The Best American Travel Writing 2000by Bill Bryson (Editor), Jason Wilson (Editor)
The extraordinary popularity of books and magazines dedicated to travel comes as no surprise, given that more and more Americans are traveling each year for business, pleasure, and especially adventure. Our fascination with travel has never been so well represented as in this new addition to the Best American series: a wide-ranging compendium of the best travel
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The extraordinary popularity of books and magazines dedicated to travel comes as no surprise, given that more and more Americans are traveling each year for business, pleasure, and especially adventure. Our fascination with travel has never been so well represented as in this new addition to the Best American series: a wide-ranging compendium of the best travel writing published in 1999, culled from more than three hundred magazines, newspapers, and Web sites.
This first collection of THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING reads like a good novel. Best-selling author Bill Bryson and series editor Jason Wilson have put together a book that will surprise knowledgeable travelers and entrance newcomers with the glories of new worlds. Articles by such well-loved writers as Bill Buford and Ryszard Kapuscinski are included, as are those by exciting new voices. Ranging across myriad landscapes, from Central Park in New York City to the Ouadane oasis in Saharan Mauritania, THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING 2000 showcases the diversity and creative power of travel writing today.
Editors Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson have collected the cream of the American travel writing crop in the first anthology of a new series. In an effort to represent the full spectrum of travel writing, the editors have juxtaposed essays by well-known authors such as Dave Eggers, David Halberstam, and P. J. O'Rourke with talented up-and-coming new writers. The result is a collection that opens a window to the world, with each essay expressing a unique perspective on travel and culture. As a whole, this first edition of The Best American Travel Writing foreshadows an exciting future for the series, and for American travel writing.
One of the most appealing aspects of travel essay collections is the promise of a feast of experiences in every corner of the globe. The Best American Travel Writing allows readers to sample life in Zanzibar, Thailand, Bhutan, Russia, and many other destinations. In Bill Buford's engaging "Lions and Tigers and Bears," readers can even get a glimpse of life in New York's famous Central Park, as the author recounts his clandestine sleepover in the park's North Meadow. Another essay that packs plenty of laughs is Dave Eggers's "Hitchhiker's Cuba," a rollicking narrative in which the author's car becomes public transportation for Cubans met along the coast road outside Havana. The most unforgettable essays in the collection, however, are those that shuttle readers into the heart of danger. The hair-raising "From the Wonderful People Who Brought You the Killing Fields" by Patrick Symmes chronicles the author's quest to interview remaining members of the notorious Khmer Rouge in their stronghold in the mountains of Cambodia. In "The Last Safari," veteran safari leader Mark Ross describes a grueling seven-hour march toward the Ugandan border with terrorists holding his tour group at gunpoint.
Guest editor Bill Bryson's introduction gives an excellent historical overview of travel writing both at home and abroad, and then, with typical Bryson humor, goes on to illuminate his very first travel experiences: "I had never seen a zebra crossing before, never seen a tram, never seen an unsliced loaf of bread..." As his fans know, Bryson has come a long way since those days, but he has retained his sense of wonder. That perspective, in which the unknown, the exotic, and the unfamiliar are the sources of immeasurable riches, resonates in all of the essays in The Best American Travel Writing.
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Introduction Travel writing, as I once observed elsewhere, is the most accommodating - one might almost say the most promiscuous - of genres. Write a book or essay that might otherwise be catalogued under memoir, humor, anthropology, or natural history, and as long as you leave the property at some point, you can call it travel writing.
With luck or persistence, you might even find a publisher willing to underwrite the cost of the trip. I remember the moment it occurred to me that this was an unusually agreeable way to make a living. It was in the early 1980s, when I was living in London. In those days I had a desk job for the London Times, but to supplement my income I began in my spare time to write small articles for newspapers and magazines. Usually these were features on some aspect of British life or culture, but once, more or less out of the blue, I was asked by an editor of the in-flight magazine of Trans World Airlines if I would go to Copenhagen, where the airline was about to inaugurate flights, and write of its attractions.
Well, Copenhagen is a splendid city, and I had the most marvelous time. It was while dawdling over a coffee on Strrget, the city’s principal pedestrian thoroughfare, that the giddy if somewhat tardy realization dawned on me that I was spending five days in a European capital at someone else’s expense, having an awfully good time, and that all that was required of me in return was to write down a thousand words or so of observation on what I saw and did. And for this I was to be paid real money - pretty good money, as I recall. It was then it occurred to me that this was a pretty well unbeatable way to make a living.
So I began to write travel books. The problem was that in the 1980s there wasn’t any real market for them in the United States. Travel books at that time meant guidebooks and almost nothing more. Occasionally someone would write a travel narrative that would attract critical attention and sell well - Paul Theroux with The Great Railway Bazaar, William Least Heat-Moon with Blue Highways - but for some reason they weren’t allowed into the travel section. Once a travel narrative was published and had finished its time on the “New Releases” shelves (which in my case seemed to be something in the region of three or four hours), there wasn’t any place to put it. On those occasions when I dropped into bookstores to visit my old titles and helpfully move them to positions where they might catch the eye of someone less than eight feet tall or not lying supine in the aisle, I would generally find them in the oddest places, shelved under current affairs or social commentary or geography - anywhere, in short, but near the travel section, where Fodor, Frommer, and Let’s Go reigned supreme.
How happy I am to report that all that has changed, though it took an amazingly long time when you consider how big the travel literature market has been in other countries for years. The first time I can recall seeing travel books (by which I mean real books with chapters and a story to tell) gathered together in their own section anywhere in the United States was only in about 1990, in San Francisco. But little by little the practice has spread until now it is customary, if not quite universal, for bookstores to offer an assortment of literary travel titles among the more conventional guides. It is telling, I think, that while anthologies comprising the year’s best essays, short stories, sports writing, and plays, among goodness knows what else, have been around for years, and sometimes decades, it is only now, thanks to the dear and enlightened folks at Houghton Mifflin, that travel writing is being accorded equal standing. It feels like a genre whose time has come.
The question that naturally arises is why all this has taken so long. The United States is, after all, a nation predicated on the idea of movement - the movement that brought people to the country in the first place and then kept them spreading out from east to west. There is still a restlessness in the American character - a willingness to up sticks and move elsewhere without much in the way of a backward glance - that would strike many people in more settled countries as at the very least unusual, perhaps even just a trifle shiftless. In any case, if anyone ought to be predisposed by nature and history to an interest in the excitement and possibility presented by the unfamiliar and far-flung, then surely it would be us. Yet with a few exceptions - Mark Twain and S. J. Perelman from time to time, the tireless Paul Theroux more regularly - few American writers of a literary bent have been tempted into the field. Insofar as the exotic featurees in American letters, it is nearly always as a backdrop for fiction. What a pity we haven’t got Dorothy Parker traveling through Weimar Germaaaaany, say, or William Faulkner in Africa, or Robert Benchley bemusedly scrutinizing the Orient, or John Updike anywhere at all.
It’s a curious omission when you consider just how durable and popular the field has been elsewhere. In Britain, travel writing has long been a mainstay of publishing. Since at least Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, scarcely a writer of note in British literature has not at some time turned his hand to travel writing. Johnson and Boswell, Sterne, Dickens, Darwin (with The Voyage of the Beagle - a travel book par excellence), Anthony and Frances Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, and others well beyond enumerating all produced travel books, often very good ones. Moreover, many of Britain’s most gifted writers - Redmond O’Hanlon, Jonathan Raban, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, and Colin Thubron - have built successful careers largely, sometimes all but exclusively, on the idea of traveling to a place and writing about it.
It seems entirely possible that something like that may be happening in the United States now. As the pages that follow amply demonstrate, many of the sharpest minds and freshest voices in journalism are drawn to foreign subjects these days - increasingly (and encouragingly) to places far beyond the trampled paths of tourism. A generation ago, I daresay a book of this sort would have been dominated by European and American destinations - Capri and Pamplona and the Florida Keys. Today instead we get places of a far more diverse and challenging nature: Zanzibar, Cambodia, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the forbidding Cape York Peninsula in Australia. That the geographical spread of this collection is so largely exotic pleases me no end, but I should note that it is less a reflection of my own predispositions than those of the publications from which these selections were culled.
All this, it goes without saying, is heartening to see. One of the first things that struck me when I first ventured abroad in the early 1970s was how much more attention, compared with America, the rest of the world paid to the rest of the world; and one of the first things that struck me when I returned to the States to live twenty years later was how much less attention we paid now than we had before. Though there are some commendable exceptions - notably that great underappreciated asset National Public Radio and some of our larger daily newspapers, as well as many of the magazines whose contributors are represented in this volume - most of our popular media seem to be much less drawn to foreign matters than formerly. I urge you sometime to go to a library and look at Time or Newsweek magazines from the 1950s or early 1960s. You will find that they are dense with reports from abroad - of tottering governments in Italy or corruption scandals in South America and so on - and their covers were as often graced with portraits of foreign notables as of domestic ones. There seemed then to be a genuine and natural interest in the politics and culture of foreign societies, a presumption that what people were up to in Paris and Rio and Capetown was worth knowing. In those days too, if you are old enough to recall, the evening news on television would always have at least a sprinkling of reports each showing a serious-looking correspondent in a trenchcoat standing with a microphone in front of a foreign stock exchange or flotilla of bobbing sampans or Congress of the People’s Revolution - something that was patently not North American. Even if you paid no attention to these dispatches, they at least reminded you that you existed in a wider world.
No longer. In 1997, for a column I was then writing for a British newspaper, I tracked Time for the first three months of the year. In that period, our most venerable news magazine offered its readers not one report from France, Italy, Spain, or even Japan, among many, many others not present. Britain attracted notice just once, for the cloning of a sheep in Scotland, and Germany likewise managed a single appearance, because of a dispute between its government and American Scientologists. As I write (in the early spring of 2000), this week’s issue of Newsweek contains three articles filed from abroad. Time has none. Not one. (In fairness, it does have one article on the United States’ troubled relationship with Colombia, but written in Washington.) For purposes of comparison, the current issue of Britain’s Economist has sixty-four articles on foreign topics.
Television can hardly claim to be much better. During the same period that I was monitoring Time magazine I devoted five weeknights to watching CNN’s main hour-long evening news program. In the course of that week it ran 112 news reports, of which just 8 concerned non-American topics - and this on a program that calls itself (with exquisite if unintended irony) The World Today.
I don’t mean this as a criticism - at least, not exactly. There are all kinds of extenuating circumstances for our failure to follow the rest of the planet as keenly as we might. A very large part of what happens in the world - in politics, finance, entertainment, you name it - originates in the United States. All the world’s news pages are disproportionately filled with happenings from America. Only for us, of course, it’s domestic news, not foreign. Of those sixty-four foreign articles in The Economist, almost fifty concerned American affairs. It isn’t that foreign news publications are inherently more devoted to foreign news coverage, more that they are merely as interested in America as we are.
There is also the consideration that we are lulled into complacency by the ubiquitousness of our culture. A Briton traveling abroad who craves a serving of steak and kidney pudding or news of how Leicester City fared in its soccer match on Saturday will, in most places, be out of luck. A Frenchman traveling abroad is unlikely to hear his favorite pop tunes playing in the background (and thank goodness, of course). An Australian or New Zealander knows that for the duration of any trip overseas he will almost certainly read or hear no news of home. A poor Canadian has only to step over the forty- ninth parallel into the United States to find his country disappearing even from weather maps. But for a traveling American, in most places America is there already - American foods, soft drinks, movies, songs, newspapers, stock market results. It is entirely possible for an American to travel abroad without, in a sense, actually leaving home.
One of the oddest travel experiences I have ever had - odd simply because I didn’t realize this was what it was like for so many tourists - came early in my freelance career when I was invited as a guest lecturer on a Rhine cruise. I had recently written an article for National Geographic on the new Main-Danube Canal, a German engineering wonder, and I was thus somehow deemed to be an authority on European waterways.
The ship on which we cruised bore a complement of perhaps seventy or eighty passengers, all American, of late middle age or beyond, and clearly well heeled. (The week’s trip was costing them something like $3,500 apiece.) It was a pleasant if somewhat low-key undertaking, in that each day we would sit on a deck or in the grand salon, watching Germany slide by in the background, rather as if we were watching it on a very large screen television. Late each afternoon the ship would tie up at some cheery and attractive Rhineland village. After hours of such untaxing confinement, I couldn’t wait to get off, to stretch my legs and wander through the streets or browse in shop windows or have a cup of coffee - to be, in short, in Germany. And here was the odd thing that struck me. Each day, upon docking, all the other passengers would eagerly assemble by the gangway and wait for the tour guide to step up to escort them en masse, rolled umbrella held aloft, to the market square or Baroque church or whatever other attractions the community offered, sparing them the necessity of having to puzzle over German signs or fumble with marks and pfennigs. On most evenings we ate aboard the ship, but on a couple of occasions we were loaded onto buses and driven off to some restaurant or Bierstube, which we would entirely take over, and there over the perky cacophony of an oompah band we would sample German life without Germans. On the last day, as we stood on the quayside in Cologne waiting for our bags to be offloaded, I fell into conversation with a fellow passenger, who professed the trip a huge success. For no particular reason - just making conversation really - I asked him how he had found the Germans.
He thought hard for a minute. “I’m not sure we met any,” he replied with a vaguely troubled expression.
I have since accompanied two other groups on similiar excursions in which the participants paid large sums to be transported to some distant place and then shielded from it. Seems very odd to me. To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar that it can be taken for granted.
I grew up in the middle of the country in a middle-income household in the middle of the century. As with most families of that time and place, we were not great adventurers. In our house, ketchup and Cool Whip were the most exotic sauces. Overseas travel was not remotely an option. So when, in 1972, I arrived as a gangly (for which read pimply and squinting) young backpacker in Europe, I was about as innocent as a traveler can be. In those days the only cheap flights to Europe were on Icelandic Airlines to Luxembourg, so it was in that endearingly diminutive country’s equally small-scale capital that I had my first look at another world. I cannot tell you how exciting it was. I walked about for hours in a kind of vivid daze, astounded to discover that there were so many interesting ways to do fundamentally mundane things. Everything that came before me was novel. I hardly knew where to put my amazed and besotted gaze. As I wrote in a book called Neither Here Nor There: I had never seen a zebra crossing before, never seen a tram, never seen an unsliced loaf of bread (never even considered it an option), never seen anyone wearing a beret who expected to be taken seriously, never seen people go to a different shop for each item of dinner or provide their own shopping bags, never seen feathered pheasants and unskinned rabbits hanging in a butcher’s window or a pig’s head grinning on a platter. And the people - why, they were Luxembourgers. I don’t know why this amazed me so, but it did. I kept thinking: “That man over there, he’s a Luxembourger. And so is that girl. They don’t know anything about the New York Yankees, they don’t know the theme tune to the Mickey Mouse Club, they are from another world.” It was just wonderful.
I regret to say that I have never advanced terribly far from that happy day. My own requirements for adventure are so easily achieved that a stroll around Luxembourg still gives me nearly all the buzz I need, I’m afraid. So I have long been fascinated by, and filled with admiration for, those people who really travel - people like Tim Cahill, Mark Hertsgaard, Isabel Hilton, and Jeffrey Tayler, whose contributions I am proud to see included here. I once did a reading in Birmingham, England, with the British travel writer Colin Thubron, long a hero of mine, and afterward rode with him on a train back to London. He had just returned from a long trip through the remote parts of western China, as I recall. Thubron is a modest and undemonstrative fellow, but he grew animated as he described for me the pleasures of spending weeks sleeping on hard floors, eating strange and stringy foods, being days beyond the reach of editors and friends. I had always thought of that kind of discomfort and dislocation as the price you paid to experience interesting places, but not part of the pleasure. For Thubron it was - he positively rejoiced in it - and to me it was the greatest revelation. I suppose we most admire what we cannot do, and I cannot be truly adventurous. For that reason, many of the articles collected here represent risky travel to challenging places. One in particular, “The Last Safari,” by Mark Ross, is, I guarantee, one of the most harrowing reports you will read this year. It isn’t strictly travel writing at all, but it was too good and too moving not to include.
Essentially, however, the pieces that follow are here simply because I liked them. In almost every instance I started off reading about some trip or experience that I had no certain expectation that I would find absorbing, and quickly found myself immersed and engaged, sometimes transported. Apart from the deftness of touch and originality of observation that you would naturally expect to find in any compilation of the year’s best of anything, about all that the pieces that follow have in common is that their authors went somewhere, though as some of the contributions prove - notably Bill Buford’s game and good-natured account of a night spent in Central Park and David Halberstam’s fond survey of the changes that have overtaken his beloved Nantucket in a generation - you don’t necessarily have to go far to achieve something memorable. You just have to be able to see things in a different way.
They share, I think, one other outstanding quality: a penetrating curiosity, an almost compulsive desire to experience and try to understand the world at some unfamiliar level. Even when matters are not proceeding smoothly, as in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliantly unsettling account of being stuck in the middle of nowhere in Africa or Patrick Symmes’s no less gripping portrayal of a run-in with former Khmers Rouges in Cambodia, you have a sense that these authors would not have traded their experiences for anything. In nearly every case, you feel that if it were not for the mildly irksome need to return to civilization to file their stories, they would just have kept on going.
The fact is, of course, that there is an amazing world out there - full of interesting, delightful, unexpected, extraordinary stuff that most of us know little about and consider much too seldom. Turn the page and I promise you will begin to see what I mean.
Introduction copyright ©2000 by Bill Bryson
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Meet the Author
JASON WILSON, series editor, is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits and the digital wine series Planet of the Grapes. He has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Daily News, and many other publications. He is the founding editor of The Smart Set and Table Matters.
BILL BRYSON is the best-selling author of A Walk in the Woods, A Short History of Nearly Everything and numerous other books.
- Hanover, New Hampshire
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- Des Moines, Iowa
- B.A., Drake University, 1977
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Lots of variety is key in this collection of essays. A book for the adventuresome mind--tales of dangerous travel in forbidden countries as well as some narratives on more touristy places. I loved it, it was an eye-opener. Great for bedtime stories.