Travel is to geography what a mirror is to the human face. The geography exists regardless but it is in the travel that we see it. The same relationship is present between history and writing: events occur anyway, but in writing they are recorded and get to be seen in a context. Travel writing is found at the confluence of these two rivers, of history and geography, and it is only through travel writing that we understand ourselves in our world and in our times.
I have skin in this game, of course. Travel writer defends travel writing – as revelations go, it is a small one. At the same time, I am not saying anything new here, rather, something that is perhaps being forgotten but that we ignore at our own peril. Herodotus, in many respects the first travel writer, recorded in 440BC his intention to document the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks. He wrote that ‘the purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time’.
This reading of Herodotus was passed down to modern times by the great Polish travel writer, Ryszard Kapuściński, a loyal student of the old Greek historian. Kapuściński took for himself a similar charge, adopting an unerring loyalty to describing the minute and the granular, the mundane and the everyday. Kapuściński focuses on the detail of what changes in the face of a man when standing up to the police officer of a totalitarian regime. His logic follows that such details can only occur inside the wider structure that creates them. As such, they become evidence.
There is an interesting distinction between these views of travel and the way in which travel is now sold most frequently not as a means by which to collect up trinkets of detail from the world we don’t know, but rather as a means to escape that which we’d rather forget in the world that we do. International travel is thus reduced to the role of little more than a grand paracetamol, a thing to make us feel better.
Perhaps such is the inevitable result of cheaper mass transit. There is good in it too. By such technological and market forces, families can spread further while remaining in touch, capital can flow from wealthier regions to poorer ones, cultures can be exchanged and – I’m not meaning to diminish the value of such a thing – people can take the breaks they need.
There is, however, a difference between what commercial travel should be and what travel writing should be. While the law of market forces perhaps dictates the need for a sensational selling point – vistas, sunsets, megafauna – the use of travel writing rests in an ability almost to eschew as much. It tells the stories of the overtly unremarkable and the missed every bit as much as it should now and then turn its hand to chronicling the beauties of this world. Where the imperative of a travel book becomes only that it should have a tightly-conceptualised and remarkable adventure, then we can no longer profess to be in the business of discussing the actual world – a place which is frequently disperse, hard to conceptualise, unremarkable and absolutely and in all ways none the worse for all of these things. Under the model of travel as spectacle we get the cliffs and the coast but we miss the hinterland of human life.
Why is this important? I still interrogate whether or not it even is, or if I’m just biased. I believe in market forces and that a story worth telling should reach an audience, rather than huddle in a dark corner, lit only by the candle of its own purity. Despite that, I see a value in the humble intention simply to bear witness to that which we find when we go out into the world. It should not always be the product of a bet, a grand invitation, a dare or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, still less a list, or any of the other set pieces that tee-up many books that now adorn an industry that clamours not to record history but to, hopefully, catch The Next Big Thing. Much of the most rewarding travel happens as the result of an itch that simply won’t go away, and a hierarchy of travel and travel writing that only knows how to emphasise the spectacle loses the richness of such experience.
This train of thought is one I’ve been on for a while, but it came to a head during a few months spent last year in Athens, Greece, and reading Kapuściński as Kapuściński read Herodotus. In Athens I walked around and talked to people in a city where the political centre, and the economic arguments it makes for itself, have both collapsed. I met people of the Middle East, who have, almost literally, washed up in the city as they suffer the fallout of Western foreign policies in their home regions. I spoke to Ali, a Somali refugee who had fled across the Gulf of Aden to war torn Yemen, and then to Saudi Arabia and then, after months working in a car wash and suffering racist abuse, was driven across Iraq and to Iran. There, Ali spent 17 days walking through the desert to reach Turkey. Eventually, he reached the Greek island of Samos, and then Athens.
We talked about it all in a café, inside an abandoned hotel that had been squatted by anarchists and turned into refugee accommodation in downtown Athens. There was no obvious pitch to a publisher for the conversation, or many others like it that I had. It was just another story in another café. All I’m saying, really, is that I fear for travel writing, and for the world it seeks to describe, where there is no space to tell these stories, because we think – mistakenly – that there should be something bigger.
Julian Sayarer is the author of four books, the latest, All at Sea, was Geographical’s March 2018 Book of the Month. His previous book, Interstate, won the Stanford Dolman award for its story of a hitchhiked journey from New York to San Francisco.
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