If there’s one thing a travel writer needs, it’s fear. Caution. A decent sense of self-doubt. This is especially true for travel writers from any country which have historically barged into nations where people lived, claimed to have “discovered” them, and then begun a campaign of mass murder.
Travel website Lonely Planet still uses terms like “subdued” to describe indigenous populations who have been subject to the inhumanities of invaders and colonizers who described them as wild, unruly, and hysterical — rather than, you know, just wanting to survive. (To their credit, Lonely Planet quickly agreed to change that language when it was called out.) These are the kinds of terms thrown around by those who come from places made up of people who would rather think of themselves historically as “conquerors” rather than mass murderers with a belief in their own genetic superiority (and I say this as someone from the U.K.).
The truth is, this stuff trickles down through generations, and in travel writing, there are still many dehumanizing tropes which writers fall into that reduce people and places to mere products for consumption.
I am currently writing a book detailing my travel to seven of the world’s death festivals — which offers a whole lot of opportunity to inadvertently write something stupid about a culture that is not mine. So to be on the safe side, I’ve compiled a list on some tropes I find travel writers to fall into from time to time. Don’t read this list as me scolding, wagging my finger, or shaming anyone in particular: It is something I’ve written as much for myself as for anyone else.
Almond-shaped eyes, jet-black hair, and olive skin
Too often, physical descriptions of people are really just about pointing out their race. For example, here’s a shocker: All eyes are almond-shaped — they really are. Maybe when eyes shaped like squares, crosses, or meerkats start popping up, “almond-shaped” can become a valid observation.
While we’re on the topic, why is hair always “jet black”? For one thing, it’s just not true. “Jet black” refers to the blackest form of black hair can be. You’re not really suggesting that this person’s hair is so very black that you stopped dead in your tracks, utterly amazed at the depth of its blackness, so black light itself has trouble escaping it — you really just mean that person has black hair.
“Olive skin” is also just as strange as a descriptor, especially since most olives are a sickly green or deep purple. Often, when “olive skin” is used to describe someone, it seems to mean ‘the not-quite-white skin of a person who happens to come from a place where olives tend to grow’.
Chances are the place you’re writing about isn’t actually “undiscovered.” You probably just mean that it isn’t very touristy, or that the place is beautiful and not overly developed.
Non-white people often get described in this way, for no real reason other than to let the reader know the person being described is, for example, east Asian. If you’re going to describe someone’s physical appearance, don’t just linger on their race as if it’s an interesting detail. I’ve never seen anyone bother to describe a white person’s complexion unless it is an essential detail.
For example, if a Yorkshireman is tan in the winter, that might point to his taking expensive winter sun holidays or sessions at a tanning salon, which tells us something about who he may be; perhaps he’s rich, or perhaps he’s particularly concerned with his appearance. Taking the time to tell the reader that a Chinese person looks Chinese is a weird way to use your word count. On the other hand, telling me that a person’s skin has wrinkled after years in the sun, or is flushed pink by alcohol abuse is more valuable, and something I need to know.
An undiscovered and untouched gem
Is the place you’re in really undiscovered? Then why the hell are you telling me? You should be telling whoever makes the maps.
Chances are the place you’re writing about isn’t actually “undiscovered.” You probably just mean that it isn’t very touristy, or that the place is beautiful and not overly developed. Calling locations “undiscovered” and “untouched” is a colonial tendency, where the words “by us” end up being left out of the text. If a place is quiet, or peaceful, or minimally built-up, or has a mysterious stillness that makes you feel like the rest of the world has melted away, then say that. Don’t suggest that you were the first person to “find” it; it’s dismissive of the people who live there.
When you travel, remember that you don’t necessarily know what you’re seeing. Go ahead and ask questions, even if they seem stupid. Ask what something actually means, even if you think you know. Ask why people are partaking in a particular cultural practice, even if the reason seems obvious.
Some family members of mine, for example, hated New Orleans, mainly because they were creeped out by voodoo. The sight of a dollar bill tucked into a skull gave them the willies, because bones represent death, and because death is scary. The reality, however, is that in voodoo, bones actually don’t represent death; they represent the ancestors. That dollar bill is actually a message to a dead family member: “Wherever you are, I want you to be okay.”
I was recently in a cemetery in Mexico on Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, and passed a tent in which I realized there were teenagers getting hot and heavy — on the day their ancestors were supposed to be visiting from the realm of the dead. I felt like they couldn’t really believe in the significance behind the holiday or take it seriously — would they really be hooking up in a tent if they thought their grandparents were visiting?
I asked someone if my assumption was right, that maybe people didn’t actually believe in the myths and were just celebrating the tradition. Turns out that part of the cultural significance does involve a kind of mixture of the sacred and the everyday, the profane, the cheeky.
In another example, when I was 19 and knew very little, I went to Malawi, where I was told homosexuality was taboo, so I was baffled to see two men holding hands. I asked how that could happen so openly in such a society. Turns out hand holding does not signify romance in every part of the world, and in Malawi, it was nothing more than a symbol of friendship.
Yes, croissants are ubiquitous in Paris, but if we’re talking about croissants then let it tell us something more.
Yesterday I was in Nepal, where I was told many people are afraid of ghosts. Rather than assuming that I knew the significance of ghosts in Nepal because I knew about it in the U.K., I decided to ask what “ghosts” really meant in this part of the world. Turns out that here, a ghost is not a dead person wandering about, but is actually an evil spirit, bad luck, or even a general sense of negativity.
Ask the dumb questions and feel free to look like you know nothing—because when you’re in someone else’s world, you probably do.
Like it or not, in today’s world places are brands, and it is so easy to latch onto the tropes we know and perhaps love: Seville? Oranges! Paris? Croissants! Chicago? Deep-dish pizza!
It is obviously fine to mention these things as they exist as symbols for a reason, but much like physical descriptions, it is better if such symbols serve as essential details. Yes, croissants are ubiquitous in Paris, but if we’re talking about croissants then let it tell us something more. Tell us that French culture places a value on frugality, which means that day-old croissants are often revived with frangipane and a quick re-bake, leading to the creation of those dangerously addictive almond croissants. And since these are made from leftovers, don’t bother trying to find them on a Monday.
I’m still in Nepal as I write this. It is scattered with the intricately carved Holy buildings you may imagine, and yes, the place is still reeling from the 2015 earthquake…but it also thrums with drills and the ting-ting-ting of the rebuild; on closer inspection, you find that those holy buildings are actually a mixture of new and old wood. When the earthquake hit, the conservation-conscious salvaged what they could as they pulled people out of the wreckage.
Manic-pixie dream destination
The “manic pixie dream girl” is a female character, usually in film, whose sole purpose is to serve as a catalyst for the epiphany of the main character, usually a man. Travel writing, particularly as memoir, necessitates that the place you’re in and the people you meet should play more of a role than simply a backdrop of accessories to you finding yourself. People pick up books and articles for a variety of reasons, and the reader might be more interested in the place you are than in than the realizations you’re having about yourself.
Making yourself the star
Try, as often as possible, to act as a camera. Bring yourself in only when we really need to hear from you, when what you’re seeing produces a reaction that tells the reader something about the wider story you want to tell. If something is moving, move us with you — don’t just tell us how moved you were. Describe the scene, or you risk becoming like the cameraman who says, “Well, would you look at that!”