Wednesday, February 1, 2012

the Conversation with the Cabdriver

I have one last grouse about travel writing before I pass on to something more interesting.

There is a sin of travel writing that I do not think I have ever seen on a blog, but have been irritated by when encountering it between hard covers.  It is the telling conversation with an English-speaking local, often one connected with the travel industry, such as a waiter or tour guide, but in its paradigm form may be thought of as the Conversation with the Cab Driver.  In this trope the writer describes a conversation with a local whose only apparent qualification is that he speaks English, wherein his source explains in detail some local problem or situation, which the writer passes on uncritically to the reader, and then inquires no further into the matter, even if only the slightest research before he got there would have revealed that this was only one view of the matter, and a particularly partisan one at that.

This is not due diligence on a writer’s part.  It is laziness.  It is journalism of the sort that leads its readers baffled as to why the articulate liberals interviewed in the square before the revolution don’t look at all like the people who wound up in power after the revolution.

If a travel writer tells me about his conversation with a cab driver, I suspect he didn’t do much on the trip.  A cab driver can be a very interesting person to talk to  --  after all, it’s part of what they do to generate a tip  --  but it’s not the window into a place we were hoping for and it suggests that the writer, our agent in this enterprise, has been derelict in his duties and is not earning his pay, let alone a tip.

If our traveler goes to Morocco I might want to hear the gossip in the souk, but I would not want to pass off the political analysis of the cabdriver on the way in from the airport as the unchallenged truth about anything.

I once had an interesting conversation with a Moroccan cab driver.  We talked about Ibn Batutta.  It was during a cab ride from Boston to Cambridge.

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