One thing I’ve learned venturing into the world of travel writing is that, by and large, we are a willing congregation of positive people. After all, what we sell is our own adventures: the places we go, the experiences within other cultures, and the inspiration everyone needs to get out there and do it. The industry gains little from crapping upon those places which…are lesser.
We are meant to inspire travel. How much inspiration comes from detailed confessions about stomach bugs, noting an abundance of actual bugs, and enduring people (because, let’s face it, annoying people are everywhere—that’s part of what makes them annoying)? I’d basically curbed my inclination to be a sourpuss and begun blowing sunshine out of my ass.
Imagine my dismay when this month’s books all take a rather grumpy, irritable stance about traveling, and amazingly, they all pull it off. I both want to go to the places they go, and I’m reminded of places I’ve been that were equally and equivalently as troubling. Truthfully, a piece me is a bit loathsome to have to write such positive things about these moaners and whiners.
1. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World
Longtime NPR correspondent, Eric Weiner, a self-diagnosed grump, sets himself on a mission to find just exactly what makes the happiest places in the world happy. His journey starts in the Netherlands, where one can find the World Database of Happiness compiled by “the godfather of happiness research”, Ruut Veenhoven. Using decades Veenhoven’s annals, Weiner is able to visit some of the happiest places on earth, including Bhutan (where the government measures gross national happiness), Qatar (where everyone is stinking rich), and Moldova (a study of the unhappiest nation on earth).
This book’s title had set it up to be a knee-slapper, and while it did inspire the odd chortle, it was much more serious than I anticipated. Weiner actually examines cultures, often quotes philosophers on the subject of happiness, and genuinely engages readers to think about the sources of our own contentedness and/or bliss, or lack thereof. I finished the book feeling wiser as much as entertained and feeling reassured that, regardless of location, we all still have to live with ourselves. It was a lesson I began learning some years ago after leaving home and realizing I hadn’t immediately changed because I was now in Korea.
2. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
J. Maarten Troost, who is something of the Hunter Thompson of contemporary travel writing, moves with his girlfriend to a tiny atoll, Tarawa, in the Republic of Kiribati—Safe to assume that is remote. The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced an unlikely kir-ee-bas) is composed of thirty-three atolls just north of the equator, roughly 300 square miles of land (or Baltimore) in a space as large as the contiguous United States. It’s easy to picture it as paradise, a place with palm trees, peace, and plump plankton-fed fish. It’s easy to make that mistake.
Troost, a rather fearless and self-defacing protagonist, recounts stories from his two years on Tarawa. The island turns out to be a constant challenge, full of feral dogs, “La Macarena” on track repeat, and varieties of pollution—Kiribati is where the US practices bombing stuff—that would take the luster off of spit-shined (fancy shoe). So, what he offers is a real experience, an unapologetic look at the warts that remain atop what might have been paradise. These are warts, I think, all places have, at least the ones I’ve been to. However, I think Troost gets away with his frank delivery because, by the end of the book, his departure comes off bittersweet.
3. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Bill Bryson is perhaps the most revered travel writer of our day. Known to be simply gut-bustingly hilarious, he has been amusing readers for nearly forty years. This is why I chose one of his books. He is someone I should not only like but emulate, a writer whose prowess precedes whatever paperback that bears his name. The one other time I tried to read him, I didn’t make it through the entire book. About fifty pages into this one, I closed it one afternoon, a chapter after his travels in small-town America took him to the Deep South, and told my wife why I didn’t like Bryson’s book: “He moans about everything.”
But, I did pick the book back up and persevered. Hey, Bryson doesn’t need me to back him; he’s got the rest of the world. I can say that I eventually came around. Either that or Bryson stopped whining so much. His book(s) do have some genuinely funny moments, this one especially when telling stories about his father, who took the Bryson family on the road trips that would later inspire the writing of this book. And, when he isn’t complaining, which is the “humorous” part, over the mundane, he captures places in a nutshell. Sometimes it’s an ugly, disfigured nutshell, but there is always something at the center to snack on. He earned at list another read from me.
So, I supposed I’ve learned that it can be done, that sunshine doesn’t have to shoot forth from every word I write, nor am I required to like every culture, to reach the goals I set forth in my articles, or to take my road trips and bus rides without complaint, which is a good thing for me because more than one person has told me I’m grumpy most of the time. Hopefully, some of that will start rubbing off on my writing.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.