The thing about travel writing


Recently, a friend told me that she found travel writing self-indulgent. “Why should I care where they went and what they ate?”

Honestly, I understand.

I love reading about travel for the same reason that I like walking aimlessly around residential neighborhoods in new cities. It’s very simple - glimpses of well-lit kitchens showing a flurry of cooking activity or tired locals coming home after a long commute move me. Most of the time, I feel keenly the everyday humanness that we share--them and I--and my heart is warmed. Sometimes, when there is a chilly rain beating on my thin rain jacket and I can’t figure out where to buy a bus ticket, the cheery kitchens make me feel alone instead. But always, I am struck by how flexible the boundaries between my in here and the out there are. It doesn’t matter if I am reading about travel or traveling myself. Both have the same startling effect of turning the stone walls that protect my gooey insides into mist.

And it doesn’t matter so much anymore who is doing the cooking, or the getting wet in the rain, or the discovering of new places.


This is all well and good. The problem is, I also like writing about travel. And I always want to share it with my friends.

The thing about both traveling and travel writing is that you often find yourself trying to summarize whole existences into neat little transferable parcels of knowledge.

Read about the sights, sounds and smells at this beautiful market where I spent an afternoon!, you might say. Doesn’t it help you understand their culture, their lives, their hopes?

(Of course it doesn’t.)

Really, traveling itself could be an exercise in benign voyeurism. Now imagine recording and sharing the fruits of this indulgence!

When I travel, I am a guest passing through foreign terrain; it does not belong to me. It is possible that any insight I have gained about its people and its culture, or its hills and its valleys, is entirely meaningless because I don’t know the right ways to navigate its landscape. There is also the possibility that I--in my transient ignorance--am transforming that landscape in the same moments that I am trying to understand it. Stomping all over any pretense of objective observation.

Maybe it is never possible to experience or understand someone else’s spent time and  traversed space.

And maybe that doesn’t matter.

Once I am liberated from wanting to summarize or understand, I am free to just see, smell, hear, write.

And when I do write, I don’t want to impart nuggets of travel wisdom or bore you with long itineraries that could only ever matter to me. Instead, I want to throw open a window as though I am cooking something that is special to me, and hope that the fragrance reminds you of something that is special to you. And wonder if that, somehow, creates a new special something that we can share between us.