At its best, travel writing can be glorious, capable of fostering a sense of adventure and revealing truths about the human spirit. Many people think they can do it, and when done well, it can look easy. But appearances can be misleading. Good travel writing is difficult – a constant juggle of inspiring awe without overdoing it, of highlighting beauty while also acknowledging harsh reality, of celebrating that wise old man in the remote village without patronising him or fetishising his poverty.
There are many exceptional examples in this well-curated anthology, which features stories from across the globe and from a diverse range of writers. The best involve lots of people – a reminder that even when writing about places and landscapes, the most engaging stories tend to bring in the humans who live there. There’s the village in Kerala that’s utterly obsessed with chess; the searingly honest description of the Hajj pilgrimage; the Pakistani mountain towns where the inhabitants seem to hold the secret to a long life; and the discovery of kindness in Bolivia, where, on the surface, people seem indifferent. The writers of these stories are self-aware, acknowledging that whatever version they might see of a place is probably not the full story. As writer JR Patterson says in his entry: ‘Travellers sometimes forget that countries are for living, not visiting.’
With that in mind, there were a couple of stories I found less engaging – generally those where the journalist is rather obviously being guided around a place to look at all of the best bits (these tend to make me jealous that someone got a nice holiday, rather than inspired), but they are all well written, regardless. By and large, this is a great read for anyone fascinated by the world – and not just those who get to travel it.