Planning a trip to an exotic destination that has yet to be tainted by tourism? Good luck in finding one. The widespread use of blogs, social-networking sites, webcams and cell phones places just about every corner of the planet at our fingertips. Suddenly, anyone with a computer can be a travel writer and any day spent far from home can be instantly shared with “friends” you’ll never see.
Does all this imply the end of literary travel writing? Hopefully not, but in the age of globalization, the world has be-come more accessible and undeniably more “connected,” at least in technological terms. Travel has shifted in style and scope while tourism—that market-driven substitute for a voyage of discovery—runs the gamut from “packaged” to pretentious. In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.
But what is more satisfying than a literate ramble around a beautiful city or a seemingly empty beach with a lively, articulate mind? The hook need not be as dramatic as a great escape from warring tribes or some life-threatening meteorological event. Travel is internal as well as external, and so the “story” is free to focus on subtle shifts of inner awareness. In the words of Norman Douglas, writing in the 1920s, good travel writing “invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: abroad, into the author’s brain, and into his own.”
As long as wanderlust exists, an engaging travel essay will appeal to readers who expect more than mere information. (Leave that task to the travel guides.) And while there is no foolproof formula, there are a few “rules of the road.” Your travel essay will be a success when it leaves readers with a fresh, vivid memory of a place they’ve never seen.
Because a good travel essay should be readable in one sitting, it takes an artful approach to focus your lens, calibrate your timing, build your structure, and discover colorful threads to weave through the fabric of your essay. As the writer, your task is to use your imagination to “omit and compress,” as Alain de Botton describes it, in order to steer your reader to “critical moments” and, I would add, unforgettable images.
Here are some steps to get you there; the first two deal mostly with prewriting preparation.
1. Learn the backstory in order to take your reader behind the scenes. Your essay should give your reader an inside perspective that is real, reflective and accurate. This will probably require some good, old-fashioned research. Reading before and after a trip—history, biography, anthropology, literature, newspapers, magazines and/or other travel writing—will help shake off false assumptions and open windows in your creative mind. But do be careful about how you work facts into your essay. As Patrick LoBrutto said in these pages (April 2008) with reference to fiction, “The trick is to rub the information into the grain” and avoid an “information dump.”
In my essay “Alone in Amsterdam,” in the literary journal Fourth Genre, I set out to write a “cityscape” anchored by famous works of art, but it was reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo and the poignant Diary of Anne Frank that helped me catch the thread of meaning I was after. In the end, my essay turned out to be about the many dimensions of aloneness, including my own, that had been lived on those streets. Planning a trip? Start reading now.
2. As you travel, be alert to details that will allow you to establish the essential identity of the place on the opening page. If you’ve just arrived in unknown territory, walk around, talk to the locals, smell the coffee, and get a feel for what this place is about. A.A. Gill refers to this as seeking “the key, an image that unlocks everything else.” In my essay about Tahiti, “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” I opened with the late-18th-century voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. In a similar fashion, I tracked 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of an untainted paradise. As I began to realize that Gauguin never found what he was looking for, I played all of my images and experiences in Tahiti against my core metaphor of an elusive quest.
To test the waters, try describing the essence of the street you live on in one vivid paragraph, and remain open to where your own description leads.
3. Begin with two levels of information. The “collage effect” appropriate to travel writing requires artful transitions from one theme or scene to another in order to create a sense of wholeness. It also calls for two distinct levels of information that might be summed up as background and foreground. Remember, your readers need a sense of place and a sense of who is taking them on this journey. Descriptive prose provides the larger context while you, the writer, bring a strong sense of your personal motives, state of mind, and situation as we embark on the trip together.
The “hinge” of these two levels allows you to pivot and shift your point of view as you move through the pages. Remember, your goal is to come full circle, so always take time to check and see if your last few paragraphs relate to the beginning. You can get a sense of this full circle by “checking the echo” of beginnings and endings in the travel essays you’re reading now.
Think of your essay as a flight into the unknown, which it should be for the reader (even if you know the place inside out). There are many techniques for starting, ranging from a short, punchy statement to a patch of dialogue with locals. In “Alone in Amsterdam,” I began with an imaginary dialogue between myself and the “Dutch Masters” in Rembrandt’s iconic painting “The Draper’s Guild.”
Other writers, like Jan Morris in her introductory chapter to Venice or Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City, plunge in with sensuous word paintings of cityscapes. Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World begins by explaining the circumstances that motivated his 4,000-mile exploration of China’s Yangtze River, then he is free to take the reader along with him on his tour.
Remember, at the start readers need a “big picture” sense of location, preferably visual, combined with a sense of who is telling this story. Their two key questions might be reduced to: Where am I going, and who am I going with? Let’s put you to work.
First paragraph: As an exercise in answering the first question, create a “landscape in words” of the place that is going to be the focus of your essay. This may only be the point of departure, but that’s OK. The important thing, as a writer, is that you bring this to life with descriptive detail that sets the mood and weaves imagery, color, texture, sound, light, architecture and nature into a believable background. Resist the urge to overwrite this paragraph, but build it out to paint a picture that will serve as a point of reference for all that follows. Limit yourself to six to eight sentences.
Second paragraph: Now, practice the art of shifting focus to the travel guide and companion—you—with a much shorter paragraph of three or four sentences. In this paragraph, your reader should feel jolted out of a dream as the focus shifts to a particular human dilemma, goal, conscious sensation, or problem that co-exists with the lyrical quality of your opening paragraph. You might, for example, shift from the description of a winter landscape to a wounded bird on your windowsill and the dilemma of how to help this tiny animal, or from a “perfect” day in a lively city to the realization that your wallet has been stolen.
Use this technique of shifting from descriptive prose to the here and now to drive your narrative forward. These two paragraphs—taken together—will create a sense of anticipation about the story and the place we barely know. What we must know early on is that a voyage of discovery awaits, as soon as we turn the page.
4. Use the toolbox of fiction to bring it all to life. “Travel writers actually face the same problem of plausibility that confronts so-called novelists; the actual must be made to appear believable.” Paul Fussell hits the nail on the head with this observation. The arts of fiction—color, rhythm, imagery, narrative tension, dialogue, scenes—all belong to travel essays and books, which are often collections of related essays.
In her masterful, genre-defying book The Emperor’s Last Island , Julia Blackburn deploys a variety of techniques to create a stirring portrait of Napoleon’s remote island exile on St. Helena (1815 to 1821), where howling winds, a damp climate, isolation and astonishing dullness become the strangest “house arrest” of all time. During Blackburn’s time at sea, she observes rainstorms in the distance as she catches “the scent of hot earth” rising off the coast of Africa:
As we watched and the sun began to set, the clouds became saturated with wild luminous colors; purple, yellow, grey and red, boiling in the distance.
Similarly, Rolf Potts’ essays gathered throughout a decade of travels in Asia often startle the reader with a well-placed image, like the “rocky yawn of cool air, clean water, and darkness” that describes his first experience of the Heup cave in Laos. Potts is also adept at dialogue that “places” the action, as in this passage from “My Beirut Hostage Crisis,” which refers to Fijian soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force.
After I chatted with the blue-bereted soldiers for a couple of minutes, a loud explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose up from a hill on the horizon.
“Israelis?” I asked the Fijians nervously. “No,” Vasco laughed. “Arock quarry.” “How can you tell the difference?”
“Well, the Israelis usually call on the radio before they start shelling us.”
Inspired by Blackburn’s quality of visual reflection and Potts’ gift for mingling down-to-earth dialogue with strong imagery, why not challenge yourself to work the arts of fiction into your prose? Listen for the sound of a tale unfolding by reading your work aloud, to yourself.
5. Don’t intrude in your own essay. Your voice, thoughts, predicaments and discoveries are what will make your reader eager to follow you. But don’t turn your travel essay into a diary. It is your mind, not your personal life and quirky tastes, that serves as the filter for the essay. As one editor once bluntly asked of an essay of mine: “Who cares what she ate for dinner?” Well, I cared. I even thought that my luxurious, herb-encrusted salmon with creamed asparagus served in a clam-shaped “pastry shell” worked beautifully as a contrast to the theme of Irish-famine immigrants arriving in Canada. But in the end, that digression into a gourmet restaurant came off as smug, self-referential and off-point. I had intruded in my own essay. Next time you think you have achieved a final draft, go back and interrogate the relevance of every “I” in your essay.
Travel writing inevitably includes the author’s presence. But when is personal experience irrelevant or intrusive? Here is an early draft of a passage from my essay “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” which is about elusive quests and the 19th-century Impressionist painter’s pursuit of an untainted Eden.
In the final draft, I’ve related my feelings of anxiety and fear to the larger themes of the essay.
Patti M. Marxsen is an American writer based in Switzerland. She is the author of Island Journeys, Exploring the Legacy of France, Beyond the Village: Essays Out of Switzerland and a short-story collection, Tales From the Heart of Haiti. Her travel essay “Alone in Amsterdam” earned a special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prizes. Web: pattimarxsen.net.
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In high school and college it is likely that you will receive some kind of encouragement to travel, study or work abroad. It may seem like you have a lot going on so you don’t seriously consider these opportunities or maybe you write them off since you plan on traveling later in life. I would encourage traveling at any age, but the earlier you can learn the lessons travel teaches the better.
When you are young you are still finding yourself and preparing for your school and career. The skills and experience you gain from traveling abroad can give you life-long personal benefits as well as a leg up in the professional world.
In high school and college you have the luxury of having flexibility since you can study anywhere in the world and have relatively long study breaks. It is a prime time to take advantage of your freedom and youth.
Top 6 reasons to travel abroad while you are young:
1. You’ll Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
As young people most of us have a pretty established comfort zone. At home with mom and dad, in a community that has known you for probably a good part of your life. You have your established, friends, activities, hangouts and possibly jobs. We become comfortable in these daily roles and the idea of breaking out them can be scary and uncomfortable.
The problem is, you learn the most in uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations. In our daily routines, you know how to act and respond to people and your surroundings. Being in a new place, with different people, who hold different values and go about life differently (or not so differently you may find) strips all that familiarity away.
It can be scary, but once you figure out that you can connect with people despite differences, and you can navigate foreign environments, you become a smarter, more competent individual. Embrace the discomfort. Search for it, because it is helping you grow.
Greenheart Travel volunteer, Danny Scott, with host family in Costa Rica.
2. Traveling Builds Confidence
As you conquer the obstacles of figuring out how to use public transit in a foreign country, or asking for simple things in a grocery store, you are building a confidence and ability to adapt in foreign situations. I remember moving to a country where I spoke little to none of the language.
When I returned home, I moved across the country to a state where I had no family, friends or connections. The prospect of that move may have intimidated me before living abroad, but then I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I can do it abroad in a completely foreign system, I will be just fine in a place where I at least share the language.’
You realize that you CAN do things, despite the obstacles and suddenly the obstacles seem less obstructive and more like welcomed challenges.
Greenheart Travel TEFL student taking in the city of Leon, Nicaragua.
3. You Will Develop Cultural Sensitivity
Being culturally sensitive is key in our globalizing world. It is not enough to say “people from X country are like this.” It is important to look for underlying values that may explain a certain behavior in order to practice cultural sensitivity. A good example is when I was in Spain (especially in the south), where they take a 2-3 hour siesta and lunch in the middle of their work day.
Many people view this cultural norm as the people just being lazy when it really has a lot more to do with the fact that historically Spaniards value family face time. Eating together as a family is more important to them than maximizing work time by scarfing a sandwich down at their desks.
Being aware of cultural values and norms is not only fascinating, but can help us understand international issues and conflicts, or even relate to the cultural norms of a foreign business partner. It is an important skill to be able to shift perspectives and see where someone else is coming from.
Cultural sensitivity will help you with your communication on both business and personal levels.
Greenheart Travel high school student in Spain.
4. You Can Adapt to Globalization
Whether you like it or not, with the internet and social media, we are globalizing quickly. It is not unlikely that you would end up with a job that has you travel for business or take part in conference calls with international business partners. In our globalizing world it is important to be culturally sensitive and it can’t hurt to know a foreign language.
In the business world, having lived abroad can give you a competitive edge. Use the confidence and cultural sensitivity that traveling helps you develop and help it make you successful.
Get work experience teaching English or completing an internship in Thailand.
5. Be Immersed in a Second (or Third) Language
Before I lived abroad I never truly understood the beauty of becoming fluent or even proficient in another language. In the United States we don’t need to know another language, or many would argue that. Once you travel abroad you realize that especially in Europe, almost everyone you meet speaks at least two languages somewhat proficiently.
We in the States have a bit of a disadvantage since geographically we cannot country-hop as easily as Europeans can. This is why traveling, especially for us, is even more important. I would argue that in the globalizing world it really can only benefit you to speak another language. Not to mention, it opens up a whole new world of people you can now connect with and understand that you would never have gotten the chance to get to know had you never learned their language.
Living abroad is really the best way to learn a new language since you are forced to challenge and practice your skills on a daily basis.
Greenheart Travel students perfect their French language schools at our language camp in Paris.
6. Infinite Opportunities to Network
I have studied and worked abroad and made some incredibly valuable connections. If you are interested in working internationally or even just having a couch to stay on in a country that you love, never underestimate the value of networking wherever you go.
One thing I have learned in my time abroad is that people are generally very friendly and love to talk about their home and culture. This is not always the case, but more than often it is. Making friendships abroad can make this big world seem a little smaller and help you feel more connected wherever you go.
The best advice I can give is to meet as many people on your travels as you can. It will definitely make your time abroad more enjoyable since the locals know best! Plus you never know when these connections will come in handy in the future whether visiting each other for fun or otherwise.