Category Archives: Travel

The Tyranny of Free Time, or How to Be Bored In Fiji

a collection of travel posters advertising vacation destinations

Electric Literature published an excerpt of Mary Mann’s new book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. In this chapter about the origins, tensions, and limitations of tourism, she lays bare what most travelers are loathe to admit: it’s just as easy to be bored in Paris or on Bora Bora as it is at home.

What would I do if I had nowhere to be? Because I’ve been fortunate enough to travel aimlessly for a couple of months, I can tell you: I’d be irritable. Free time is daunting. The world has been shaped by our inability to deal with free time. Cook intended for tourism to pull us out of the mundane ordinary, and people who can’t travel (like Jamaica Kincaid’s tourist-hating locals) desire to do so for that reason. We travel to escape a losing battle with time — the autoworker Ben Hampers “war with that suf­focating minute hand” — but we still have to deal with time, by napping it away or filling it with sightseeing or traveling to the brighter past that travel ads promise. For the majority of us, free time has proved too unwieldy to manage without habits, and, from Ruskin’s “white lep­rosy” of hotels to the Banana Pancake Trail, the habits of travelers have reshaped the world.

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Travel Writing for Americans Who Stay Home

Warsaw Castle Square

Tom Swick was the travel editor of a “medium sized newspaper in a small Florida city,”  an envied and somewhat trivialized position, until it wasn’t. In LARB, he considers his career and the role travel writing plays for an audience that doesn’t get much vacation — and doesn’t share his inherent curiosity about the world.

9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.

Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?

There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.

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The Lost Art of Getting Lost

Rope bridge, Ladakh, 1981

I have two pieces of major travel cred, neither particularly deserved. One is that I’ve been to all seven continents—in a turn of events I still don’t believe actually happened, a client sent me to Antarctica—and the other is that after traveling by train and hitchhiking, I walked over the Himalayas from Leh, in Ladakh, to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. When people ask me how I came to make that trip, my answer is absurdly naive. I could not, at the time, cross the Khyber Pass as I had wanted, so I did this instead. My motivation was based in complete idiocy; I was very young, and lucky me, I lived to tell the tale.

This was in 1982, and because it was pre-internet, I had no idea I was part of the wandering population exploring what had been called the Hippie Trail: the overland route traveled by free spirits in the 60s and 70s that “wound through Europe via Yugoslavia and Greece (with a possible island side-trip) to Istanbul…a typical path went to Ankara, then through Iran to Tehran, to Kabul in Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and Lahore in Pakistan, and then on to Kashmir, Delhi and Goa in India.”

Today, you can fall into a k-hole of photos from that era—I have a wooden box full of them myself—buses and trains full of backpackers armed with little more than a guide book and a few choice phrases. One could met a handful of Westerners, hang out for a few days, trade information, and go along your way.

My current nostalgia is not for the travels themselves, but for a time when this kind of travel was possible, when one could imagine the porousness of borders, disappearing and reappearing weeks later in a post office phone booth in New Delhi or Cairo trying to call home to let your family know you were fine, and also, still alive.

My absurd travel résumé is why I always have time for the similar sentiments from other voices of this rootless era, and to understand their grief for its loss. Every era is a golden age of travel to those traveling in it. In the Financial Times, Charlie English delivers a eulogy for a geographic freedom that is now in short supply.

Everything was fine, of course: as foreign correspondents say, it always is until something happens. Without exception, the people I met were glad to see me, since I represented the outside world, which, Timbuktiens felt, had forgotten them. The famous little caravan town has always loved visitors, and until recently they were a considerable source of income. The highlight of the tourist season in the 2000s was the Festival in the Desert, a showcase of Malian and international music organised by Manny Ansar. Eight or nine hundred foreigners would come, Ansar told me, and spend money all over town: “They paid for travel, they paid in the restaurants, they paid for souvenirs, they rented camels, tents.” But the violence in the desert put a stop to that, and by the time of my visit Timbuktu was filled with unemployed tour guides, empty hotels, and its famous manuscript libraries were shut.

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A Trip to Syria, Remembered

Billboard of Palmyra ruins, Syria, 2005

My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why.

Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil.

They read from Rumi in study groups and pointed out that this archway or this winding street was pre-Ottoman. I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syrian lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam. I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me and the truly hardcore.

In 2007, David Zoby bluffed his way into a slot on — what — it’s not exactly clear. An academic tour of Syria, complete with lectures and visits to the requisite historic sites, Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, of course. He remembers the journey in “Some Vague Stars to the South” on Nowhere.

Zoby’s memories aren’t an idealized view of the past.They’re a tangle of displacement created by his status on the trip, denial of his Syrian heritage, and that feeling of being in a place so far from home. It’s hard to read this piece without wondering when Syria will again be the kind of place travelers can go to get away from themselves.

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Choosing Mother India

Upside down road sign reading "Wrong Way"

Born in New Jersey to a family of Indian descent, Kanan Gole chooses India over America by moving there for work. In “Going the Right Way” on The Smart Set, Gole explains why she made that choice and how it’s perceived by the Indians around her.

My decision to move to India to work was primarily motivated by my need for a stronger understanding of my heritage. There’s no other way to truly understand my Indian software except living where my parents lived. I look like an Indian, can dress like one, can sometimes speak like one too (though that is under construction), but I wouldn’t live up to the title “Indian.” It is difficult to define immigrant kid identity, so I try not to do it at all. I am simply part Indian, part American. Which parts? That’s too technical for me, a subject that will cause me unnecessary angst, and possibly one that won’t be resolved. Life is good, I must say. But people insist that only an idiot would move from the land of the dollar to the 68-times-weaker rupee.

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‘We Love Europa But Europa No Love Us.’

Refugee camp graffiti

Travel writer David Farley spent a month volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. He wrote about it for Afar. It was not exactly an introduction to the world of good will towards refugees.

Souda briefly gained prominence in November 2016, when it was reported that a right-wing mob stood atop the old city walls and launched large stones and Molotov cocktails down into the camp, setting tents ablaze. Tensions were such that one of the rules of the NGO I was volunteering for stated that once I left the camp, I had to remove my fluorescent green vest and volunteer badge for fear locals would attack me for helping the refugees.

Farley’s piece includes the voices of people we perceive as a generic mass with unified motives.

One day while serving lunch—a tomato and chickpea stew made by a Basque NGO—I met a Syrian named Dallal. He was a new arrival and was aware he might be at Souda for a while. “I don’t understand why we have to wait so long. Some people have been here for nearly a year,” he said. “Our collective goal is that we want a new future, a good future, a safe life. I have a degree in mechanical engineering. My friend here,” he pulled over a 25-year-old from Iraq, “he’s a veterinarian. We’re not poor. We just want a normal life. We are here for survival.”

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‘I felt dirty, a lesser person somehow than when I had left a week before.’

Rafia Zakaria᾿s essay in The Baffler on flying while Muslim is an important read that exposes a long list of things that most white, non-Muslim Americans never have to think about while traveling — what language they’re speaking, what books they’re reading, or who’s sending them text messages.

After landing in Boston, I put away my book and took out my customs form and my passport, my courage and my patience. As our herd of hopeful entrants was separated—as it always is between U.S. passport holders and Legal Permanent Residents, and the lesser “everyone else”—I reminded myself that I was the less vulnerable. The white and real American couple in front of me considered their dinner options. I sweated and deleted all the texts from my family members, every one of them having a Muslim name.

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Pittsburgh, Listed

Pittsburgh and the Duquense Incline

You know the drill — your city is included on some top ten destinations list and you can’t resist. You click through and the Space Needle is touted as a can’t miss site as opposed to home to a dated museum with a view that might be worth it if the day is clear, but you could just go to …

Plus, the character is all wrong.

In Pittsburgh’s City Paper, Alex Gordon surveys 150 years of writing about his city and whether or not this type of boosterish frivolity helps the city’s residents — specifically people of color.

In 2014, Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Very Smart Brothas, penned an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, “Oblivious: Black people love Pittsburgh, too, but can’t help but wonder how much Pittsburgh loves them.” In it, Young expressed his ambivalence about the growing trend of Pittsburgh praise.

“Even as we boast about living in America’s ‘Most Livable’ or ‘Most Welcoming’ city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us,” he wrote. “This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex.”

There’s also mention of a WPA project that ended up on the cutting room floor:

“The Negro in Pittsburgh” is not travel writing, but it includes one component that is routinely omitted from travel writing: the perspective of residents in their own words. The final chapter, “The People Speak,” offers a fascinating insight into what life was like for black Pittsburghers in the 1930s.

While it wasn’t published at the time — the FWP was shut down before the piece was completed — it’s pretty remarkable to consider a government project that documents the brazen inequality of an American city.

I still kind of want to go to Pittsburgh, preferably with a thoughtful local guide.

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Themed for Success

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”

At Eater, journalist Emily Yoshida hits some of Tokyo’s absurd, popular tourist attractions trying to understand specifically what themed destinations offer and why they’re so popular. Her answer? I don’t remember. I got stuck on the part about the owl selfie.

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