Friday, July 27, 2012

The Romance of Travel

I once read an essay that argued that those familiar references in travel literature to the "romance of travel" were simply code words for sex.  Flirtations on the promenade deck and hanky-pank in the staterooms, as you cruise the languid waters off Martinique.  "Luana like white friend very much.  Luana want him stay with her."
Modern travel adventure writers, at least the ones I read, being products of a more permissive age, no longer resort to code words, but discuss sex openly, though subject apparently to a certain curious constraint.
These writers gleefully report how they were surrounded by prostitutes or witnessed debaucheries, but always as an observer and never as a participant.  Often this observer status was maintained only by heroic exertion of the will.  In an account of a many-month trek through northern Amazonia, a young English writer describes how he resisted the blandishments of teenage rivertown prostitutes and the entreaties of amorous and attractive Indian maidens.  Though in these hard and lonely circumstances for almost a year, he remained as chaste as a knight on a quest.
Now what are we to make of all this?  Are travel writers made of sterner stuff than we mere readers?  Is it that the writer, as a proper scientific observer, eschews involvement so as to preserve his objectivity?  This cannot be the reason, for these same writers never hesitate to describe how they joined in killing a wild pig or were inducted into some tribal society.
No, most likely it is the simple and venerable explanation that travelers lie.  This has been part of the social contract with travelers since the beginning.  In return for undertaking the bother of going someplace, they are permitted to tell lies about it when they get back.
Travel writers are not fools and they realize that it's one thing to tell a racy anecdote after dinner at a friend's house, and quite another thing to write something in a book that people can still read twenty years later, when attitudes may have changed or when our 25-year-old adventurer now finds himself up for confirmation as a federal judge. And we should remember that even our intrepid travel writer, however heroic he may pose in the bush, has to come home to a wife or girlfriend who may be wondering who that Luana was that he mentioned in his letter.

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