get out of town:
travel writing in the age of air miles

 
Salon.com's Wanderlust: Real-life Tales of Adventure and Romance
Don George, ed.
(Villard, 349 pages)
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salon.com's wanderlust cover
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A glance through the contributor’s biographies at the back of Wanderlust, an anthology of travel writing originally published in Salon.com, the online magazine, is likely to trigger terminal envy among those of us who, either through laziness or poverty or a hopeless deficit of the spirit of adventure, will never be able to claim residency in “Africa, India and Hong Kong”, or mention our “research projects in the White Sea of Russia, the Amazon, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.” 

Incidentally, a rough tally of contributors reveals an inordinate number of them currently residing in California or the Bay Area, conveniently close to Salon’s San Francisco editorial offices. As much as the internet was supposed to herald the “death of distance”, it seems that a decent, schmoozeworthy proximity to the source of one’s paycheque isn’t yet a factor to be discounted. 

The death of distance, or at least its diminishment, is the principal factor in the story of modern tourism and travel writing. The one great voyage of my father’s life took him from Scotland to Canada in steerage, and military service moved him randomly around the Maritimes, while after the war he was content with the odd trip to Buffalo or the Muskokas. Today, I feel hard-put if I can’t cross the ocean to Europe at least once a year. Fifty years ago, the great travel books were usually written by wealthy, or at least privileged, bohemians, and involved epic journeys by boat and train. Today, a coach class flight, a stack of travellers cheques, a Lonely Planet guide and a cheap phrasebook entitles us to recount tales of druggy excess in Thailand, or bewildering weeks with tribesmen in Micronesia. 

Both vintages of traveller’s tales appear in Wanderlust, only a few of them obviously the product of travel junkets sponsored by generous national tourism organizations. Ironically, probably the most incisive essay is one that barely leaves its author’s desk. Wendy Belcher’s “Out of Africa” is an analysis of the first lines of a random but broad sample of books on Africa, including Belcher’s own, and concludes - with some alarm - that an ironclad set of cliches dominate almost every depiction of the continent, regardless of where the traveller is destined. Inevitably, the account begins from the window of a plane or the railing of a boat, glimpsing the vista ahead, and quickly descends into an account of anarchy, danger, or confounded expectations, with transcendance or wisdom arriving only after much hardship, in the wake of exhaustion or humiliation. We have, I think, all read this sturdy tale at least once.

The best stories in Wanderlust convey the sense of exhilarated dislocation or strangeness that travel brings us in the context of our own lives; the most cloying are the tales of happy expatriates, making a new home amidst the “quaintness” or picturesque foreign surroundings. Since almost every writer in the volume is a white westerner, we don’t get the truly radical, utterly rare experience of seeing our own culture as quaint, strange, or absurd. That book hasn’t really been written yet.

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis
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