Don’t Call Me A Travel Writer

How is one to reconcile love of travel with deep misgivings about its consequences — and a deafening preponderance of white male voices?

Michael C. Rockefeller in Papua New Guinea in 1961 (Source: New York Post)

I’m a writer. I love to travel. And yes, over the years I’ve found opportunities to combine the two activities in moderately interesting ways.

But please don’t call me a “travel writer”. That’s not what I am, and I’ve long gone out of my way to evade that particular description.

Over the course of my nearly 15 years as a professional writer I’ve been referred to more times than I care to remember as a travel writer. I’ve even been called a “travel poet” — which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a thing. I credit this largely to the fact that I cut my teeth as a writer while living in Japan, and, as a consequence, writing a great deal about Japan. But the term still follows me around, even though I’ve done precious little travel in recent years, and even less actual travel writing. That epithet still follows me around like an ill-advised tattoo.

Why such disdain for the term? Here are my top ten reasons for eschewing it:

  1. I don’t like boxes of any kind. I’m just a writer. If you have to call me a “poet” or an “essayist” or something along those lines, that’s fine, providing it makes sense in context. But I’m not a travel writer, and that particular box always felt very limiting to me.
  2. I actually don’t travel all that much. When you call yourself a “travel writer” there are certain expectations placed on you, i.e. that you have a dog-eared passport full of exotic-looking stamps and curry stains. My last passport had all of two stamps in it, from London-Heathrow Airport and Houston-Intercontinental respectively. I miss travelling the way I used to, but that’s not what my life looks like right now.
  3. I never particularly liked the travel writing genre. Granted, there is some good stuff out there that can only be described as “travel writing” but the lion’s share of this is by writers best known for other types of writing. By contrast, I’ve always found most travel writing to be equal parts pretentious and predictable, not to mention reeking of privilege.
  4. I’ve met travel writers. And I haven’t particularly liked most of them. I’m sure there are many travel writers who are perfectly likable human being who do not ooze cynicism about the world and the places they visit, but many of the self-described travel writers I have met have didn’t exactly impress me, either with their intellects or with their nuanced views about humanity. It’s not that they’re all jerks or anything. It’s just not a wellspring of the types of people I enjoy spending time with.
  5. The world probably doesn’t need yet another middle-class white male travel “raconteur”. Firstly, anybody who calls themselves a “raconteur” without a shred of irony (in an English language context of course) should be slapped. Secondly, while I’m hesitant to declare, like many others have, that white men from privileged first-world countries like Canada should stop writing books and other content in specific genres, I make an exception for mainstream travel writing. If for no other reason, I’m really not that interested in how a white dude like me views Country X. If I’m going to Peru and want some perspective on the place, I’m going to seek out a Peruvian author, not some man bun-toting dude from Nanaimo who did a bunch of ayahuasca and saw the Nazca Lines come to life before his eyes. Sorry brah, but I’ve read enough Billy Burroughs and Terence McKenna to last a lifetime — and I don’t need you.
  6. The grunt work in most travel writing never seemed like fun. I’m sure a Lonely Planet gig would have its perks, but a lot of it is, presumably, making sure the Vilnius hotels profiled in the previous edition of The Baltic States On A Shoestring are still open. Which doesn’t even necessarily involve travelling to Lithuania at all. Just phone them and see if they’re open. Hardly the romantic profession it’s made out to be.
  7. Contrary to all the platitudes about it, travel does NOT in and of itself make you a better person. The more I travelled throughout my twenties and early thirties, the more said travel disabused me of any romantic notions about the “transformative power” of travel. Yes, I do believe I got a lot out of my travels in Asia and elsewhere, and it probably made me a bit wiser, I don’t think it made me a better person. Moreover, the older I got the more disillusioned I became with the Lonely Planet guide-toting backpacker scene, which seemed to consist mostly of whiny privileged white kids who spent most of their time getting drunk and/or high and complaining about the countries they were in the process of visiting, all the while chastizing ordinary “tourists” for staying in expensive resorts. I’m scarcely a five-star hotel guy, but I’ll take the company in a run-of-the-mill business hotel over that of a backpacker hostel any day.
  8. Most people’s travel stories are frankly boring. Most of the time my eyes frankly glaze over when people start talking about their travel experiences, and I’m sure the same is true of most of us — including people who have been subjected to my tired accounts of trips to India, Thailand, or wherever the hell I was “this one time”. Unless your travel story involves fighting off giant insects in the Amazon Basin or being stuck at a remote airstrip in Magadan Oblast in the dead of winter with nothing but vodka as deicing fluid, people probably don’t give a shit.
  9. I’ve never found travel literature to be particularly helpful. Before moving to Japan I read everything I could get my hands on in Japan, and picked up numerous guidebooks and the like. But when I got there I found I barely used them. When one stays in a place long enough to actually make friends and explore for oneself, one generally finds that the place itself is its own best guidebook. When I lived in Tokyo I would spend entire days walking, exploring new neighbourhoods, peeling back yet another layer of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. By contrast, my Walking in Tokyo guidebook rarely left the house.
  10. The best “ex-pat writers” aren’t travel writers. During my time in Japan I had the good fortune to meet several high-profile expatriate English language writers in the country who served as mentors to varying degrees. The late Donald Richie, who passed away in 2013, was one of the greatest wordsmiths I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. Far from a “travel writer”, the American-born film critic had become every inch a Japanese cultural institution in his own right, even though, he himself confessed, he never truly learned to read and write the Japanese language properly. More directly influential on me were the poet, novelist, and yogini Leza Lowitz, the wonderful novelist and anthologist Suzanne Kamata, and the essayist and social critic Alex Kerr, whose Zola-esque jeremiad Dogs and Demons decried the dysfunction of late-20th century Japan’s political, economic, and educational institutions in a fashion that made him a darling of both Japanese left-wing progressives and many cultural traditionalists. While some of Kerr’s other books, notably Lost Japan and Bangkok Found, more closely align with what one might describe as “travel writing”, it would be erroneous to describe any of these authors as travel writers.

Should we really be encouraging people to travel more?

Source: DH.be

Beyond these obvious (to me at least) reasons for disliking the term “travel writer” there is an additional question, one to which I have yet to come to an answer. Given how awful commercial air travel is for our environment — not to mention the many other terrible side-effects wrought by global tourism — should we really be encouraging people to travel more? Moreover, should I be doing any more of it than is absolutely necessary?

I would be very sad to stop travelling completely. There is much of the world that I would love to see and experience directly. As relatively well travelled as I am, I have barely explored a fraction of our world, and my insatiable curiosity about the world around me still gets the better of me in bookstores, where I invariably end up in the travel section fantasizing about trips to Bolivia or Botswana or Bhutan.

That said, there are many parts of the world that are decidedly better off should I never set foot there in my life. The delicate ecosystems of Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, and various other unpopulated places are probably best left unvisited. The still-uncontacted tribes of the Amazonian rainforest, the Andaman Islands, and the New Guinean highlanders have nothing to gain from meeting me personally, or anybody else I know, and are frankly better off in their protected isolation well away from tourism. But even beyond these obvious examples, people in every city and town on earth other than Edmonton, Alberta (from where I’m writing this article) are getting on just fine without me. Would life in Phnom Penh or Tegucigalpa be improved any were I to suddenly materialize there? Probably not.

There is, I fear, a certain narcissism inherent to our desire to collect passport stamps. This idea that we’d all suddenly become better people if we just travelled more seems not only silly, but also arrogant and self-aggrandizing, as though the world would just be a better place if people had the chance to hang out with me personally. Anybody who genuinely wants to learn about other people’s cultures can, provided they live in a reasonably large and cosmopolitan city, step outside their door and volunteer at a centre for newcomers, or get involved in other social activities with recent immigrants. If integration and cultural exchange are truly your goal, you don’t have to get on a plane and fly anywhere. I’m sure you can do that very close to home.

As I noted earlier, some of my favourite writers are or have been based for long periods in countries not their own, and as such have been misclassified as “travel writers”. I’ve always felt there’s something very different between a writer who writes about a foreign location to which they have bona fide community ties and a sense of belonging and your garden-variety travel writer who jumps from location to location without ever putting down roots. Anyone can simply show up somewhere and write about what they see, but I’ve never found this sort of travel writing particularly interesting. There’s also a shallowness and sense of detachment to much of this genre. Generally this is not the writer’s fault — travel can be a very lonely undertaking, and unless you’re going somewhere where you know people or you have better skills than most of us at making friends in new cultural and linguistic contexts, it’s going to be a lot of self-reflection through the prism of international travel à la Eat Pray Love. And after a while this gets pretty tiresome.

That said, I confess I still find myself yearning to travel, and for solo travel in particular. I’m deeply curious about the world around me and still want to see it for myself. But I’ve also learned enough about the world, have developed a sufficiently deep respect for it, that I’m not going to commit myself to a career path where my job is to pollute the planet as much as I possibly can through commercial air travel while shoehorning myself into as many foreign countries as I can, without at least first questioning my true motivations for doing so. Many people, I suspect, travel without truly thinking their own motives for doing so through. I don’t want to be guilty of that.

But I have a different idea of how I want to travel — and write about it. I just need to figure out how to do it.

Eat Pray Run

Ladakh Marathon, India (Source: ladakhmarathon.com)

For me the most interesting travel writing has always been that which pertains to a particular subject matter. Kerr’s Lost Japan, which maintains a sharpened focus on Japan’s traditional art forms (and the author’s longstanding relationship with them), is a perfect example of such writing, as is Jeff Greenwald’s delightfully self-deprecating yarn Shopping for Buddhas, which digs deep into Nepal’s rich religious tapestry and lampoons westerners’ penchant for fetishizing “eastern spirituality” while also recounting the political turbulence that gripped the country during his time there in the 1990s.

In other words, travel in and of itself doesn’t seem like enough of a topic to be interesting. Travel is fascinating when it’s tethered to a particular purpose, but on its own it feels empty.

Ever since I began getting into long-distance running in a serious way I’ve harboured romantic notions about doing some manner of “travel writing” pertaining to runs and the global marathon/ultramarathon scene. It used to be that I would read travel guidebooks searching for interesting looking restaurants, bars, and live music venues to pass my days. While I still peruse these, anymore when I fantasize about overseas travel I look up marathons and ultras in various countries and plan imaginary trips around them.

Running is a textbook example of a quintessential human activity. We’ve been doing it since we first ventured down from the trees onto the African savanna, and as humans we’re still doing it across the globe. It’s also perhaps the most economical and logistically simple athletic undertaking to coordinate (together with boxing and wrestling) and as such has proven to be a powerful means for outliers from the world’s poorer countries to rise to global stardom. Even before I got into marathon running myself I had a soft spot for the sport, if for no other reason because it is one of the few big sporting events in which people from African countries like Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea regularly take home medals.

And that’s at the Olympic level. Dig a little deeper and the picture is even more interesting. India, for example, is home to an estimated 900 organized long-distance races, ranging from the popular Mumbai Marathon and Delhi Half-Marathon to small events in rural areas across the country. India is also home to some of the world’s toughest races, including the Ladakh Marathon (the world’s highest altitude marathon), the Mawkyrwat Ultra in the Himalayan foothills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, and the legendary Great Run of Punjab, a 200-kilometre slog across the state of Punjab from Amritsar to Chandigarh in scorching heat that can give the Badwater Ultra in Death Valley a run for its money.

Of course it would be wrong to assert that the long-distance running world is some sort of Shangri-la of global equality. While Kenyans and other East Africans continue to dominate marathon races the world over, the world of ultra racing remains overwhelmingly white, with the familiar flags of Kenya, Ethiopia, and other famous running nations conspicuously absent. Economics and infrastructure lie at the heart of this inequality — runners from Kenya and in Third World countries generally do not have access to the funding and coaching to make great inroads into the ultra scene, while the relatively modest cash prizes that come with ultra victories provide less incentive for these competitors than the very large winnings on offer at the world’s major marathon events. For many, the luxury of simply being able to run for enjoyment is a far-off dream.

Fortunately, some in the ultra running community, most notably American ultra stars Sage Canaday and Zach Miller, are working to bring runners from poorer countries to ultra races in the United States and in doing so level the playing field. But there are other ways to help fund these countries’ athletic infrastructure, and one of them is to actually travel to these countries and race in their events. For a big ol’ slice of athletic humble pie, enter Kenya’s own Safaricom Marathon, where one can enjoy having one’s ass handed to them by hundreds of wiry Kenyan runners amid the spectacular wilds of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Other African foot races, such as the Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon, are directly tied to charities that do very heavy lifting in impoverished parts of the world.

Moreover, unlike most types of organized tourism, wherein it can be difficult for foreigners and locals to congregate on truly common ground, running races are a great equalizer. If you’re a human being with two legs (even artificial ones), you can join in, and there’s no language barrier to running. You just run.

Should I get the chance to do this type of travel in future, I will surely write about it, and in doing so will venture perilously close to the dreaded “travel writer” category. That said, it’s a topic I have yet to see explored much. Christopher McDougall’s wonderful book Born to Run, which introduced the outside world to the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico — a people famous for running punishingly long distances through the desert in the equivalent of sandals, is one of the closest things I’ve seen to a running travelogue, but in general running seems to be an underutilized vehicle for generating cultural exchange. And while it still doesn’t solve the problem of the pollution generated by air travel, its emphasis on leg muscle power at least obviates the need for much in the way of ground transportation between flights.

But until I get to a point in my running/writing career where I’m able to travel the world in running shoes, please don’t call me a travel writer. Or at least help get me somewhere interesting and beneficial for the reading public. The world simply doesn’t need any more long-winded commentary on the Tuscan countryside or the Great Wall of China by wannabe Elizabeth Gilberts and Bill Brysons. We’ve reached peak travel writing, at least when it comes to white Anglo-American travel writers.

Of course I write these words knowing full well I will still want to travel, and write about it. Maybe just don’t read it when I do.

Writer. Teacher. Grammar cop. Distance runner. Historian in the wilderness.

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