannot hear the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” today without calling up the hallucinatory intensity and horror of Dexter Filkins’s accounts of both in his recent work of combat reportage (and therefore travel literature), The Forever War; and when I try to think of how to make sense of war and the peace we need to cultivate within, I call upon the clarifying priorities and gift for essentials of the great poet laureate of journeying in one place, Thoreau. My favorite travel writers tend to be ones whose first and foremost interest is not in travel: they’re closet anthropologists, personal historians, readers of texts or even just observers of the treacherous human heart and the cycles of history (think of John le Carré or Derek Walcott). A travel writer, for me, is someone like Elizabeth Gilbert, who can at once find a wise man, a lover, and a new life in Bali, yet also take the time and trouble to excavate much of the island’s bloody history of violence and slavery.
Occasionally, nowadays, you’ll hear people say that travel is dead, since we can access almost anywhere from the comfort of our living rooms and find Louis Vuitton stores in the shape of suitcases in Shanghai. Pshaw! As these pieces often memorably show, travel will last as long as we have difficult loves, unsolved memories, haunting questions, restless hearts and legs. Nicolas is still tracking the empty wastes at the center of Australia; his new wife Alison is still trying to find a way though the tangles of history; and I am still revisiting the interior of their land, and of their memories, and planning how I might somehow return there. The travel writer shines a light on something we never thought to look at—“gray, moss-covered churches, and gray, moss-covered cemeteries, and gray, moss-covered monuments,” in Mieke Eerkens’s beautiful essay—and then the light comes on in our eyes, too, and we can see its “hidden beauty.”
* * *Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, raised in California and long settled in Japan, Pico Iyer has always been interested in the places where cultures collide and conspire. His first book,
Video Night in Kathmandu, explored the West playing itself out in ten countries in Asia; his second,
The Lady and the Monk, tied together the Western dreams of Japanese with the Japanese dreams of those from the West; and his third,
Falling Off the Map, traveled to isolated places from Paraguay to North Korea and Iceland to Bhutan. In the years since, he has been looking at what travel is doing to a world and humanity on the move, in an age of immigration and exile, as described in such works as
The Global Soul, Sun After Dark,and
The Open Road: The global journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. His next book, on Graham Greene, will look at what fears and hopes we can legitimately carry out into the world.
The Way of the Mist
Cameron McPherson Smith
Fire and Water
ONE DAY, THREE DEAD MEN
HOW I PROMISED ANUSHA THE SMILE
AIN’T READY FOR NO MAN
THE MEMORY BIRD
LANTERNS OF FEAR
ALL IN THE SAME HOUSE
FEMME IN THE VOSGES
BENEATH THE RIM
GRAND CANYON/ COLORADO RIVER
IT’S THE SAUCE
Mary Jo McConahay
JIMMY THE NATURAL
EDUCATING THE BODY
SUN VALLEY WITH DAD
ALONE IN INDIA—BUT NOT FOR LONG
THE CHILEAN CLIFF CARVER
ALONE, ILLEGAL, AND BROKE DOWN
Mary Caperton Morton
IN THE FIELDS OF MY LAI
THE YEAR WE BOUGHT OUR HITCHHIKER
SHIVA AND SADHUS AT PASHUPATI TEMPLE
INTO THE UNDERWORLD
Amanda Summer Slavin
Cameron McPherson Smith
The Way of the Mist
by Cameron McPherson Smith
He discovers how to vanish.
I’ve been kicked off Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap three times—once by a windstorm that would uproot trees (if Iceland had any trees), once by a labyrinth of crevasses that remains deliciously impenetrable after thirteen days on the ice, another time by a snowstorm that all but buries me alive—but this time the dice I roll are magicked and somehow in a week of negotiations with the ice I’ve sneaked through the -heavily-crevassed ice cap margin. My supply sled has not dragged me down and the volcano under the ice has not blasted me up. Every night when the snow is frozen solid I lean into the harness and take the first step forward with the rich glory of slugging back a glass of wine that I cannot afford. Here on the ice cap my wealth is limitless.
Like a glass of wine, though, the glory doesn’t last. Traveling at night on the ice is exhausting and worrisome; it’s winter, and not even mountain guides come up here after October. But most of all there is a pervasive uncertainty. Maps of the ice cap interior—the best I’ve been able to find were charted in the 1930s—suggest that it’s flat and featureless, but even here in the interior previous expeditions have encountered giant crevasses crusted over with a thin snow bridges, vast pools of sliding slush melted by subglacial volcanic vents, strange conical ice formations, and subtle magnetic anomalies that seduce compass needles and send you off-course.
So I travel in an alien world. Darkness and mist before me, ice and snow of a thousand varieties underfoot, like flour, or steel. Wind, hail, and sleet drive horizontally. There are no landmarks and I follow my compass day after day. It seems I can never be sure of anything. Once I see my face reflected in the metal lid of my cooking pot and the haggard hobo in that metal is a stranger.
Often I travel through mist. The ice cap makes its own weather, the Icelanders have told me. I inhale the mist, I feel it cool my lungs, I exhale it in thick clouds. It looks like boiling milk in the cold beam of my headlamp.
In the mist I slip in and out of exhaustion, dehydration, terror, and elation. There are also unique mental states ranging from laser-like focus to complete dissolution.
The mist is distant; yet it is right against my goggles. The mist moves; but is itself immovable. Things swim at me from the static gray-white. I cannot see anything except my ski-tips and my chest-mounted compass, but I cannot tell if this mist is light or dark; it is simply blinding. As one explorer waggishly described it, it is like “living inside a ping-pong ball.”
And in—or through—this mist I see four classes of things: things I want to see; things I definitely do not want to see; things simply inexplicable; and a very few real things.
I see faint shapes that prick me up, shapes I desperately want to be landmarks I know and believe in, though I know them only from poring over my charts; they are landmarks that would confirm that I am actually moving forward.
There, that must be the Háabunga Ice Dome! But, no; just a billow of snow ambling across the ice cap, like a tumbling sagebrush.
There, now that grayish blob must be the end of this hill I’m climbing! No; just a shadow cast by the cold moonlight that has somehow penetrated the mist and shown up a low, fast-moving cloud; the slope does not level off.
Finally! The Grímsvötn Ice Cauldron, maybe two miles ahead! No; a few steps farther the dark, expansive oval is just a small depression ten feet wide, and I stand there swaying and disoriented.
Lights? No, my friend; just a tumbling grain of ice that has flashed for an instant in your headlamp beam.
Crevasses, dead ahead! No. The broad smear of gray turns out to be sastrugi, a low ridge of snow sculpted by the wind….
Rocks! What are rocks doing here in the middle of the ice cap? But they’re not rocks…illusions, again, this time I find no explanation for what appear to be a pile of dark boulders…. I arrive where they seemed to be and there is nothing but snow.
The most trying illusion is that of an enormous pair of legs, knees in the clouds, striding across the ice cap ahead of me. I stop in my tracks, mouth open. The mirage lasts only a moment, but it is distinct…. I watch as the gargantuan legs take one, and then two giant steps, a mile at a stride, right across my path, then fade into the gloom! I am hallucinating!
Or…was it real? Could this have been the Frost Giant Ymir, a primordial character of the Norse mythos, up from Hell to inspect the ice cap? Ymir, the Icelanders say—and have said, and sung, and murmured in their warm sod huts for a thousand years—was formed early in the universe. He originated in a mist, he assembled within it and of it. When Ymir was killed by Odin, his body dissembled, forming the Earth. As a human being, the Sagas tell me, my relation to Ymir is intimate: humans are the maggots that squirm through Ymir’s flesh. So it is a sort of recursion; my own squirming thoughts have brought Ymir back to the ice, in the vision of enormous striding legs.
I find that the only way to repress such illusions is to force myself to fear nothing and to expect nothing; to simply exist. This reduces my universe to a small bubble of perception, a small bubble of consciousness. It is not unpleasant.
Behind, only vague memories; ahead, only the vaguest expectations. I need only think of here, now, this moment, the next step converted from the future to the present in an endless loop.
Only a few times do I see real phenomena.
It is cold and clear one night, an astronomer’s paradise. I tip my head back and look up into the stars feeling dizzy and light. I may as well be suspended in interstellar space. I feel far from the warmth of any star. In the black voids there is only distance, only emptiness. The punctuations of starlight are still. The void is not disheartening. It demonstrates the value of any spark of life. The enormity and improbability of consciousness appears like a terrifying mirage and I think I do not have the maturity for this before moving on.
Later, a fountain of amber light washes across the sky like spilled liquid, stopping me in my tracks. Aurora! I say out loud as a gout of flaming red bursts above me, then fades almost immediately. Then an amber swath wavers like an enormous tapestry fluttering slowly at an impossible distance. It, too, fades, replaced by dim green columns illuminated from within, their infinitely-distant tops tilting towards one another. I try to commit the fantastic images to memory. Eventually the cold nudges me; move along.
Another real phenomenon I see, only occasionally, is the expanse I am traveling across. For brief moments the mist parts and I am granted a view of the starlit snowscape leaping away in all directions. It is ruffled, like a windblown lake, but stopped in motion, and here and there diamond-like snow crystals seem to shine beams at my eyes. But cloud and mist always return, speeding in to blur and then obliterate. The mist is wet and it glazes my clothes with a cracking armor of ice.
I keep marching, heading uphill for the Grímsvötn Ice Cauldron. Around 3 A.M., just before Christmas, eight hours of uphill slogging bring me to the level ground of the ice cap plateau. I drop to my knees, sobbing with exhaustion.
I look east. The low clouds have retreated here, revealing an icy plain that falls away before me towards the three-mile wide volcanic crater.
The Ice Cauldron!
Tolkein himself could not have conjured such a diabolical scene!
Dense white vapor billows up from the center of the crater, and contacting the supercooled air it freezes into unbelievable glitter that roils and writhes—
A mile-high column of glass dust, winking in moonlight!
The vision breaks my heart. Everything I know or have done or have ever thought is shattered.
You try to create beautiful things in life, I think, but when you encounter a natural masterpiece you dissolve, and that is right.
* * *Cameron M. Smith is an explorer and writer based in Portland, Oregon, where he is a member of the writing group The Guttery. He has written about his expeditions for many books and magazines. An active scuba diver and paraglider pilot, he is slowly retiring from ice cap expeditions in order to explore the lower stratosphere in a specially-constructed balloon and capsule. You can follow his expedition and writing projects at www.cameronsmith.com.
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 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 almost 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 co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 has written a syndicated column, “World Travel Watch” (WorldTravelWatch.com). 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 their six children. He’s had a lifelong interest in philosophy and theology, and is the author of How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self(dickmanagement.com). His travels of late have taken him through China, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific; his most recent non-travel project is redbrazil.com, a bookselling site.