Saturday, January 28, 2012

Travel writing, bloggery & poetic prose

I wonder if it is entirely accurate to criticize travel blogs as poorly written, as Theroux does.  True, some are indifferently written, but with others there is nothing in particular wrong in their expression, and a precious few are a pleasure to read.  Is it perhaps a better complaint that, beyond the value of any specific advice they give on current travel, they are otherwise just not very interesting?  It is true, of course, that good writing is hard work, but then so, too, may be finding enough interesting to write about.

You may have been months in the jungle, but you probably spent no more than a minute or two wrestling the crocodile.  If you hold off writing about your trip until you get home, you can showcase the incident rather better than if it is buried in the daily narrative of heat and mud and insects, dangerous food and unreliable transport and the quotidian bother of travel.

Which brings up the question of whether there may be something wrong with the concept of travel blogging, at least as a form of literature.  Think of the great journeys we have read about: how often they were day after day of unchanging ocean or desert or snow or jungle; the food monotonous; the companions mute.  Sunrise and sunset: another day.  It may have been an epic journey, the account of which could become a monument of travel literature, but it is not going to make arresting blogging.

I found what I think a very good piece of travel writing in, of all places, Poetry Magazine. “Everyone Is an Immigrant:Poetry and reportage in Lampedusa”, by Eliza Griswold.
The author is a poet who traveled with an Italian-speaking friend to the island of Lampedusa, once the domain of the aristocratic Giuseppi di Lampedusa, author of the novel The Leopard.  The island, lying between Sicily and North Africa, has been overrun by wave upon wave of African immigrants fleeing the various wars and distempers of their region and descending disruptively upon what had once been a slightly out-of-the-way tourist destination.

The writer is inquisitive and resourceful and fills her notebook with scenes and conversations and reflections and scraps of poetry, her own and others, and in the end comes to this:

I am not going to write an article about this trip. I am going to write only this notebook, because I don’t think that what I’ve seen here, the story I’ve been able to gather with the refugees at such a distance, is a matter of news. What I’ve seen is a complicated set piece, a drama, which I’ve watched only as a member of the audience sat before the false proscenium.

She offers no helpful advice to the traveler, but much that is vastly satisfying to a traveler’s soul, which is the sort of thing that I want to read.  I have said that I think the best sort of writing is poetic prose and this is a fair specimen of what I had in mind.

And would that other, professional journalists were as mindful as our poet that they had seen only as an audience to an on-going drama, in progress before they arrived and of which they had witnessed no more than a few scenes, and be similarly circumspect in their summary of plot and commentary on the action.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

I consider Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin to be a legitimate part of travel literature and, as literature is a form of art  --  and reality makes indifferent art  --  perhaps more justifiably so than flatly-told accounts of some trip actually taken.  The best and earliest of the stories are set in the 1930s, the Golden Age of Travel when the world seemed still to be full of adventure and adventurers.  When Europeans went abroad armed and it was acceptable to shoot your way out of problems with mischievous locals, who were less well armed.  Before the Second War put an end to all that, and afterward nothing could quite go back to being what it had been before.

So I was of course looking forward to Spielberg’s “Adventures of Tintin”, though with some trepidation, as Hollywood lately has had trouble getting anything right and I myself have not been in a theater in the last five years, not since Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006.  Since movie tickets now cost as much as opera tickets used to cost, this self-denial is not as difficult as it might be.

But it turned out to be a good movie.  Not a “wow” movie like the first Indiana Jones, but a workmanlike job with no sharp edges to grieve someone who cares about the spunky lad and his adventures.

It is made with motion-capture technology, which a number of reviewers have commented manages not to be creepy.  It isn’t an animated version of the pure lines of Hergé’s comic book art, which has been done before and can be found on You Tube, and which is the style I would have preferred, but it’s the way Spielberg made it and it’s pretty good job of it.

The ‘30s aesthetic is beautiful, the machines all look convincingly mechanical, the episodes of manic action completely appropriate.  The whole thing is delightful.  Intelligent enough for an adult and understandable enough to keep the kids engaged.  My eight-year-old grandson went home afterward and re-read the Tintin books I had given him for Christmas.

The part I liked best was the character of Tintin himself.  He was the pure 1930s model.  A young man of some unspecified age who, in place of any special powers, was bright, intelligent, adventurous, positive, well-mannered, sensible.  The sort of young man every parent hopes their child will grow up to be.  None of that dark, whiny slacking that is as irritating to an adult as the child intends it to be.  Too sensible to be politically correct, when a suspicious knock comes at the door he casually slips a pistol out of his desk drawer as he goes to answer it.  That alone won my heart.

And, consistent with the canon , there are no girls in the story.  This was a good Tintin.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

at the Consulate

There was a time when I may have wanted to give the impression that my trips were spent being shot at by guerrillas or wrestling with jaguars, but the truth of the matter is of course that most of the travail of travel consists in dealing with petty bothers, and the true test of the traveler is the pluck and good spirit he can maintain in the face of these less heroic trials.  As, for example, in applying for a visa.

Having seen my fill of the Marxist experiment in Nicaragua, I decided to leave by way of Costa Rica, but before I could get to that point I would need a Costa Rican visa, so I phoned their consulate in Managua.  It would be no problem, the lady assured me.  They were free to US citizens.  Just come by the Consulate.  For some reason, whenever someone in the Third World tells me that something is “no problem” I still believe it, and immediately left for the Consulate.

The Consulate was located in a far southern suburb of the city.  Because the lady had said that there were no appointments I was concerned that I might have to deal with a crowd, but I found this concern baseless.  I would, in fact, have preferred there to be a crowd, as there was no one there. 

“Applications are taken only in the morning.  You must come back tomorrow.”

Since I had just spoken with the lady on the phone I would have thought she might have mentioned that.  But she probably assumed that everyone knew that applications were taken only in the morning.  After all, I was the only person standing there.

So I went back out into the street to look for a cab.  The Consulate was in a quiet residential neighborhood and there were no more cruising taxis than there would be in any quiet residential neighborhood.  So I walked down to the nearest major street.  Where there were also no cabs.  So I headed downtown, intending to hail the first cab I saw.

Someone said of Oakland, California, that there is no “there” there.  This was even more true of Managua, Nicaragua.  There was no center.  There once was, but it was destroyed by an earthquake and the funds to rebuild were stolen by the rascal Samoza.  So it was possible for me that afternoon to walk for miles and never seem to get closer to anything.

The experience was not without amusements.  I was chased by a hostile turkey.  I met a radical priest who told me that Christians must learn to engage in loving violence.  I discovered that in Sandinista Nicaragua even the graffiti on the walls of public restrooms carried a political message.  I was very glad to get back to my boarding house.

The next morning there was a reassuring crowd.  There being no line, I wedged myself into the mass and allowed it to carry me, in about a half-hour’s time, to the window where a lady took my passport and gave me a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written with a ballpoint pen.  When I protested she explained that visas were issued only in the afternoon, whereupon the crowd carried me back outside.

So I found myself standing on the sidewalk without a passport, holding a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen.

I had visions of being accosted by unsmiling Sandinistas, their Kalishnikhovs at the ready.  “Your papers, Señor.”  I hand them a two-inch square piece of plain paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen.  The officer examines it gravely.  He holds it up to the light.  He runs his fingertips lightly over the writing.  Then he smiles and hands it back to me.  “Your papers are in order, Señor.  Have a nice day.”

I try not to do anything suspicious-looking for the rest of the day.

That afternoon I returned and wedged myself back into the crowd and eventually worked my way to the window where I surrendered my two-inch square of paper and was given back my passport, though without a visa.  “You must pay at the next window.”  It was not clear to me that anything had actually been done.

The crowd moved me to the next window where my passport was again taken, though this time I was not given even a reassuring piece of paper, and then I found myself once more on the sidewalk.

I found a patch of shade by a wall.  Through the iron grillwork I could see my passport sitting undisturbed on a desk, ignored by the clerks who were ignoring everyone else’s passport.  A clerk entered the room, examined the pile, replaced them and left.

The afternoon dragged on.  Across the street I could see my driver slumped in his seat reading yesterday’s La Prensa.  I was paying him by the hour, so as not to be caught again without a cab.

Time passed.  My little island of shade expanded.  Across the street, I could see that my driver was now asleep.  The pile of passports lay undisturbed on the desk.

Suddenly, a clerk appeared. took the passports into another office and a few minutes later reappeared and began calling names.  The visas had been issued.

No identification was asked.  Names were called and the passports handed out into the crowd where they were passed around until someone claimed them.  In a few minutes everyone had their passport and were wandering away.

A perfectly ordinary experience in a traveler’s day.  I am sure that if I had later met the lady I had spoken to on the phone she would say, “See, I told you it would be no problem.”  And none of the people in the crowd seemed to think it was anything out of the ordinary and knew that for all the apparent disorder that everyone would get their passport back; everyone would be taken care of and no one taken advantage of, and the Sandinista police would not be at all suspicious of a confused gringo whose only identification was a two-inch square piece of paper with the number “18” written on it with a ballpoint pen.

My later trouble in getting out of the country is described in an earlier post, Hotel Gran Imperial

Saturday, January 7, 2012

an uneventful stopover in El Salvador

I have been intending to write about a trip I made to Nicaragua back in the heady days off Sandinismo, but I don't seem to be getting anything written, which is normally a sign that I don't really know what I want to say.  So for now, here is a short piece from my trip down.

I had a stopover in El Salvador.  It was in the late 1980s and I had read in the San Francisco papers that it was a violent place with bitter fighting between the government and leftist guerrillas, but on the plane down all the Salvadorians I talked to said this was all overblown.  My airline was one of the regional carriers favored by the locals and has since gone out of business.  I had chosen it as part of my authentic Central American experience. 
    There had been an interminable delay in getting out of San Francisco, which doesn’t bother me as much as it does some, as I would always prefer that my plane doesn’t take off until the crew are completely comfortable about it.  There was going to be a delay in San Salvador as well, and the airlines said they would take us to a nice hotel and come get us when they were ready to go again.
    There were no passport or transit formalities.  An airline bus took us on a long, pleasant drive past farms and through patches of forest and over some hills to a clean, modern hotel, the sort that would probably rate a star or so, and the nice lady from the airline said they would see us again soon.
    It was an agreeable place with a comfortable lobby and bar and a large swimming pool.  I was surprised to notice that a large number of the guests were young American males with short haircuts and very good posture, which I related to matters then in the news.

Not long thereafter I read that the hotel was attacked by guerrillas who seized the lower floors while the party of American military who had been staying at the hotel barricaded themselves on an upper floor.  While the guerrillas had machine guns, as any self-respecting guerrilla will these days, the Americans had no weapons at all, a fact of which the guerrillas were apparently unaware, and the Americans were able to keep up a bluff until the Salvadorean Army arrived sometime later to chase the guerrillas away.
    Things like that make me appreciate my own uneventful stay in the country.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

on assignment

The next trip I am planning to write about is to Nicaragua. I had my first assignment from a magazine and thought this was going to be a fine way to travel and see the world. I got a decent article out of it, but looking through my journals I realize I was constantly busy collecting facts and looking for people to interview and making telling observations and felt like I was in a bubble as much as any tourist, albeit a more serious and high-purpose one.

I realized that much as I enjoyed playing foreign correspondent  --  the writer traveling on assignment  --  I was not enjoying being a traveler.  I tried it one more time, producing an article closer to what I wanted to write, but, alas, not what the editor had in mind and after a few back-and-forths I decided I didn’t want to write what she wanted  --  and she probably concluded that I was incapable of writing one  --  and I accepted the kill fee.  After that, I paid my own way and did not travel any more on assignment and have enjoyed every trip.

I like to take my time in a foreign place  --  to dawdle over coffee or sit on a park bench or browse through second-hand shops  --  and what interests me may not interest more serious people.  And it may be that traveling on assignment caused me to look at the world around me through the eyes of my intended reader rather than my own, and bound me to the concerns of the world I should have left behind when I set out.