Tag Archives: travel writing

Lost in Backcountry Corsica

(Sebastian Gollnow/AP Images)

David Ralph | The Dublin Review | Summer 2017 | 16 minutes (4,425 words)

I could tell you about the view from the plane as it descended towards Calvi; I could describe the granite formations along the coast and the sparkling sea; I could supply various details about how Geoffrey, Jean-Thomas and I passed our first few days in Corsica; but really this story begins with the Mountain Man.

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Albania’s Blood Feuds

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Our neighbor accidentally drove over our lawn, dislodging a decorative boulder that I put in, but he never mentioned it. We could see the tire tracks from his side of our shared driveway. He probably saw me digging another hole to put the giant rock back in. It was just a boulder, but his un-neighborly silence irritated me. We avoided a feud because I decided an apology didn’t matter as much as our peaceful relationship. So I forgave him, and he kept being his painfully shy anxious self, gentle and unable to deal with the challenges of sharing a driveway. Forgive and forget, I figured. Not in the Balkans.

For Virginia Quarterly Review, Amanda Petrusich traveled to mountainous northern Albania to examine its culture of vengeance. For some Albanians, forgiveness is shameful. Someone must die to right a wrong, and families go on and on for generations, murdering the murderers or the murderers’ relatives, only to get shot themselves and continue the feud. Many blood feuds start over trivial acts, like refusing an alcoholic beverage. Feuds have killed an estimated 12,000 Albanians in the last 25 years. Traveling the region’s rough roads, Petrusich spent time with a negotiator whose job is to facilitate a détente between various parties. Some negotiators get murdered, too.

Per ancient edicts, the avenging family should hunt only an able-bodied adult male (the elderly, women, or boys who are too young to carry arms are excluded), though in recent years those dictums have relaxed, and it is no longer unusual to hear about the retaliatory murder of a young boy or girl. Feuds can begin over most anything, though a high percentage seem to involve property disputes. Despite earnest intervention by the church and the government, reconciliation between feuding families is rarely (if ever) brokered without blood, and the object of a feud—and his family members—are forced to spend decades barricaded inside their homes, hiding. To venture beyond the property line could mean a forceful and immediate death: sudden bullets from on high. Children are pulled from school; jobs are lost. Untethered from the rhythms of a regular life, and unable to conceive of a peaceful future, people drift into depression. Life is at once terrifying and terrifically boring. Families rely on donations to survive. Maybe friends bring food, boxes of groceries. Everyone watches a lot of television. Suicide is not unheard of.

That sounds like a horrible way to spend your life, and for what? Vengeance  seems to only bring more pain. Petrusich looks deeper to understand why this practice exists here and what retribution gets people. Albanian vengeance isn’t lawlessness. It’s an ancient code, so was there something in the exchange that made sense, something that connects back to humanity’s most basic collective unconscious? Most people don’t want to discuss resolution. They want revenge, and targets, as one told Petrusich, just wait for the bullets.

Despite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let. By any accounting, it was a cathartic reckoning, to avenge a crime properly. It surely facilitated a particular kind of healing. Besides, what did it mean to witness and absorb something wicked, but not to correct for it yourself? Intellectually, I understood it was a mark of maturation and empathy and civilization to defer justice to a court, to some impartial entity separate from the family. But I thought, too, of the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep,” Sandel writes. Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?

Vengeance is not merely prevalent in rural enclaves here; the notion of vigilante justice is threaded into Albanian culture. In 2015, Armando Prenga, a Socialist lawmaker and an elected member of Parliament, was arrested after getting into a barroom scrap with a sixty-six-year-old fisherman named Tom Cali. When members of Cali’s family went to local police to report the incident—Cali had been badly pistol-whipped—Prenga burst into the station with his brother and a cabal of associates, discharging several rounds of gunfire and hollering, “We will eradicate your tribe!”

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In Guatemala on the Wrong Bus

People standing in a shop to get out of the rain at a Guatemala bus station
Rainy Day at Coban, Guatemala Bus Station via Wikimedia

Yes, yes, I like a good vacation as much as the next person. If you try to engage me in some dusty conversation about traveler v. tourist, I will roll my eyes and walk away muttering — an improvement over my previous vehement defense of tourists. Plus, we’re all tourists to the locals, insert swearing here.

But I hold a special place in my heart for disorganized, gritty, adventures, the sleep-deprived, culture-shocked displacement Pico Iyer’s career is built on describing, the mystery of simple things in places you don’t quite understand.

We ended up in a depressing but totally acceptable cave of a room with pea-green dishtowely things for curtains in the tiny windows that looked out on walls and a showerhead sprouting weird white cords that I hoped were not electrical although are there even other kinds of cords. It was probably $20 less than the Conquistador where, in an alternate universe, I was already chugging a beer in the shower. But it was clean and the door locked. I bought a beer. The lady overcharged me. I didn’t care at all but M. talked about it for days. I took a shower. It was cold. I didn’t care. We slept.

That’s why I’m enjoying this series by Sarah Miller on The Awl. In the first installment Miller explains how she’s off to Guatemala on a whim; the second (excerpted above) is about how she ends up traveling in exactly the way she does not want to.

Even while it’s not a trip I want to be on, I’m tagging along for the ride.

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A Personal Odyssey Through Florida’s Varied Regions

The New York Times has an essay by Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond that’s equal parts memoir and travel writing. Diamond, who’s also an editor at Rolling Stone, takes a drive through Florida from top to bottom, getting to know the state most of his family eventually settled in, but which he has only flirted with for months at a time here and there, mostly when he was much younger. Traveling from one region to the next, he comes to realize that there is no one single Florida. It’s a collection of disparate cultures.

Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.

It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.

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Travel Writing for Americans Who Stay Home

Warsaw Castle Square
Warsaw Castle Square via Wikimedia, image in the public domain

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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Pittsburgh, Listed

Pittsburgh and the Duquense Incline
Pittsburgh as seen from the Duquense Incline via Wikimedia.

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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