What is good travel writing? Could travel writing be considered as fantasy or even fiction? When reading travel blogs online looking for information about places I am planning to visit, I look, depending on my quest, for either factual information including recommendations of buildings or experiences I should take the time to step into, into someplace which as a stranger or visitor to the country will still have something to impart to me, the foreigner, or I seek insider knowledge or acclimatized views on different parts of the world. It’s this last one that attracts me the most.
And then who can write about this acclimatized or insider view? Not your usual tourist, not say an average Westerner who goes off to India or Kenya for a week or two on a first time journey, and complains about the lack of regard for traffic regulations they experience while trying to cross the street. Indeed most of the world drives with likewise intentions when it comes to tourists; flatten them for money. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll find that many Westerners would also like to disregard traffic regulations on a more regular basis. Although first impressions can be very revealing, it usually turns out that Kenya or India then take on the garb of a fun fair bumper car rink when described by Western tourists writing about their trip. It’s amusing, of course, because the experience is placed in a humorous situation. The outside world is then compared to what seem similar experiences of a home country in an effort to understand the outside world. Let me just state directly that I am normally not very interested in reading such literature.
To illustrate my point, I think that reading a sentence such as:
“The traffic in Kinshasa was always backed up like frustrated drivers standing in line at the DMV.”
(Department of Motor Vehicles for those of you who aren’t familiar with the abbreviation.)
Is less preferable to:
“The traffic in Kinshasa is not prone to differentiate weekdays from weekends.”
By the by, these are entirely hypothetical sentences: I have never been to Kinshasa.
The bare bones hotel, restaurant, attraction guides are all online now and there’s no need to buy a traditional guide book, usually a heavy cumbersome object of which you’d use maybe 20 percent of the information during the course of your travels. So what about travel literature? I recently picked up a hand me down copy of “The Condé Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places” published in 2007 and was astonished to read mostly what, now would be viewed as rather boring blow by blow blogs. Petra = pink, Japanese Gardens = need a lot of work, etc. Sometimes, because of the personal lives of the writers, odd interesting bits of information were thrown in the mix, and some of the pieces, granted, did make you feel as though you were shuttled in your arm chair to the correlated latitude and longitude by the depth of the descriptions of wildlife, but thank God there was Edna O’Brian in there to explain Bath (English speaker in England); perspectives get a little foggy when travelers don’t speak the local language(s) resulting in the travel blog launching into a visual description of places and people National Geographic photography style. I love the photos but do I need to read them in prose too? Well yes, that is if the writer is giving a more in depth perspective to psyches living across the globe from me than merely describing them as shadows passing in an Ethiopian Holy Place. Ok, that particular chapter in the Condé Nast didn’t thrill me much.
Let’s try something now: a little experiment. I’ll write about Gouda, because I am supposed to write about Gouda on this blog, and you might think, “Finally! She’s going to tell me something about the place.” I’ll choose a topic, “The Tower of our Beloved Lady” and using both Dutch and English sources I’ll work the text two different ways for comparison. The first will be from the foreign perspective and the second from an acclimatized perspective.
1. On the Nieuwehaven street in the old city center of Gouda stands an old church tower (1493) called “The Tower of Our Beloved Lady”; the rest of the church building is missing. A clock on the top of the tower, which kind of leans at a funny angle but not as bad as the Tower of Pisa, still keeps time.
2. Standing back across the street from “The Tower of Our Beloved Lady” on the Nieuwehaven street in the city center of Gouda, you can take in the imposing angle at which the tower leans. The Catholic chapel, destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, that used to be behind the tower would have been quite large and was an important site in medieval Gouda. Built in 1493 by Confraternity of the Rosary, a then relatively new religious direction started in 1474, the Marian order promoted the usage of the “crown of roses” (rosary) in forms of prayer and daily worship. Unlike the cult worship of Mary, the tower was most likely spared local destruction because the clock and bells it housed were still practical in 1574, and yet again still in 1754 when the tower, leaning quite precariously, was stabilized at some expense.
Do you have to relate, ethnocentrically, to a description of a place to read about it and be able to see it?