Article: The Economist’s editor on foreign travel in 1913

THINGS near us are seen life-size, and distance, while it enchants the imagination, destroys the reality. That is a good reason why those who want to know the truth about the world should travel.

Francis Wrigley Hirst was a British journalist and writer.  Born in 1873, Wrigley Hirst was editor of The Economist from 1907 to 1916.  Unsurprisingly, most of his writings were about trade, economics and politics.

This essay appeared in a 1913 collection called The Six Panics & other essays. It is ironic that Hirst should write about modern travel and the ease with which it can be undertaken just as the outbreak of the First World War was about to make travel in Europe more difficult.
Two of the six ‘panics’ in the collection relate to dreadnoughts and airships while another chapter discusses the Balkan Wars which served as a prelude for the First World War, which makes the pice on travel seem even more oddly placed.

I stumbled across Hirst’s essay in the excellent 1913 by Charles Emmerson, a history offering a different perspective on that year.  Rather than view 1913 through the prism of the war which followed it, Emmerson looks at 23 citiess around the world and tries to view those cities as they might have been seen at the time, modern and full of possibilities.  

Emmerson quotes Hirst’s essay at the start of his introduction and uses it and the experience of travel it conveys to highlight how modern and globalised the world of 1913 was. 

Ever the economist, Hirst writes about general trends in travel among those who travel for commercial purposes and emigrants who travel in search of work.  Profit and Labour are his preoccupations.  Even when discussing those who travel for pleasure, he observes that is a supply of good facilities and transport networks (which exist because of capital’s ceaseless search for a return) that drives tourist demand.  Despite his economic perspective, Hirst is no advocate of travel as mere consumer pastime.  
 
 If it were not for books, telegrams, and letters, Australia or China would look smaller and less important to the average Englishman than his neighbour’s field. And even with the aid of books and newspapers it needs a large stock of intelligent sympathy to understand countries and peoples one has never seen. But invention is fast removing the physical obstacles to knowledge of the world.
Hirst sketches an impressive picture of a globalised, connected world in which travel is becoming ever more easy and comfortable.  However, this is accompanied by a concern that as the volume of travel increases, its benefits will decrease.  
 
But what of the modern tourist? Is he as good a man as his predecessor, who faced so much more risk and discomfort a hundred years ago? Comparisons no doubt are difficult, but there is room to fear that against a great increase in the volume must be set some decrease in the advantages of travel…Your modern traveller may pass with every luxury by day and a comfortable berth at night to any city in Europe, and there reside in a luxurious hotel, surrounded by cosmopolitan attendants, who know nothing and care less of the city or country in which they are accumulating tips.
His concern is that a traveller could move around the world from one luxurious hotel to another, in a sort of bubble, with no better knowledge of a place than its hotels and restaurants.
After travelling in this way from one grand hotel to another, he may return from his trip in blissful ignorance of the language, the people, the habits, and prejudices of the country he has visited. He and his like have seen sights and compared hotels, but that is the whole story. In short, they are only tourists conducted or unconducted. Innocent they went and innocent they return of languages, institutions and laws other than their own. In the old days travelling was slow, uncomfortable and comparatively dangerous; but it was also comparatively instructive. 
For Hirst, travel should aspire to something more.  What matters is to experience other places.  Relying on books and descriptions is not enough.  Only by visiting other countries, by learning some of the language can one understand the culture and be better informed about world afffairs without falling prey to “malevolent journalism”.
Hirst’s essay is a call to action.  We can learn a foreign language to read books to understand other places and cultures although as modern invention has made travel easier and more comfortable than ever, we have no need to confine our understanding of places to what we read about them.  We can instead travel to them and, rather than learning a language to read books, use it to read men and gain experience.   Whether our journeys are “civilizing and liberalizing” rather than leaving us “boastful and ignorant” depends on the nature and quality of the encounters travellers have and the mindset with which they approach their travels. 
Hirst distills the classic essays on travel and quotes from Hazlitt, Claudian, Bacon, Sterne and Feltham in his search for guidance about how we should travel: “Experience is the best informer”; “[travel] makes a wise man better, and a fool worse”; “the more you hurry, the less you see”; wondering whether it is better to travel alone or with a companion; the importance of travelling among and socialising with people of all classes from the place visited rather than spending time with fellow compatriots in first class. 
Hirt’s essay is about travel as a civilising and improving influence, something from which a great deal can be gained with a little thought and effort about how one goes about it.  It is not unlike advice commonly seen about how we could all make better travellers.  Indeed, Hirst says it is difficult to improve on the old essays and, reading his essay, it is hard to disagree with him.

Article & book: The Camino de Santiago & travel snobbery

We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.

Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.

This is an entertaining article from Tom Allen about snobbery and the Camino de Santiago.  

Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”

True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general. 

Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.  

Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.

You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.  

As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.  

Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.  

Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However,  Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel.  Why do we do it in the first place? 

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put. 

In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”

Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.  

Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.

Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel.  The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.

By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.

When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually.  According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists.  More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.  

The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.

So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?  

Not necessarily.  In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.   

Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”  

Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion.  Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.”  The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd.  Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels.  He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it.  Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others.  While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them.  It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.   

Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way.  That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.  

Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.

For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”

Sounds like a good ethos to me. 

 

Article: Democracy, graffiti & hope in Greece

A voice in the haze ruminated about “the financial terrorism” that led to Greece’s economic crisis. An elegant old woman sipped her glass of ouzo, rolled a cigarette, and swiped away the political doomsaying. She had the watchful look of experience. “We will be okay,” she said.

Politics, democracy, philosophy, religion, grafitti and hope are intertwined in this great article about Athens and Greece from James Reeves’s blog, Atlas Minor, which I came across courtesy of Longreads.  

Certainly there is a better way to inspire civic engagement than giving voice to fanatics, flirting with fascism, lurching from one humiliation to the next, and allowing very real lives to be destroyed along the way. 

In a thoughtful series of sketches accompanied by rich and haunting black and white images, James Reeves reflects on Trump’s ascendancy, democracy, tyranny and nationalism and the economic crisis that continues to ravage Greece. 

https://twitter.com/MrJamesReeves/status/831305268139065344

At the Agora and Parthenon, in cafes, in orthodox churches and on the streets of Athens Reeves, who is a writer and teacher of philosophy and history, contemplates the pendulum shift from a semi-rational world to one which is more unpredictable and full of anxiety. 

Yet in a country where tourists come to view the decayed ruins of ancient democracy and look back in time, Reeves finds a country looking to its future, with optimism and hope expressed in the grafitti on the city’s walls.  

Let the streets be a feast of art for all. And if all this comes to pass…everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (billboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.

Drawing on the the Biblical metaphor of the fall of Babylon and the writing on the wall as a parallel, Reeves senses the ending of an old world ending and finds himself anxious to return to the US and to participate in what must come next.  

A thoughtful, relevant and timely article. 

Article & Video: Of Land & Sea, Boat magazine in the Faroe Islands

The islands are almost eerily void of man-made sound.  The wind whistles, the sheep bellow, the waves crash against the coastline and rearrange the stones, clapping and cracking as they roll around.  The quiet is instantly comforting and sets forth the pace of life here without you even having to think about it.

Over the past few years there have been several articles in the mainstream press (The GuardianThe Financial Times, The Independent and Fodorsprofiling a ‘new breed of independent travel magazines”.  

As Tom Robbins in The Financial Times explained, these new magazines:

share a distinct look and approach, their similarities emphasising how different they are to the glossy mainstream titles. Produced by independents rather than big publishing houses, they are typically quarterly or biannual rather than monthly, and usually cost at least £10. Many have gnomic one-word names; covers are simple and striking, stripped of attention-grabbing cover lines; the paper is usually heavy, expensive and matt. 

All have websites, naturally.  Some have online content (and some more than others).  Some are available as electronic editions through apps such as Readbug, as downloads from their websites or own apps.  But, what really sets them apart is their commitment to print editions.  These are different though to Wanderlust, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Lonely Planet Traveller or NatGeo Traveller.  

Sometimes seen as part of a ‘slow journalism’ movement, their publication cycle is deliberately less frequent and the print editions lovingly created, something to be treasured rather than left on a train.  Not widely available in shops, I am fortunate that a handful of places in central London carry a decent range of these new magazines. 

Boat is one of these magazines.

Published twice a year, Boat focuses on a different place for each issue (usually a city) with the editorial team relocating there for several weeks to research and work with locals to produce the content.  Boat calls this its ‘inside/out approach’, with locals deciding “what they want the world to know about their city” to ensure that perspectives on the places are “varied and balanced”.  This allows Boat to ‘dig deep’ in each place they cover, to meet the locals and avoid “the typical fly-by top 10 lists, tourist hotspots or new openings”.

Ancient literature describes a mythical island kingdom called Thule where “the sun goes to rest” and “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three.  It has been suggested that the Faroe Islands were in fact this mythical place.

For its latest outing, Boat visited the Faroe Islands, a group of 18 volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway.  The islands are self governing although formally part of Denmark.

In this superb issue, Boat covers everything from local culinary traditions, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant, alternative night life, the origin of the islands’ architecture (intersting given the absence of wood-producing trees), its LBGT movement, the struggle for women’s rights, sustainable approaches to aquaculture and power generation as well of course its resurgent wool and knitwear industry and the lives of the islands’ shepherds.  

The feeling of loneliness is a mental state.  It’s not dependent on the number of people alongside you, but instead your relationships with them.

Boat travels to the Faroes’ most remote parts and, in one of the centrepiece features – Of Land and Sea – Fred Scott takes the twice weekly helicopter to the least populated island, Stóra Dímun, which is home to just 8 out of the 50,000 or so people in the Faroe Islands, and hears the captivating story of Eva and Jógvan and their two children who run Stóra Dímun’s sheep farm.

In another feature, Tom Eagar visits the Faroes’ most westerly island, Mykines, home to only 10 people but hundreds of thousands of sea birds including puffins, which can be viewed either on a cliff or on a plate in the local cafe.  Perched at the tip of the island in this remote archipelago and surrounded only by sea, Tom Eagar observes: 

It’s rare that you’re ever able to see so far and in so many directions. That may sound like a frivolous observation, but even the grandest of landscaeps are filled with things:  mountains, forest, lakes, land – just stuff.  Out here, facing west, it feels like we’re half way between the world and forever.

Boat covers all this through almost twenty insightful stories accompanied by beautiful images and videos on its website. The pieces are strong on local voice, allowing the islanders to tell their own stories and give their perspective, revealing a real sense of the Faroes and what life there is like.

This is one to settle in with for an afternoon, to savour and get lost in with some Teitur, Konni Kass or even Carl Neilsen’s Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands on the stereo.  I’m looking forward to see how Boat top this and, well, to those harbingers keen to pronounce the end of good travel writing, pish! 

Article & Book: Albert Camus on awareness, happiness, travel & Algeria

For what gives value to travel is fear

This well known quote attributed to Albert Camus often appears in lists of top travel quotes.

In this short but thought provoking article from the fantastic Brainpickings, Maria Popova puts that quote in its intended philosophical context by looking at Camus’ essay Love of Life from Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Camus’s quote is more about being outside the comfort zone of our normal daily lives than a prescription to embark on dangerous adventures to incite a state of anxiety. 

Explaining that adherence to routine can lessen our capacity for happiness, travel plays a valuable role in breaking that routine:

 
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
Camus expressed a similar idea in his notebooks:
 
What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.
Rather than happiness, therefore, Camus tells us it is awareness we should wish for. 
 
As Maria Popova puts it, “Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness” and travel can bring us out of that trance.
 
While we should not waste time, simply filling time or being busy is not the same as not wasting it “if in doing so one loses oneself.”
 
Therefore while travel can help heighten awareness, it is important to think about how we travel and whether we are simply filling time and losing ourselves, if we want to reap its full benefit.  
It is intersting to note that when travelling and being stripped of all that is familiar, we are likely to fel ‘soul-sick’ and that travel is an experience which can bring ‘contradictory intoxications’.  
 

Those interested in Camus’ writing on place should seek out his Algerian Chronicles.  While more a collection of reportage and political pieces than a traditional work of travel writing, Algerian Chronicles explores an exile’s relationship with the country of his birth as it undergoes a period of crisis.

Algerian Chronicles is a selection of Camus’ journalism about Algeria written over 20 years from 1939 “when almost no one in France was interested in the country, to 1958, when everyone is talking about it.”  

It was compiled and published in 1958 in response to the Algerian War at a time when Camus felt desparate about the country’s future and was torn between two positions: 

These texts summarize the position of a man who, having confronted the Algerian plight from the time he was very young, tried in vain to sound the alarm and who, being long aware of France’s responsibility in the matter, could not approve of either a conservative or an oppressive policy – from Camus’s Preface to Algerian Chronicles.
In her excellent review of Algerian Chronicles for The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud picks up on this theme of Camus’ bifurcated spirit and how he wrote about it frequently, quoting him as saying:

The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me, one where memories and names are preserved in measured spaces, the other where the wind and sand erases [sic] all trace of men on the open ranges.
The first section of Algerian Chronicles explores the economic causes of the crisis through articles written in 1939 describing the famine in Algeria’s Kabylia region.  Their publication led to Camus’ first exile as he was forced to look for work outside of Algeria (although he soon returned).  

The other pieces were written from the perspective of an outsider, albeit one intimately familiar with the country, or at least from the the perspective of someone caught between two places, and examine the development of the crisis, assess its (then) current state and propose a possible solution.

 

“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city. —Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959 (quoted in Claire Messud’s review for NYRB)

The New York Times‘ review of Algerian Chronicles is available here, Jermey Harding’s review for The London Review of Books is here and The LA Review of Books‘ review is here.

Article: ‘End of the road’ for Bhutan’s identity? (724 words)

The road makes me happy,” she says, “as it will greatly improve my family’s living conditions and make life easier.

Interesting article with fantastic images from photographer AJ Heath and Traveller Magazine.

AJ Heath spent 12 months in Bhutan and while he was there photographed the Brokpa tribe in the village of Merak in the east of the country.

As well as in Traveller Magazine, AJ Heath has written about this project for Edge of Humanity, Maptia and Lightfoot Travel.  A larger selection of photos from this project can be viewed on AJ Heath’s website.

The Brokpa, who are ethnically distinct from the Bhutanese, are a tribe of semi-nomadic yak herders.  Up to now, the remote village of Merak could only be visited by undertaking a multi-day trek which went over a 4,300m pass.  AJ Heath reports that that is about to change with the construction of the first road.

The traditional way of life and distinct cultures of rural communities like the Brokpa in Merak are at risk of disappearing.  As communications improve, they lead to a desire for more modernised lifestyles. Electricity was introduced in 2012 which was followed by satellite TV and fridges and mobile phones.

In his article for Lightfoot Travel, AJ Heath noted:

As the majority are illiterate, I was fascinated to know how they put people’s names into their phones. One lady showed me that she used the emojis – ‘dog, dog, cat, heart’ was her son who lives in Thimphu and ‘cat cat heart heart’ was for her daughter.

AJ Heath’s project documents the Brokpa and their way of life, and the articles examine the change that completion of the new road will bring.

Their lives have not really changed in centuries, but change is coming and the change will happen very quickly. I wanted to capture this before it is lost.

As Bhutan develops, its people struggle to preserve their traditional way of life and unique identity as they look for diferent and/or easier ways to earn a living.   

The road will increase tourism which will increase the incomes of the Brokpa.  Paradoxically, tourism provides an incentive to maintain traditions but its increase will, in turn, also put more pressure on their traditional way of life as the Brokpa use that income to modernise and buy consumer goods.  

There is an inevitable tension between the Brokpa’s desire to improve their lives and tourists’ yearning for things to remain as they are.  In a bid to prevent the loss of culture as a result of modernisation, the Bhutanese government has introduced legislation to protect cultural traditions.  

According to the articles, some fear that this could lead to unequal development within the country with some communites being preserved as living museums to satisfy lucrative tourist demand while other parts of the country are permitted to develop.  

Travel in Bhutan is only possible as part of an organised tour, which costs around $250 a day, or $290 if travelling solo or in a pair.  The rationale for this daily fee is to permit sustainable tourism which protects Bhutan’s land and culture while offering tourists an insight into a unique way of life.  A portion of the fee is used by the government to fund roads, infrastructure, health and education programs.  

While money from tourism plays a part in improving the country, the challenge for Bhutan will be how it manages not to distort development while maintaining that income; to keep both international visitors and Bhutan’s population satisfied.

While the tourists yearn for Bhutan to remain the same, Heath said that the Brokpa people welcomed the changes: “They all seemed very excited by the prospects of the new road being built. They thought it would improve their lives and that their living conditions would improve. The road would also bring in more tourists which will give them extra income to buys TVs and fridges.

In a country which places much stock in the idea of Gross National Happiness, only time will reveal the effect the road has on communities like Merak and whether the Bhutanese government and people are able to balance the competing demands of development, tourism and tradition.

For more about British photographer, AJ Heath and to see more of his work, visit his website (where there are more photos of a different aspect of Bhutan), or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.  

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”