Book: Harry Franck’s All About Going Abroad (1,411 words)

All About Going Abroad 
by Harry A. Franck  

Brentano’s, New York (1927)

The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time. 

Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.

harry_a-_franck

Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.  

He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world.  He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him.  Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911.  Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword to that book

Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper.  He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made.  Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.

The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:

Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.

After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone.  He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service:  Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921). 

haf_chosen_1922_small
Image from http://www.harryafranck.com

Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina.  His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.  

Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family).  Franck died in 1962.

All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books.  Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.

Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey. 

There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths.  He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today.   He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927. 

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-10-44-33

Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.  

However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently.  Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment.  Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).     

While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:

The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing. 

Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:

You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”

When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today.  Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:

prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these  they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.

Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:

That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.  

All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be.  It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:  

Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.

All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy.  For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.  

Further information about Harry Franck life and writing is available on Wikipedia and on the website run by his grandson: www.harryafranck.com

Book: Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads (1,276 words)

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
Vintage, 1st published in 1939

Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed. 

Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.  

The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book.  Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey. 

Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.  

img_9839Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.  

Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly.  His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.

The trip had a long gestation period.  Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks.  It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:

The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s.  There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week.  This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!

Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States.  After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.

THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers… The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’.

Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-13-01-38

Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”.  That is a considerable understatement.  Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans.  Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects.  He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey.  Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect. 

img_9832

From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on.  The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico.  The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.    

The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.

From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.   

He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).

The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.  

Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling: 

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]

Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.  

Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts.  Yet he seems to arrive back where he started.  Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him.  He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.  

Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust.  A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey: 

Motion is life,’ he said, ‘and life is motion. 

For further reading see Kevin Hartnett’s review of The Lawless Roads in The Millions or follow Graeme Woods’ 2009 journey in Greene’s foosteps for The Atlantic magazine:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

Article: How is Cuba going to be ruined?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong about being a tourist. A tourist is somebody who happens to be more interested in the rest of the world than he is in his own little puddle.”
–Bruce Chatwin

The recent thawing in relations between the US and Cuba, culminating in President Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island, has prompted a slew of articles like this one urging readers to visit Cuba before it changes or is ruined.  

These articles raise interesting questions not only about how tourists view the view countries they visit but also how they view each other.

In a passionate and excellent article for Flood magazine, Natalie Morales urges us to Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined and asks:

What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown? Make sure you hurry and go observe these human beings in the time bubble that was created especially for you so that you could post a #nofilter photo of it on Instagram.

As tourists, we can fetishise destinations, as though any change in a place will somehow render it less ‘authentic’.  As Natalie Morales highlights, that renders the people who live there secondary to our notion of how a place should be and makes them just another part of the scenery.

Alex Garland made a similar point in The Beach.  Garland’s novel was criticised for presenting Thais as two-dimensional although that missed the point he was making, namely that this was how the backpackers he was writing about viewed them.  The Thais were just part of the scenery to the backpackers’ own south-east Asian fantasy, the result of watching too many Vietnam films.

In Cuba’s case, to equate change with ruining the country is selfish and patronising:  it overlooks why the country appears to be a ‘timewarp’ and makes huge assumptions about the desires of Cuban people.  

If renewed economic relations with the US bring changes, it would be perverse to view those as ‘ruinous’ when it was the US’s refusal of economic ties with Cuba which have caused so many of Cuba’s problems and denied opportunities to Cubans.  No-one would surely celebrate those economic sanctions, yet we worship its fruits in the form of the vintage cars cruising the Malecon and lament the prospect of change.

Christopher Isherwood considered the dilemma of changing and modernising historical places when he wrote about Cuzco in The Condor and The Cow but concluded that the: 

The alternative is unthinkable – to condemn thousands of people to a life of squalor and disease for the pleasure of the archaeologists and romantically-minded tourists. 

Isherwood’s sentiment, expressed in 1947, is equally applicable to Cuba now. 

Taken to its extreme, this kind of glorification of an ‘authentic’ or ‘unchanged’ state can be harmful.  The more that tourists demand the picturesque and authentic, the greater the risk of exploitation.  In Cuba’s case, economic conditions drive young females into the sex industry.   

In a different example, Nic Dunlop has documented in his book Brave New Burma how Thai businessmen exploit the Karen people, whose only option is to return to refugee camps, by running tourist villages in which electricity is forbidden so as to preserve the ‘natural’ experience preferred by tourists.  No doubt there are many other examples.

We have all heard people express the wish to have seen famous sights before they became too popular or how pleasant somewhere would be if only it wasn’t overrun or spoiled by tourists or had those thoughts ourselves.  It doesn’t take much reflection to realise that a desire that everyone else stays home while we travel to ‘unspoiled’ places is at best unrealistic. 

With more than a billion tourist journeys each year, we have to accept, as Nomadic Matt writes in this post, that people will travel and that all we can do is vote with our wallets and our feet to encourage sustainable development and tourism so that places don’t get spoiled.  

Yes, 19th-century clergyman Francis Culvert wrote that “of all noxious animals… the most noxious is a tourist” and we all know that it is tourists who spoil places and not travellers.  Noel Coward even wrote a song about how it was all the wrong people who travelled (Why Do all the Wrong People Travel?), although we probably shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the tourist is always the other fellow (but that is probably for another post).

In an interview with Ron Gluckman, Alex Garland cringed at the thought that the film of The Beach might encourage hordes of people to visit Thailand: “God, I hope not. That would worry me. But it’s all speculation until the movie comes out. I really don’t see Leo fans jumping on planes and coming to Thailand. I hope not.”  

We know how that turned out.

It is inevitable that Cuba will change in time.  Everywhere does.

Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



Article: The history of Peru in 10 objects

Thomson belongs to a rare species of explorer.  He is a writer who explores and not an explorer who writes.  And it is Thomson’s extreme humility in the face of both danger and extraordinary success that places him in the same tradition as Eric Newby. (Geographical Magazine)

I normally give any article with a number in its title (“5 reasons why you must…”), a wide berth.

When it’s written by Hugh Thomson, though, I will happily make an exception especially when it seems to be in the same vein as the BBC and British Museum’s excellent podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

When I first started coming to Peru 35 years ago, it’s fair to say it was not for the museums.

I spotted Thomson’s article, The history of ancient Peru in ten objects, on a recent flight back from Madrid in British Airway’s Highlife magazine.

In this short piece Thomson, describes how Peru has significantly upped its game in terms of museums showcasing its pre-Hispanic history.   

Using a variety of objects, he highlights that there is much more to Peruvian history than the Incas, including the Chimú and Moche cultures, 4,000-year-old pyramids as large as those at Giza and tombs yielding treasures rivalling those of Tutankhamun. 

Encompassing pottery, gold, jewellery, coca, pyramids,  Inca messengers, funerary masks and, of course, llamas, Thomson’s article is an inspiration for exploring some of the lesser-known historical sights in Peru. 

Thomson is a writer/explorer and film-maker who has devoted a large portion of his life to understanding and exploring Inca and pre-Columbian civilisations in the Andes.  These have included expeditions to locate Inca ruins as well as making new discoveries at known sites.

He has also written two books about his travels in Peru and the Andes: Cochineal Red and The White Rock, books I came across following an extended trip to South America.  Thomson is an author, like John Hemming, who I instantly associate with South America and the Andes. 

      

 

 

 

 

Find out more about Hugh Thomson on his website www.thewhiterock.co.uk which contains a blog and information about Thomson’s other books and film projects (one of which was the recent and fascinating BBC series, Treasures of the Indus).

If Hugh Thomson’s books appeal, these are also worth a look:

     

 

Photo essay: Bolivia’s Cholita climbers

The women climb in their traditional “cholita” garb, but trade in their bowler hats for helmets.

Inspiring photo essay from Bolivian Reuters photographer David Mercado about a group of Bolivian women who have set out to climb some of the highest mountains in the Andes. 

The group of indigenous Aymara women, known as the ‘Cholitas’, are mostly in their 40s.  The wives of mountain guides whose previous experience of the mountains was limited to cooking and cleaning for climbers, they decided to see what mountain climbing was like for themselves.  With no formal climbing experience, they climb mountains in their cholita dresses, shawls and cardigans although do wear helmets and crampons…   

They have now summited five mountains all of which are higher than 6,000 metres:  Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosi and Illimani.  Their goal is to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside Asia.  

Fantastic images and a great story about determination, possibilities and trying new experiences, the Cholitas show that climbing is a sport open to anyone.  And the Cholitas’ verdict?:  “It is difficult but not impossible.”  

 

 

 

Article: Frank Bures spills dirty secrets in Guyana

The world demands payment sooner or later, which is how we arrived at this uneasy nexus of reportage and promotion which is often referred to as “destination” travel writing, but which has one goal: to generate tourism.

This great article from Frank Bures in Nowhere magazine has been echoing around the internet since it was first published.  Little surprise as it is an honest piece about press trips and their impact on travel writing.

Having accepted a press trip to Guyana, Frank Bures has second thoughts and walks us through how press trips work, why they are available and where they fit into the “vortex of sales” surrounding the travel industry.  

He observes that travel writing is driven by pressure to “sell the trip” which results in boosterism and cheery articles.  Consequently, much travel writing has become a sales extension of the global travel industry rather than being journeys by proxy, prompted by curiosity and something to be appreciated in their own right.     

It is no longer travel writing. It’s tourism writing. And tourism is boring. 

As the tourism sector grows, the commercial imperative checks the freedom to create interesting work.   By implication it also limits the range of destinations open to travel writing as the place must be capable of being sold.  If the reader can’t buy the flight, book the hotel or take the tour, what is the point of the article?  To effectively sell a destination, the reader must be able mentally to substitute themselves for the author and imagine themselves enjoying that experience.  The journey or travel experience in the article must be accessible.  

The function of this type of writing is different to the type of travel writing as explained by Paul Theroux:

In a sense, as a writer you are doing the travel for the reader…So I get the impression that people who read my books don’t intend to take that trip themselves. In an ideal world they would like to travel alone and go to malarial swamps, but they haven’t got the time. They only have a couple of weeks vacation. So the idea that I’m in New Guinea, facing down boys with spears saying they are going to kill me, is a thrill for them. People read travel books for the same reason that they read novels. To transport them.

Theroux observes that, good travel writing like travel itself, is a metaphor for life; a “leap in the dark”, about someone finding their way and awakening “all our old fears of danger and risk”.  While the best travel writing might (and hopefully will) inspire the reader to go and out and make a journey themselves, that is not necessarily its point, unlike its tourist writing counterpart.

Branding Guyana is well written and makes some interesting points about the state of travel writing.  There isn’t much about Guyana in the article although to be fair, that was not really Bures’ point.  We do however glean enough to know that Guyana is a place that does not lend itself to breezy clichés and where the phrase ‘creature comforts’ is more likely to mean that your chigger bites have stopped itching.  Guyana is therefore probably a place where travel involves a bit more travail than tourism.  

 

 

 

Book: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupéry

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)

We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were infinitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.

In his NYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry ($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).  

Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight.  In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”  He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen. 

St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying.  He  expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”).  Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:

The aeroplane is a means, not an end.  It is not for the plane that we risk our lives.  Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs.  But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.

The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living.  In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.

He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight.  Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazine observes that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.”  The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed.  Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous.  The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.   

Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger.  There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.

Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.   

St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays.  Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).

Some men stay closeted in their title shops.  Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life.  Its message is not that to live we must fly.  It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning: 

When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.

It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:  

What saves a man is to take a step. And another step.
It’s that same first step repeated.

For further reading, see this article by Daniel Buck in the magazine of the South American Explorers Club: 

Article: Seeing Cuba with fresh eyes

My biggest revelation however was undoubtedly having my own eyes opened by the non-sighted travellers to fresh ways of experiencing a destination.

Starting with a hoary old chestnut about how and by whom Cuban cigars are rolled, Mark Stratton in Telegraph Travel quickly introduces us to a fresh way of travelling:  Being someone else’s eyes.

Mark Stratton went to Cuba with Traveleyes, a company that pairs blind people with sighted travellers who act as their guides, providing assistance and also describing the surroundings.  

Stratton found that his own observations became more acute as he stopped for longer to observe, notice and describe.  He was also surprised at how much of the experience he shared with his travel companion through the other senses and that his companion’s insights gave him a different perspective on appreciating and experiencing the things around him.  

Travelling alone is often considered a virtue and is one of Paul Theroux’s three basic rules of traveling.  Others, such as Alain de Botton, suggest that solo travel may be preferable so that our responses to places are not affected by those we are with or because we are likely to be more receptive to our surroundings when travelling alone and socialise more instead of withdrawing into the comfort of companionship. 

However, Stratton’s article is a thought-provoking piece about how we react to places and the mutual benefits of having a travelling companion whose different perspective or observations can enhance our own experience.