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A Moving Experience

Travel is mostly boredom—and if you’re not bored, you’re pretty sure that everyone else is having more fun. Selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2014, the woes of professional travel writers.

Blair Dike, “Untitled,” 2009, gouache and pencil on paper, 12” x 9". Courtesy the artist.

Travel suffers from false advertising. Tour operators, vacation companies, cruise lines, hotel chains, bad travel writers depict it as something “adventurous,” “exciting,” “romantic.” Though disingenuous, it’s understandable: They’re in the business of travel, and their job is to sell it to consumers.

As a result of this hype, people who travel often experience disappointment. Friends will tell you of their wonderful trips, and much of the time they’re being mostly honest. But they conveniently leave out the train they missed due to miscommunications, and the town that was shut tight for a holiday no one told them about. Travel, like football, is best in highlight form.

And people will gleefully tell you about their vacations from hell. The worst trips, travel writers love to say, make the best stories; everybody loves a good tale of woe.

Travel stories are divided, rather religiously, between paradise—a word used promiscuously by travel magazines—and inferno. Those about so-called heavenly places predominate, at least in written form (since most publications are dependent on advertising, and many feel the need to be promotional), while tales of the hellish generally belong to the oral tradition, though they sometimes make it into books, like the excellent anthology Bad Trips. But there is very little middle ground. You not only don’t read, you rarely hear someone say: “The trip was so-so.” Or: “Something was missing.” Or: “I left feeling a little unsatisfied.”

Readers sometimes say to me, You always meet the most interesting people when you travel. I tell them, Not really, I just write about it when I do. Most of the time I’m wandering around lonely and aimless. In my own way, I am as guilty as the cliché-mongers of perpetuating the idea of travel as a continuously fascinating activity—though all writers shape their experiences into an unrepresentative series of highlights; otherwise our stories would be too boring to read.

Condé Nast Traveler has never printed the “Top Ten Places Where You Won’t Feel a Thing.”

But in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, Janet Malcolm writes about her trip to Russia, in the course of which she lost her luggage. The effort to be reunited with her belongings propelled her out of her tourist shell, required her to deal with the locals, introduced a small drama into her journey. She came to the conclusion that “travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life.” Most tourists, she noted, are not doing anything adventurous or exciting or romantic; they are passive observers, visiting landmarks, looking at paintings, and are less engaged in life than they are on a typical Monday at home. It is only when something happens on our journeys—which is, frequently, something going wrong—that we are able to break through the surface of a place.

I read Malcolm’s observation with the shock of recognition. It was so true and yet so unacknowledged. When we travel, particularly those who go alone, which is most travel writers, we take ourselves out of our lives for a while. We’re capable of enjoying most of travel’s gifts—the welcome break from routine, the glorious novelty, the invaluable lessons—but we’re frequently left emotionally flat.

One October in Genoa I walked the streets as darkness fell and offices emptied. Perhaps because the scene was one I never get in Florida—crowded sidewalks, a chill in the air, a charged twilight—I thought back to the years I spent in Warsaw, walking with my wife on autumn evenings. I peered into the faces of women as they passed close and totally oblivious to me on their way home to dinners and lovers.

Wistfulness is not the most enjoyable emotion, but for a traveler it’s one of the most common.

Travel has been called the saddest pleasure. Sometimes it’s sad because of what we see: poverty, misery, hopelessness. Kate Simon, writing in Mexico: Places and Pleasures of some of the capital’s less reputable ones, ends the section on a philosophical note: “There is no playfulness in it, nor even much energy, just restlessness and several kinds of desperation and, if the night is cold and damp, the sight will depress you, which you may deserve or even want, if you’ve come this far.”

Often, though, travel is sad because what we see doesn’t include us. Much of a travel writer’s life, I once wrote, is spent watching other people have fun. Everyone who travels has the same experience; we’re all outsiders, excluded from the action. Being left out is never pleasant, but in travel it’s even more frustrating because a few days ago you were not just part of a group, of friends or family, you were the envied and celebrated member, the one heading off, as the travel brochures put it, for exciting adventures in exotic lands.

There are people who don’t need people. David Foster Wallace spent his last days aboard the MV Zenith in his cabin, traumatized by the orchestrated “fun” of cruising. The resulting story—”Shipping Out,” published in Harper’s in 1996—is a recognized masterpiece in the “bad trips, great stories” school. John Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley, drove coast to coast and back again with surprisingly few encounters and—as was revealed not too long ago—even fewer real ones. Bill Bryson, the most popular travel writer of the last few decades, has admitted he doesn’t enjoy talking to strangers.

Of course, writers of any kind are never the norm; those of us who write about travel are different from the start, since we usually head out alone. The reason cited most often is freedom from distraction; when you’re by yourself, you’re more attuned to your surroundings. Less discussed, but just as important, is the fact that, alone, you’re also more sensitive. You not only notice your surroundings more clearly, you respond to them more deeply. Smiles and small kindnesses mean more to the unattached traveler than they do to a happy couple. A merchant in Fethiye adds a few extra sweets to my purchase and I’m extremely touched, in part because no one has paid any attention to me in days. If I’d been there chatting with my wife, I wouldn’t have been so moved; I may not have even been aware. And the merchant quite possibly would not have been inspired like he was by my lonely presence.

Once on a trip I went days without having a conversation with anyone other than myself, which resulted in dangerously low levels of self-esteem. Everyone around me was talking, gesturing, laughing. What was wrong with me? One morning I headed toward a building with sliding glass doors and the doors refused to open. They seemed to confirm my suspicion that I had ceased to exist.

 

A lot of travel is a search for solitude. A love of nature propels travelers away from crowded cities to forests, rivers, deserts, oceans, mountains. There is a subgenre of travel book—from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard to Joe Kane’s Running the Amazon, to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—that treats travel as an expedition (some more meditative than others), occasionally a test.

A friend and fellow travel writer once told me that he can appreciate a beautiful landscape but doesn’t feel the urge to immerse himself in it the way he does when he sees a great city. With nature, it’s enough for him to stand back and admire.

As a mostly urban traveler, I understood him perfectly. Driving around Arizona I was mesmerized by the mountains, the way their colors changed depending on the time of day, but I was content to see them from afar (often through a windshield).

Years earlier, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, I drove from one observation point to another, not just for the views, but the reactions of visitors. Almost as fascinating as the great hole, for me, was its effect on the people who stood at its edge—everyone from the Japanese schoolgirls desirous of a photograph with me (or any handy American) to the retired Ohioan reciting Robert Service’s The Ballad of the Northern Lights. I needed a story, and suspected that my uninformed thoughts on the geological marvel wouldn’t be enough. Also, unaccustomed to the power of nature, I was curious about its influence on others.

Evelyn Waugh, in “A Pleasure Cruise in 1929,” wrote: “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset.” He described the pink light mixing with grey pastels and confessed: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.”

A few years later, at Glacier National Park, I took a hike and saw a grizzly foraging on a distant mountainside. On another walk I encountered a family of mountain goats. An Easterner on my first trip to the Northwest, I was more elated than I’d been at the Grand Canyon, probably because I’d found furry, animate nature.

True nature lovers aren’t so fussy. A ranger at Everglades National Park once told me that sometimes after work she drives home, changes out of her uniform, then comes back to the park—to enjoy it in the evening. This in a place that, while possessing a subtle beauty, has none of the dramatic scenery, or adorable animals, of Western parks. The ranger loved everything about the Everglades though, even the mosquitos; their relative absence during our hike distressed her slightly, as she wanted me to see their impressive swarms. She showed me the best place, the next time I came at night, to gaze up at the stars. She had fashioned a life in which she didn’t need to travel to be transported by landscape. In fact, all she needed to do was to go to work. She seemed the most grounded person in South Florida.

Evelyn Waugh, in “A Pleasure Cruise in 1929,” wrote: “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset.” He described the pink light mixing with grey pastels and confessed: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.” Judging by their photographs, many travelers are taken by sunsets. Scenic towns built next to water, like Oia on Santorini, fill with crowds for the daily dropping of the orb into the sea. Key West has turned the event into a communal celebration, complete with buskers. It’s a big deal at the Grand Canyon, too, though there people turn their backs to the sun, to watch the play of light on the rocks. They do the same at Uluru in Australia, where the high-end tourists enjoy the show with the help of sumptuous tailgate spreads.

Music, more than food, works on our emotions, usually in a positive way. Often it’s the music you stumble upon that makes the biggest impression. You enter a St. Petersburg church where a choir on the balcony sings vespers, and your listless spirit, overdosed on sights, instantly lifts. In Latvia I attended a midday organ concert in Riga Cathedral—no emcee, no introduction, no visible musician—just a sudden eruption of pipes followed by a cascade of baroque. It was pure refreshment, in a country where I didn’t speak a word, and it brought a feeling of peace that was the perfect antidote to the traveler’s confusion.

 

Growing up in New Jersey, I visited New York City frequently, but it took me years to get into the Guggenheim and MOMA because I couldn’t pull myself away from the shows on the sidewalks. New York gave me my love of walking city streets, even though for years I never made it out of midtown. But those dense blocks alone provided endless visual stimulation: the prostitutes who greeted me with soft hisses and defeated faces as soon as I exited Port Authority, the camel-haired lawyers strolling Park Avenue, the yarmulked merchants chatting in the Diamond District, the liveried doormen facing Central Park, which, like the museums, I never entered because of my fear of missing out. I roamed Manhattan hunting for sights I couldn’t forget.

I’ve traveled the world in much the same way, walking and observing. “Grin like a dog and run about through the city,” Jan Morris has described the activity, appropriating a line from the 59th Psalm. You never know when you’ll find gold. “I am a camera,” Christopher Isherwood declared in pre-war Berlin, eight decades before the age when everybody has a camera. But how many of us see the way Isherwood did?

One of my loveliest memories of Mexico dates back to my first trip there in the early ‘90s. My last evening in Mexico City I walked the huge Zócalo and noticed an animated crowd at one end. Approaching, I saw that it was made up mostly of children, who were throwing parachuted figures high above a subway grate. Dozens of toy soldiers rose with an updraft, sailed gracefully through the air (backdropped by the Cathedral), then landed on the pavement a few yards away, where they were instantly scooped up and hurriedly carried back for their next mission. It was all so ingenious—child’s play out of a public work—and incongruous—a simple pleasure in a monumental space—and the joy was so infectious that it planted in me an affection for Mexico that, after two subsequent visits, has only increased.

Sometimes you can be moved by making yourself part of a tableau vivant: wearing a costume and dancing through the streets of Port-of-Spain at Carnival—get close enough to the trucks carrying the speakers and the vibrations will literally shake your heart—or entering, after weeks on the camino, the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela.

In the summer of 1982 I was coming to the end of two years in Warsaw, where I’d married and worked as an English teacher. As a fitting final act, I decided to walk the nine-day pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa. A popular August event, that year’s promised to be even more so, as martial law was still in effect after the outlawing of Solidarity, and the imprisonment of its leaders, back in December.

The pilgrimage drew thousands, a two-headed beast—religious rite and political rally—making its way through the heart of Poland. The weather was hot and sunny until we arrived into Czestochowa, where we walked under a low, sullen sky. Crowds lined the streets for our entry, just as they had in Warsaw for our exit, making me feel, once again, as if I were part of a liberating army. As a foreigner, I felt unworthy to be the recipient of so much adulation—a boy handed me a bottle of soda, a man presented me with flowers—but on a personal level it seemed a kind of recognition not so much of my walking 150 miles but of my spending two years in Poland, suffering through the winters, standing in the queues, learning the language (its own kind of torment), living with Poles through the ordeals of their history. And of course, marrying one of them, the light of my life. Many Americans have lived and married abroad, but few have received such a loving and public valediction.

It was in Lisbon that I discovered the secret of travel writing, which is also the secret of memorable travel: You approximate, as best you can, in the short time allotted you, the life of a local.

Being a resident, I had earned the points toward this reward, but to redeem them I had to become a traveler. (A pilgrim, one of the most venerable types.) The second identity strengthened my already ineradicable ties to the country.

When I started traveling professionally, I was surprised and delighted to find that I could still make emotional connections to places. I discovered this for the first time in Portugal, where—after having schlepped around Spain—I met a young Dutch woman who introduced me to a her friend, a colorful poet, who invited me to dinner (this after weeks of solitary meals) and then took me to a dive to hear men singing fado. It was in Lisbon that I discovered the secret of travel writing, which is also the secret of memorable travel: You approximate, as best you can, in the short time allotted you, the life of a local. Once back home and writing, I stumbled upon another secret: The best trips make the best stories. Though I had known this in theory from books like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which are nearly as crammed with friends as they are with learning.

I divide places I visit into two types: Those I like OK (a part of one’s critical skills is an ability to find what’s attractive), write about, and don’t think about much. And those that, in some fundamental way, touch me, and continue to haunt. This group, in order of appearance in my life, is made up of Alsace, Poland—both places I lived and worked—Portugal, Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey, Lithuania, and Brazil.

For someone who travels for a living, it might appear to be a surprisingly short list. Its size would seem to support Malcolm’s theory of the “low-key emotional experience” of travel; its content, for the most part, my belief that the less-visited places often produce the most meaningful trips. In Spain I toured the guidebook cities—Madrid, Barcelona, Seville—where, not surprisingly, no one was particularly curious about foreigners. Many of the residents, you got the feeling, had had quite enough of us. Lisbon, off to the side, on the lower edge of the continent, was not besieged and, subsequently, was much more welcoming. Among other things, the Portuguese speak the best English in southern Europe (outside of Gibraltar and Malta). Sevillaños made me feel like a tourist; Lisboners made me feel like a guest.

Like most everybody who’s been there, I love Italy. I’ve visited seven times, and every time I arrive in the country I feel happy, even when taking a train from France, a country I lived in and whose language I speak. The French, André Gide said, are Italians in a bad mood. (Alsatians are different, at least the farmers I worked with, who had little of the Gallic discontent.) I’ve had wonderful experiences in Italy, like most people who’ve been there; I’ve met good people and, with some of them, I’ve become friends. Yet I’ve never felt the emotional bond with Italy that I feel with Vietnam—possibly because there are so many people vying for her affections. She is the most popular girl in the school. I love Italy, but I’ve never gotten the feeling that Italy loves me back.

Loving the unloved, you assume the feeling is mutual. You may be wrong, as travelers often are. But it doesn’t change the nature of your affection, or your relationship with the people you get talking to at the post office who invite you to their home, cook you dinner and refill your glass and tell you stories of life under a dictatorship. At the end of the night, they insist on escorting you back to your hotel, where you exchange phone numbers and email addresses. At that moment the place stops being just the site of your vacation, it becomes the home of your friends. It takes on a significance, and enters your heart.

Thomas Swick is the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. His work has been included in The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2012. More by Thomas Swick