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Have you ever wondered why travel and writing make such a perfect pair? Here’s my take on the lurking inspirations behind travel literature, and a selection of travel books to inspire your wanderlust.
FYI: This post about travel literature contains affiliate links to Amazon. Just saying.
Travel and writing are a passionate pair
Travel and Writing are a hot couple. Can’t you just picture them strolling through a hilltop town in Tuscany with fingers entwined? At an ancient stone wall they stop to embrace. A peach-tinged light slants against cyprus trees and falls over the fields below. Travel’s hands slide down Writing’s back, lower, lower … whoaa – let’s not get carried away.
What is travel literature?
So what makes travel and writing such a perfect pair? First, what is travel writing? It’s a persistent and popular genre of nonfiction writing that encompasses anything with a travel theme.
For the purpose of this article we’re talking about travel books. A travel book can be many things: humorous, helpful, insightful or heartfelt. It can be a narrative or a guide, quick paced or contemplative, or a combination of a million different things.
Why travel and writing are lovers
I’ve come up with six main reasons why travel and writing go hand in hand and why travel books are so popular. Do you agree or disagree?
Reason #1: Travel literature is about sharing – otherwise known as I have got to tell someone or I’ll burst into flames!
It’s hard to contain the buzz in your blood that comes from travelling or rising to a challenge, and you can’t always contain yourself. Since it’s generally not acceptable to run through the streets with your arms in the air screaming, “I just talked to a monk in Luang Prabang!” or “I saw a polar bear rub his bum on a tree in Churchill!” or “I just drank stinking mineral water in Budapest!” writing about it is the next best thing.
Yes, my socially-connected friends, travel writing is even better than Instagram and Selfies.
Travel literature in the ‘sharing’ genre
Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon. After reading this book I will forever love Iban tribesmen, but it’s the ending that slides right down your throat and grabs your guts – it’s a love story, if you will – and gets me every time.
The White Masai: My Exotic Life of Love and Adventure When German-born Corinne Hofmann falls for a Samburu warrior in Kenya, she definitely has a story to share. Ay caramba, does she ever.
Reason #2: Processing your journey – otherwise known as What the feck is going on?
Travelling can mess with your head (hopefully in a good way). At some point you have to deal with the effect on your psyche. One way of processing your feelings when you’re out of your comfort zone is by having nightmares about rats, which is a technique I’ve used in the past, another is by documenting your journey through writing.
A travel book that processes: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Why do people hate this book? Because it’s a best seller and therefore must be shunned? Personally, I found it witty and mesmerizing in a traumatized-divorcee-finds-new-life sort of way.
Reason #3: Laughter – otherwise known as Stop! You’re killing me!
I’m all about respecting a destination but I’d be lying if I said travelling doesn’t sometimes seem like a voyage into the absurd. Humour, done with underlying compassion, is the perfect outlet for expressing your astonishment/bewilderment/warped sense of humour towards the world, and is one of the most fun travel genres to read.
So go ahead, make my day. Write something funny. I beg you.
When is it not okay to write about travel with humour?
- When it’s someone else’s pain
- When it’s done from a position of pompous superiority
When is it okay to write with humour?
- When it’s your own pain. Bring it on.
- If you have a gifted sensibility for poking fun at foreign cultures without belittling them à la Mark Twain
- If you’re politically astute and just don’t care, like P. J. O’Rourke who wrote Holidays in Hell, (but who somehow seems to care, even if he doesn’t – or is it the other way around?)
Travel books that use humour effectively
The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. Warning: Do not travel to Germany while reading the chapters on Germany – you will never look at the country the same way again, particularly if you’re sitting through a really long concert.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – An excellent example of the laughing-at-himself-while-making-merciless-fun-of-his-useless-yet-loveable-friend travel-writing genre.
Reason #4: Teaching – otherwise known as the I’m more evolved than you so listen to me school of travel writing
When the Italian poet Petrarch climbed Mount Venoux in 1336, he was struck with the need to document his experience, comparing his ascent with his moral journey in life. He also referred to those who chose not to climb as frigida incuriositas, those with a cold lack of curiosity, which seems a bit harsh.
Travel literature is an ancient tradition
Petrarch’s recount of his journey isn’t the oldest example of travel literature, but it’s one of the most famous. It illustrates one of the most enduring themes in travel writing – that travel makes you a better person. The tricky question is, better than what? Better than your old self or better than someone else?
Some trips truly are transformative. I’ve had a few myself. What travel has really taught me, however, is that the world is filled with beings who are superior to me, and no matter how many airplanes I get on or miles I log, that ‘truth’ is unlikely to change soon.
It doesn’t mean I don’t want to write about the things I learn. Travel is a journey of discovery. When you grasp some new piece of understanding about a place or a culture, it’s natural to want to impart this insight to others (hello, Paul Theroux), especially if it helps to deconstruct harmful cultural stereotypes (and let’s pause a moment to appreciate my impressive use of the word ‘deconstruct’).
When is it not wise to impart your knowledge and acceptance of foreign customs in travel literature?
- When you really do believe you’re more evolved than everybody else
- When it harms people/the environment/animals
- When it involves people blowing the contents of their nose onto the street. Seriously. I will never get used to seeing that in certain countries. (Even if it IS also part of Canadian hockey culture as my husband insists. Have we not evolved at all?)
Travel books that teach something interesting without being superior:
For the dirt on life in the Peace Corps, it’s hard to pass up First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria – How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart by Eve Brown-Waite.
Holy Cow – an Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald. While clearly an outsider looking in, Macdonald brings you along on her explorations of India’s spiritual cultures, from sacred cows to the Hugging Amma. You may not always agree with her approach but her heart’s in the
write right place.
Reason #5: Boasting – otherwise known as “Ma! Look at me!”
I’m not saying boasting is always bad, not when it comes to creative nonfiction of the travelling kind, and not when it’s done well – good storytelling will always have a place in my library.
When is it not a good time to boast?
When you have successfully made your first million as a drug smuggler or, pirate or if you’re setting off on an exotic dancing tour of global strip joints. (Actually, those are all travel books I’d read. Carry on.)
Travel books worth boasting about
Lost in Mongolia – Rafting the World’s Last Uncharted River by Colin Angus: Even my mother got swept up in this nail-chewing adventure and I couldn’t believe a young dude from Calgary wrote this.
Speaking of Western Canadian adventure writers, let’s give a nod to Paddle to the Amazon – The Ultimate 12,000-Mile Canoe Adventure by Winnipeg writer Don Starkell, an excellent addition to the no-idea-what-we-we’re-getting-into category of travel literature.
Road Fever by Tim Cahill. A classic adventurer’s whirlwind journey from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Reason #6 – Healing, also known as I hurt. Can no one see my pain?
There is nothing like a personal quest to come to terms with who you are, what you’ve struggled through and how you can change, forgive and move on.
When the exterior journey parallels an interior journey (and no, by interior journey I don’t mean Journey to the Centre of the Earth or A Field Guide to Caving in Cappadocia – I mean a personal internal quest), the story can be a catharsis for both writer and reader. This is a good thing, because transformation is what travel and writing are all about.
When is it not wise to chronicle your internal journey?
- When you’re making it up. It’s called fiction.
Although in fiction’s defence, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway is probably the most influential travel book I’ve ever read.
Travel books about healing and internal journeys
Tigers in the Snow by Peter Matthiessen. Even if things don’t turn out as planned aka you don’t find a rare Siberian tiger in the remote eastern regions of Russia, it’s the journey that mends the heart – particularly if you’re grieving.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed – When this former not-quite-but-almost heroin addict meets the fearsome Pacific Coast Trail, adventures happen. It’s not just the book that’s transformational. Every chapter is transformational. It’s one of the best, er, passionate pairings between setting and interior quest I’ve ever read … in fact I’m beginning to think setting and interior quest make an even racier couple than travel and writing.
Read more: Travel is the ultimate luxury, but what is luxury travel?