Article: Road tripping, female adventurers & travel writing

Why is it that road trips, when undertaken by men in literature, seem to be about expanding one’s life and its context, about seeing the bigger world and how the man fits into it, and yet when undertaken by women, are most often in flight from dangerous situations, and seldom, if ever, for pure adventure?

Great article by Bernadette Murphy in Literary Hub examining female role models in road trip literature. 

Murphy recognises that books can provide role models to help us understand our own choices and motivations but, when planning her own road trip, wondered at the relative lack of female literary road trip role models. 

Riding a motorcycle for hours on end, days at a time will disorient you in a way that opens up new vistas. That’s what I was counting on.

In the course of the article, Murphy provides a good list of adventurous female authors who took to the road and wrote about their experiences. The comments section at the end of the article provides a few more suggestions.

Murphy has added to the list of female adventurer/writers with an account of her own 5,000 mile bike trip, Harley and Me.

That trip dilated my perception of myself, of this country, of my place in the world. In a very real and sometimes brutal way, the experience of being out in the elements day after day, enduring long and arduous miles along the nation’s roads took me apart, piece by piece—and then rebuilt me.

In addition to the titles by female authors that Murphy recommends there are, of course, others by female authors that celebrate travel and adventure.  

As well as famous examples like Gertrude Bell, Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark, there are also Emily Hahn, who wrote about driving across the US and some of her many other travels in the memoir No Hurry to Get Home, Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France and In Morocco, the aptly named Aloha Wanderwell Baker who drove around the world in the 1920s and also Ella Maillart who, as well as keeping pace with Peter Fleming in Forbidden Journey, wrote about her road trip from Geneva to Kabul with Annemarie Schwarzenbach in The Cruel Way.   More recent examples include Robyn Davidson and Kira Salak. 

Murphy has a good point about women being underrepresented in travel literature in proportion to the journeys they have made when compared to their male counterparts.  

Even when they make the same journeys, the female perspective can be overshadowed by the male.  The Maillart/Fleming journey provides one example and Barbara Greene’s account of her African journey with her more famous cousin, Graham, another.  Many have heard of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, but Barbara Greene’s excellent Too Late to Turn Back is less well known.

However, that ought not to detract from the many fine travel narratives written by adventurous females who have undertaken journeys many others would not dare and continue to inspire those with sufficiently adventurous spirits to follow in their tracks. 

What other female travel writers would you recommend?

Article: On air travel – Pat downs, pissing & passport stamps

I remember when flying was a luxury experience, when the flight attendants were nice to you and everyone got a meal. Today, it’s as rough as hitchhiking and the planes are all beat to hell.

Great trilogy of essays taken from the book, Airplane Reading by Christopher Schaberg and Marck Yakich.

Airplane Reading brings together a collection of essays from writers, airline workers and travellers about the experience of travel by air.

The collection approaches the subject from a number of different perspectives. It doesn’t always focus on the miracle of mechanical flight and is less medidative than Paul Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring.

The three essays extracted and appearing on Literary Hub deal with airport security, agonising waits for the seatbelt sign to switch off and how one relative of an airline employee utilised their free air travel benefits.

Short and sharply written they are funny and worth a read.

 

Book: Wanderings & excursions of a Prime Minister

The wanderlust is perhaps the most precious of all the troublesome appetites of the soul of man.

Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Prime Minister of the UK in 1924 and held the office on two further occasions in the period between the First and Second World Wars.  He is credited with being one of the three principal architects of the Labour Party in the UK.

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He was first elected to Parliament in 1906 but his opposition to the First World War saw him defeated, although he re-entered Parliament in 1922 in the post-war period. 

In the years following the First World War, MacDonald travelled around Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.   He wrote about his travels for a number of magazines, including the publication, Forward.   Some of those pieces (along with a number of essays from other publications) are collected together in a book published by Jonathan Cape in 1925 called Wanderings and Excursions. 

The book is split into four sections covering travels in the British Isles, travels abroad, political conferences abroad and portraits of politicians.  It is the first half of the book, covering about 200 pages which are most relevant to anyone with an interest in travel writing.

Sometimes one must flee from familiar things and faces and voices, from the daily round and the common task, because one’s mind becomes like a bit of green grass too much trod upon. It has to be protected and nursed, and it has to be let alone.

MacDonald is someone who apparently valued the escape and restorative aspects of travel and walking outdoors.  He paints a wonderful image of himself striding out across moor and mountain singing out loud before retiring to a pub with his pipe at the end of a day’s energetic walking reflecting on and comparing his physical efforts with those of his Victorian political heroes.

Travel for MacDonald did not just mean going abroad.  Proud of Scotland and its physical landscape, he could help but note that “no people doomed to remain confined within the limits of their own country have a richer storehouse of treasure to explore than have ours.” 

For the most part, he omits politics from his writing about places, confining himself to the sights, experience and his reaction to them.  

There are places – sometimes great cities like Rome, sometimes only buildings like the Tower of London or the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling – into which time and event have breathed the breath of life and they have become living souls. We think of them as brooding over their past and looking upon the generation around them with the detachment of one who endures in the midst of a world that is fussing, fuming, and passing into a shadow. They are too dignified to speak; they only muse and remember. Such is Constantinople.

He is, however, careful to point out that he is no tourist simply doing the rounds of the sights:

My readers must not assume that, though this journey brings us to new scenes day by day, scenes that revive in us childish delight, we do nothing but go from shrine to shrine. We are also trying to understand what is going on and what general drift there is in the conflicting currents of opinion, passion, and will that reveal themselves whenever we throw out a float to detect them.

When politics does creep in, he tends to be apologetic, although his observations are interesting:

One of the greatest curses of Capitalism is that it robs us of the faculty of enjoying a holiday. Keats, thinking of Burns, reflects how delicacy of feeling has to be deadened ‘in vulgarity and in things attainable,’ because, the more we are capable of knowing true joy, the more are we maddened by the poverty and emptiness of our lives. But I offend, for in worshipping the sun and the open air, one must not preach.

The essays cover travel to Egypt, Palestine and Syria by boat and motor-car, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Georgia. He makes astute observations about the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East and there is an interesting chapter about a trip to India in 1913 during which he witnessed the construction of New Delhi.  There are also short pieces on Honolulu (“the most absurd place in the world”) from 1906 and South Africa in 1902 at the end of the Boer War.

The book contains further chapters which predominantly describe political conferences in Berne, Berlin, Denmark, Belgium and in Prague, although they also contain some interesting observations about those places (“everyone who loves Edinburgh and regards its stones as precious must love Prague”). 

One of the appealing aspects of this collection is that MacDonald’s enthusiasm for travel leaps off the pages.

But the smell of the East is an incense in my nostrils, and its clatter of tongues is music to my ears. I have been wandering in the mud of the city which Alexander the Great founded, which Julius Caesar took by storm, which became the home of philosophy and religion, and which shone over the world as its Pharos shone over the Mediterranean.

For me at least, Ramsay MacDonald’s name conjures an image of an embattled politician with serious socialist views and a political zeal.  In these essays, though, another side to the politician is visible, that of a man who revelled in being outdoors and who enjoyed reawakening a child’s enthusiasm through travel and who could give into the romance of starting out on a journey or thrill at the sight of simply seeing the names of places he wanted to visit painted on the side of a train:

When you go to Clapham, there is no romance about Victoria Station. It is sordid and utilitarian. But when your journey is to be beyond the rim of the world, romance meets you, even at Victoria, and this noisy dull place becomes like the miserable doorkeeper of a palace.

How I welcome the hospitable appearance of that refuge, the Orient Express, with the places I sought painted in red letters on a white iron sheet on its sides  – ‘Milan,’ ‘Venice,’ ‘Trieste,’ andway beyond, ‘Constantinople.’ 

Wanderings and Excursions is not currently in print which is a pity, if unsurprising.  I could not find a copy of the text online even though it appears to be out of copyright but second-hand copies are available via Abebooks, here.

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: Edith Wharton in Morocco

In Morocco
by Edith Wharton

Overripeness is…the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past.  To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams; and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.

Edith Wharton, novelist and friend of author Henry James, came late to her writing career but was a traveller from an early age, prompting her to comment in later life “perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.”

Wharton was born into a wealthy family in 1862.  Following the American Civil War, her family moved to Europe, travelling between France, Spain and Italy before returning to New York when the Franco-Prussian war broke out.  

Wharton later married a wealthy Boston banker in 1885 with whom she travelled around Europe for several months each year.  At the end of the 19th century, the Whartons’ travels focused on Italy but switched to France in the early part of the 20th century.  Their travels included a four-month yacht cruise on the Aegean in 1888 which Wharton wrote about in The Cruise of the Vanadis.  

It was only in her 40s that Wharton turned seriously to writing after the publication of her first successful novel The House of Mirth.  In addition to fiction, Wharton wrote seven travel books. After her separation and divorce, Wharton moved to France where lived until her death in 1937.   

edith-wharton

In her introduction to Edith Wharton Abroad, a collection of Wharton’s travel writing, Sarah Bird Wright notes that Wharton’s travel writing is shaped not only by her extensive reading and learning but also a “dislike of architectural restoration” and a “preference for “parentheses” of travel instead of the “catalogued riches of guidebooks””. She also observes that, like William Dean Howells, Wharton was a traveller before she was a writer.    

Relatively late in her travelling career, in 1917 and while Europe was still engulfed by the First World War, Edith Wharton toured Morocco by car at a pivotal moment in that country’s history:

the brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.

Overshadowing In Morocco is the sense that Wharton is glimpsing a country that is changing and disappearing.  Wharton sees that a combination of French improvement to Morocco’s railways and roads together with the resumption of normal Mediterranean passenger traffic after the war will open Morocco up to “the great torrent of ‘tourism'” and all the “banalities and promiscuities of modern travel”.

whartons-journey-in-morocco

Starting her journey in Tangier, Wharton is keen to get away from the familiar “dog-eared world of travel” she finds there and instead immerse herself in the souks and harems of old Morocco.

Wharton visits Rabat and Sale, Volubilis (the only sizeable Roman ruins so far discovered in Morocco) and also Meknes, where she recalls the reign of Sultan Moulay-Ismael whose architectural achievements are overshadowed by his use of slaves in their construction among whom were Christians captured by Barbary pirates.

Wharton moves on to “many-walled Fez” where she vividly describes the descent through its souk to the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay-Idriss and the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin.  

Wharton describes the markets and souks of Fez and Marrakech and also the Djemaa el- Fna with its storytellers, snake-charmers and dancers, concluding that there “can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara.” 

Wharton also describes visits to Moulay Idriss, where she witnesses a blood rite dance, as well as the Saadian tombs in Marrakech, both places firmly on modern travellers’ itineraries but to which foreigners then had only recently been permitted access. 

Wharton portrays Morocco as a country of constant change, instability and even as a shifting concept.  She describes the flows of Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian, Merinid or Hassanian invaders as they wash across the country, each leaving their mark on Morocco’s architecture and history.  

With shifts in power Wharton notes the shifting borders or areas of control, in a region bounded by the Giralda tower in Seville to the Koutoubya tower in Marrakech and beyond the desert to interior Africa.  

Wharton also describes the abandoned and decaying buildings which, made of plaster and rubble, “do not die in beauty like the firm stones of Rome”

Everywhere behind the bristling walls and rock-clamped towers of old Morocco lurks the shadowy spirit of instability. Every new Sultan builds himself a new house and lets his predecessors’ palaces fall into decay; and as with the Sultan so with his vassals and officials. Change is the rule in this apparently unchanged civilization, where “nought may abide but Mutability.

Wharton clearly views the French and, in particular, General Lyautey’s governorship of Morocco as enlightened and perhaps, underlining a departure from the past, as permanent and stable.  In one sense then, although the French represent another wave of invaders to have crossed the desert and administer Morocco, their coming marks a change from the normal pattern and the arrival of modernity. 

No more will the invading or controlling power knock down and rebuild.  No more will Morocco’s old buildings fall into ruin.  New buildings are to be constructed outside of the old towns and Wharton praises the “incessant efforts of General Lyautey’s administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste.”  

Conscious that she is visiting a guidebook-less country, Wharton adds to her personal impressions, outlines of the country’s history and architecture.  Modestly, she claims that the chief merit of these outlines is their absence of originality, having drawn their content from other works that she lists.  She also devotes a chapter to describing her experiences of harems in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech. 

Although, in her original preface of 1919, Wharton expresses concern at the prospect of increased tourism to Morocco, in the preface to a new edition in 1927, Wharton is pleased to note that Morocco has retained “nearly all the magic and mystery of forbidden days”, despite its popularity as a destination and the improvements to its accessibility and its conveniences, concluding that: 

To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”  

Some of Wharton’s other travel books (some of which are available to download for free and legally at The Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg) are: 

 

Article: Teju Cole on Switzerland & the desire to be away from home

What is interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.

Great piece from Teju Cole in The New York Times from last year.

Cole was invited to spend six months in Switzerland in 2014 by Literaturhaus in Zurich with apartment and stipend thrown in.

What follows is an insightful essay in which Cole contemplates Switzerland, photography and his own discovery of the country.

Trying to develop his photographic voice, Cole reflects on the impressive mountain landscape (the key to unlocking an understanding of the country) and attempts by artists and photographers through history to capture its essence.

Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical.

In the process he reflects on the nature of tourism and his identity as a traveller, recognising that he too is “part of a great endless horde”.

As he grapples with self-doubt about his ability to say something unique about Switzerland through his photos, he descends from the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains, Switzerland’s metonym, to the detail of life its valleys.

Searching for meaning in what he observes, Cole reflects on notions of home and also Heimweh and Fernweh, the German words for homesickness and a longing to be away from home.

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’” But to have merely thought of here would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities, the peculiarities that are not written in guidebooks. Only direct observation can reveal those.

The subject of Cole’s essay claims to be travel photography or photography of places but his observations could equally apply to travel writing.

Not entirely at home when away, yet unable to remain at home, he contemplates an in between state. For Cole, Switzerland embodies that state while his search for meaning through photography could be a metaphor for the experience of travel itself.

Well worth a read.

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). 



Video: The Road from Karakol

I chose a bike instead of a partner, the road instead of a basecamp.  I chose Krygyzstan.  Its intriguing network of old Soviet roads and endless peaks.  I had no expectations other than what the guidebook said: Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia.

Kyle Dempster is one of the world’s most accomplished alpine climbers who has trips to Pakistan, China, south America and the Canadian Arctic under his belt.  The Road from Karakol follows Dempster on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011.

Dempster explored Kyrgyzstan by mountain bike, while pulling a trailer full of climbing kit.  In a country where 90% of the territory is above 1,500m and 40% is above 3,000m, that alone is no mean feet.

He had originally intended to make the trip with his girlfriend but after she had to pull out owing to a skiing accident, Dempster decided to make the trip alone.

We use the word suffering way too much.  Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil, the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, by its people.  The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that define our identities give way.  Our mental defenses grow thin.  You no longer know where you end and the world begins.  We become raw.  This is why we take the trip.  That is what we’ve come for.

For two months, Dempster cycled nearly 1,200 km on roads of varying quality through spectacular mountain scenery, crossing rivers, soloing peaks, passing through abandoned Soviet-era towns and drinking vodka, lots of vodka.  

He recorded his journey using a mixture of GoPro and point-and-shoot, filming nearly 25 hours of footage.  On his return, what was intended to be a four-minute climbing film was turned, with the assistance of Duct Tape then Beer and an editing process that took about a year, into the 25 minute The Road from Karakol.

The Road to Karakol is an extraordinary journey.  It is not a self-aggrandizing video or sponsorship film but a personal record of an adventure where things do not go as planned and  where Dempster is prepared to appear naked before the camera (emotionally as well as physically).

The camera is his companion and he shares his thoughts and fears, including a video letter to his family and loved ones, as well as his triumphs.  His journey through the deserted valleys and mountains of Kyrgyzstan to rejoin civilisation is a testament to his determination and perseverance.  Inspiring and impressive stuff.

Here’s what I believe. Real adventure is not polished. It’s not the result of some marketing budget.  There’s no hashtag for it.  It burns brightest on the map’s edges but it exists in all of us.  It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous.  You have to have faith.  It will find you there and when it does, remember there’s just one question.  In this life when the road comes to an end, will you keep pedalling? 

For more background to this story, read Kyle Dempster’s interview with The Bicycle Story, here, Kyle Dempster’s interview with Alastair Humphreys, here, or visit the film’s website, at www.theroadfromkarakol.com.

 

Article: Pico Iyer on the joy of National Geographic

As a four-year-old in Oxford, I had scant chance of knowing what the Himalayas looked like….All we could do was pore over old copies of Tintin in Tibet.

In this article from the Guardian, Pico Iyer considers the enduring appeal of National Geographic magazine and reminisces on the vicarious pleasures of travelling through its pages.

Founded in the United States, National Geographic gave its readers the chance to experience foreign history, culture, wildlife and geography before television, mass tourism, digital photography and Youtube.

Afghan_girl_National_Geographic_cover_June_1985

First published in 1888 and with a strong emphasis on striking photographic images since 1905, when it published several full page photos of Tibet, countless readers must have nurtured their wanderlust in National Geographic’s pages.

Although the tower of yellow-spined issues stacked behind my bedroom door at my parents’ house has long since gone, I hung on to many of my favourite issues and have never been able to part from the map supplements I still pore over, dreaming of travelling to far off places.

Available only in English until 1995, National Geographic is now published in 40 languages and has a global circulation of nearly 7 million per month.  Having begun as an American window on the world (as well as a mirror on America), it seems as though rest of the world is now also pressed up against the glass and is equally curious.

Pico Iyer’s article was published in the Guardian in 2013 to coincide with National Geographic’s 125th anniversary.  The same year, Taschen published a three volume special edition book showcasing the best of National Geographic’s photos: National Geographic. Around the World in 125 Years, previewed in the video below.

 

 

Article: Budapest to Berlin – stranger on a train, stranger still in Berlin

As we rolled out of the city, tracing the Danube back towards its source, a man served coffee and handed out newspapers. I settled into my chair and waited for a stranger to ask me to murder his father.

In this short article for The Guardian, Ed Cumming doesn’t quite execute the perfect cross-Europe jaunt.

In Budapest, he encounters ruin bars, remnants of the Habsburg imperial family and the joys of travelling by train through central Europe before sampling Berlin’s nightlife which, well, disrupts his travel itinerary and explains why they put they put the ‘easy’ in easyJet.

Discover more of Ed Cumming’s thoughts and articles on Twitter, @edcumming.

Photo essay: Vietnam’s iconic non la hats

I respect the people I photograph. Respect is the most important element in establishing a relationship with the subjects of your pictures and is key to accessing their real life.

Short but sweet photo essay from Reuters Wider Image and Mexican-born photojournalist Jorge Silva focussing on the iconic Vietnamese cone hat.  

Currently based in Bangkok, Jorge Silva took these photos in Hoi An.  Famous for being laid back, full of old world charm and its historic centre which blends Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and French colonial architecture, Hoi An contrasts with the traffic and pollution found in other Vietnamese cities.  

Hoi An’s well-preserved state owes more to luck than design.  It was once a busy port whose importance dwindled after its river silted up; until tourists started arriving in the 1990s, that is. 

The iconic hats themselves, found in various forms throughout Southeast Asia, are made of materials such as palm leaves, tree bark and bamboo, hence their name in Vietnamese:  non la, or leaf hats.   

See more of Jorge Silva’s work at Reuters or on Instagram (@jgesilva) or twitter (@jgesilva).

Article: Save yourself from being a white saviour when volunteering abroad

The conversation was always about ‘help, help, help,’ but nobody ever asked if what we were doing was needed.

With A-level results out and gap years getting under way before university studies begin, this great article from Huck magazine about trying to avoid the pitfalls of volunteering is timely.

Earlier in the year, the London School of Economics announced that gap year students volunteering abroad could do more harm than good and that orphanages could lead to exploitation and child trafficking.  

Gap years and volunteering also made the press earlier this summer when Scottish actress Louise Linton ended up retracting a widely criticised memoir about her gap year experiences in Zambia.

Don’t be a white saviour.  Don’t.

Huck’s overarching message is easy to bear in mind.  Volunteers must try to understand their own motivations.  Sites like Humanitarians of Tinder and the Gap Yah Youtube video are funny because they expose possibly dual or insincere motivations but could equally illustrate another point made in the Huck article: “there’s no shame in ‘just’ being a tourist.”

Tourism is often seen negatively, as something destructive and culturally insensitive.  The point of Huck’s piece is that volunteerism, unless given some thought is also capable of being negative.   

Accepting that with only limited time to spend in a place we can only really be tourists, may be preferable to uncritically paying to take part in a scheme whose benefits may at best be unclear or at worst negative.  An honest approach may also help us see more clearly the impact our travels have on a place and on the relationships we have with the people who live there, rather than cloaking our travels in altruism.  

As an article on the BBC website in July pointed out, a dynamic where the most privileged from wealthier nations pay to take part in projects in or visit underprivileged communities can result in poverty tourism.

From volunteering on projects to visiting favelas in Rio and slums in Mumbai, it seems we will go to ever greater lengths to experience the authentic as a traveller rather than repeat clichéd experiences as tourists.  The ethics of this are not always easy.  

If so-called ‘slum tourism’ can be criticised for voyeurism and commodifying urban inequality, can the volunteer industry be seen as commodifying poverty and inequalities on a global scale along with the development and aid sectors that are meant to be alleviating it?  

Possibly, but it is also the case that done responsibly, slum tourism (as with volunteering) can have positive effects on communities and the people who visit them.  As well as bringing money directly to less advantaged communities and their businesses, visitors gain a different perspective on the destinations they travel to.  And that, as Fabian Frenzel, author of Slumming It, points out in this Forbes article and this interview in Vice “is the classical, educational aspect of tourism.” 

If all of this seems overwhelming and far more complex than you anticipated — good. That’s really the point. International volunteering should not be undertaken on a lark.  Shannon O’Donnell

Deciding whether to volunteer and choosing the right programme are not necessarily straight forward.  This isn’t to say don’t do it, or that there are not many ways that travellers can have positive effects on the communities and cultures that they visit.  It just means that having a positive impact on the world may not be as simple as it first seems.

Responsible tourism is one alternative to travelling with a white saviour complex.  This excellent article by Shannon O’Donnell points out some others.  

Another way to avoid the pitfalls of both forms of volunteerism and tourism is simply to bear in mind Huck’s more forthright and general exhortation: “Don’t be a dick.”  

Article: Alastair Humphreys busks his way across Spain in Laurie Lee’s footsteps

When you plan an adventure some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” And so you’ll often walk alone. But If you make your journeys like this you will have your reward, so long as all you want at the end is a cold, crisp beer.

Alastair Humphreys hosted an evening to promote his latest book, Grand Adventures, back in May.  The event was organised by the travel book specialists, Stanfords, and took place at the Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane in London’s theatreland near Covent Garden. 

Being close not only to where I work but also the imposing Art Deco Freemasons Hall (no connection to my job), I normally associate the pub with after work drinks on the pavement outside and the Freemasons I have seen descending the stairs from the pub’s first floor room carrying oversized briefcases.  So, it was nice at last to have the chance to form a different association with the ‘PoW’.     

Alastair Humphreys was entertaining, enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging others to try their hands at adventures, big or small. Towards the end of the evening, he outlined the ongoing preparations for his own next adventure.  

Humphreys told the crowded upstairs room that a story about someone else’s journey can often serve as an inspiration for your own journey.  As I sat in silent, self-satisfied agreement, Humphreys name-checked Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger as inspirations, before citing Laurie Lee’s As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning as his favourite travel book (if I wasn’t already, I must surely have been smiling and nodding with approval by now).

It was for this reason, Humphreys explained, that he was currently having violin lessons. He intended to follow in Laurie Lee’s footsteps and walk across Spain supporting himself financially only with the money he earned from busking.

Alastair Humphreys seems to have forged a career largely from persuading others that they need no particular talent or skill to undertake adventures of many different kinds provided that they have the enthusiasm and desire to go out and make something happen and the determination to see it through and succeed.  Alastair Humphreys is indeed a great advert for his own philosophy of adventuring.  

Thanks to Instagram, it was easy to follow his progress as Humphreys posted regular updates from his journey throughout the summer, posting a mixture of photos, video shorts and text sharing stories and reflections about his trip.  

In his posts, Humphreys explains that it is not only Lee’s writing he admires but also his style of travel noting that he “travelled slow, lived simply, slept on hilltops, and loved conversations with the different people he met along the hot and dusty road.”

Humphreys’ wanderings in Spain were great to follow.  Overcoming his fears about playing violin in public, we follow his disappointments and triumphs as he lived from hand to mouth.  It is a story of small successes and pleasures, measured in handfuls of Euros, but also of a tough life on the road walking across Spain’s meseta in the heat of summer before crossing the mountains of the Sistema Central and arriving in Madrid.  

Along the way, Humphreys’ Instagram posts capture the joys of travelling solo, adapting to the tempo of the Spanish way of life, settling into the rhythm of his journey and enjoying the abundance of time:

Time expands when you are away on a journey. It feels voluptuous and luxurious. Back home, time is my scarcest and most precious commodity… And now here I am beneath a tree, watching the leaves, listening to the swallows…I have nothing. Nothing but time. So scarce at home, so bountiful out here that I wallow in an excess of it. I’m wilfully inviting boredom (though I’ve rarely felt it, yet). I’m allowing my brain a fallow month to wander where it wonders and to recalibrate a little. 

Tramping across Spain, Humphreys received unexpected and generous hospitality, enjoyed beautiful scenery, found idyllic places to sleep for the night and also novel places to cool off.     

Setting off solo to follow a literary hero’s footsteps with nothing but his wits and a nascent proficiency in playing the violin may be a touch quixotic but is still impressive.  In the process, Humphreys shows what determination can do, living by his creed that the expertise one needs to undertake an adventure can, to a large degree, be obtained along the way.  That must have made the final cerveza he enjoyed in Madrid just that little bit sweeter and makes you wonder, maybe, just maybe, I could… 

Follow Alastair Humphreys’ journey across Spain on Instagram – www.instagram.com/al_humphreys/ – or find out more about him on his website: www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Video: Hong Kong Strong (07m02s)

I just thought it was really fascinating to see the different layers of the city, how it’s just so stacked together how people are so compressed and how they find a way to exploit every little nook and cranny of space to their advantage and I felt like it was a little wild and had a lot of energy to it so I wanted to make a film that was sort of like a roller coaster ride through the city.

Great video from filmmaker Brandon Li.  Seven minutes but worth a watch. 

A whirlwind insight showing Hong Kong from a number of angles.  Split into three distinct acts with an original soundtrack the film was shot over the course of one month filming 2-5 hours of footage a day.  

With a great sense of fluidity the film shows dancing lions, urban explorers, mah jong, yacht racing, fireworks, Cantonese opera, an incense ceremony, buddhas, some superb behind the scenes footage and, of course, Hong Kong’s distinctive skyline.  

I am a nomad I don’t have a fixed address I travel all over the world and I make short films about the places I have been.

Brandon Li’s director’s commentary to the video is on Youtube here, and more of his films can be seen on Vimeo here or on his website: www.unscripted.com.  

Article: The candour of tourists

But a part of me admires the candor. I’ve been led to understand that, when traveling, one does not generally wish to look like a tourist—for safety reasons, of course, but also out of some desire to seem like a cosmopolitan citoyen du monde. One should express curiosity, but never ignorance. 

Refreshing article from the Paris Review in which Sadie Stein reaches out to a couple of tourists on New York’s subway. 

Sadie Stein encounters two out-of-towners who lack pretensions and self-consciousness and try to talk to complete strangers on the New York subway, blissfully ignorant that they are breaking one of the cardinal rules of any metropolitan railway system.  

Rather than being tempted by TimeOut magazine’s suggestion to lie to tourists, Stein offers them genuine advice and admires the way they almost revel in their tourist status and offer ill-informed and outdated views about the city.  

But hold on, what is there to admire here?  Isn’t the point of being a real traveller to fit in and not stand out?  Who would want to be mistaken as a tourist?  After all, tourists, it would seem, have always been given a rough time.  

According to Kalvert in the 1870s, the tourist was the most noxious “of all noxious animals”.  The following century, Evelyn Waugh wrote that “every Englishmen abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveler and not a tourist.”  The tourist, according to Waugh, was always “the other fellow” and never oneself.  

Surely, therefore, no-one would want to be identified as a tourist, a second-class traveller, part of the herd, someone who according to Paul Theroux has no idea where they have been?   

As Anthony Peregrine points out in this article for the Telegraph newspaper, “disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery” and, as Paul Fussell highlighted in Abroad, no-one disdains a tourist quite like the anti-tourist or travel snob:

From the outset mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves independent travelers and thus superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity, and spirit. 

The anti-tourist, Fussell informs us, is anxious to assert their difference from tourists and they go to great lengths to do so, such as trying to merge into their surroundings, staying at out of the way places, avoiding standard tourist sights and, importantly, trying to avoid engaging other tourists.  

Fussell’s point is that this is not so much about a philosophy of how to travel meaningfully but simply about perceiving oneself to be better than the next person.  

Echoing Fussell’s assessment that anti-tourists manifest a “uniquely modern form of self-contempt”, Peregrine observes:

Tourists like one another. Travellers apparently don’t like anybody, unless he’s wearing a loincloth or she a sari. They appreciate their genuine experiences so much that they resent sharing them. The presence of other visitors at the temple, mountaintop or jungle clearing compromises the authenticity. Their own presence, curiously, does not.

So, hats off to the couple that Sadie Stein met, who are happy to be tourists and who were more than likely too busy enjoying themselves to worry about whether they were being ‘proper’ travellers and were ‘blending in’.  

So maybe it’s time to abandon the faux sophistication.  Drop the façade.  Stop pretending to fit in.   

“We are all tourists now,” said Fussell.  

Rather than lamenting that fact, Peregrine urges us to embrace it:

“The tourist is me. I feel no shame.”