Seeking Deeper Truths With a Travel Writer’s Eye
Travel writing is a tough genre to master — without intention, even a story about the most fascinating and “exotic” destination can quickly become a rote recitation of a day’s activities. “We went here, we ate this, here’s a smiling selfie.” You get a sense that the writer had a good time; but often, no more than that.
But a master travel writer can do the opposite: turn what should be a boring anecdote or simple moment into a meaningful lesson, connecting their experience as a foreigner into a more universal truth about the land they are visiting, the world at large, or their own interior life. The absolute best travel writers weave all of those strands into one compelling narrative that keeps you hooked, without ever resorting to narrative gimmicks or tired (sometimes racist) tropes.
Good travel writers (like good travelers) observe difference, quietly, but do not gawk at it.
Winter in America — A Taxi Here and There
Getting a taxi in Washington, DC, isn’t easy for a British black man with dreadlocks. But now, in Mexico City, it’s a…
Paul Boakye’s essay “Winter in America — a Taxi Here and There,” shows he is a master travel writer. In basic terms, the story is simply about arriving in Washington, D.C., catching a cab to his lodging, going dancing at a nightclub, and returning. Then, later, he leaves for Mexico. Not too exciting, right?
But this story is far more than that. It begins:
Friends told me D.C. meant “Dark City” so I packed my bags and headed for a year in the nation’s capital — Washington, District of Columbia, US of A. The day is a Saturday, 11 October 1995, and the Million Man March is scheduled for Monday.
Using only two sentences, Boakye establishes the time (1995), place (Washington, D.C.), topic (race), and his position in the story (outsider, although not completely). Even here, in the opening sentences, you can hear a wonderful writer’s voice, which is strongly present throughout the personal essay.
It is Boakye’s voice that causes this story to stick out. Boakye is twice an outsider in the USA — once because of his passport, and once because of his skin color. This feeling of weary otherness sticks to the edges of every interaction Boakye describes in D.C. Things are never quite right, in America.
It is ironic that a Black man should find himself feeling an outsider in “Dark City,” as the narrator’s friends describe the capital in the opening. This irony powers the story, and it left me pondering many deep questions for days after.
Although you’re more likely to request a ride than hail a cab in D.C. these days, the issues and inequities discussed in this story from 25 years ago are sadly still present in America.
That’s damn good travel writing.