The Best American Travel Writing 2001by Paul Theroux
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads hundreds of pieces from dozens of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so of the very best pieces by a… See more details below
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads hundreds of pieces from dozens of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so of the very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respectedand most popularof its kind.
This second annual BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING volume is a far-flung collection chosen by travel writer extraordinaire Paul Theroux, a volume that again "favors the unexpected, the unusual and, in some instances, the potentially deadly" with writing that "is packed with punch and purpose" (San Antonio Express). From Lawrence Millman's journey to the time-stilled Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, "where Ulysses is spoken of like a contemporary," to Susan Orlean's experience on Bangkok's Khao San Road, a place that "makes you feel as though it could eat you alive," here is the most remarkable and most challenging travel writing of 2001. Read on for Russell Banks, Pico Iyer, Janet Malcolm, Susan Minot, David Quammen, Salman Rushdie, Edward W. Said, and many more.
Read an Excerpt
I have been sent many odd promotional items by wrongheaded public relations people desperate for me to write about their clients. Nothing, however, has been more misguided than the Kwikpoint® International Translator that I received a few years ago. The Kwikpoint® International Translator is a laminated, legal- sized card, folded three times, with full-color illustrations inside and out. On the front cover, the Kwikpoint® International Translator proclaims: "Say It with Pictures!"; "Point to Pictures and Make Yourself Understood Anywhere in the World!" Above those proclamations is a cartoon drawing of a tourist, a man with a camera strapped around his neck, seated at a restaurant table. His ignored menu sits beside him on the table and in his hands is a trusty Kwikpoint® International Translator. The man points at a simple illustration of a cup of coffee, while above him, inside his cartoon dialogue bubble, the same image of a cup of coffee is rendered. Meanwhile, the smiling waitress stands before him and dutifully writes down his order. In her cartoon thought bubble is the exact same image of a cup of coffee. The cartoon's message is clear: An international crisis has just been averted. Without ever having to learn that pesky foreign word for coffee, our tourist friend has successfully conveyed his beverage choice to the smiling waitress, who has understood him even though she's made it very difficult for our friend by not speaking his language. But coffee isn't the only image that the Kwikpoint® International Translator provides. Open the thing up and there are hundreds of tiny pictures for the tourist to point at, and presumably resolve any situation that might arise. There are, of course, images for police, fire, hospital, pharmacy, currency exchange, hotel, train station, toothpaste, and the red-circle-with-a-slash international sign for "No." But there are also more advanced images for specific needs massage, diving equipment, casino games, squat toilet, male and female contraceptives, jumper cables, pipe-smoking supplies, poached egg, frog legs, life preserver. By following the guide at the bottom of the page, you can create compound ideas. Pointing at a glass of ice cubes plus a cup of coffee would equal iced coffee, for instance. Pointing to the red-circle-with-a-slash plus a jar of mustard equals "No Mustard." Almost as an afterthought, in tiny letters, at the very bottom of the back page, the following advice is printed: "Learn a few key words in the local language: Yes, No, Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, Please, Love, Peace." I believe that we have reached a very strange place in the evolution of travel when a product like the Kwikpoint® International Translator appears. And I can't help but feel sorry for the person who feels compelled to tuck one of these into his fanny pack, next to his electronic currency converter, just in case he finds himself separated from the tour bus and suddenly in a place where no English is spoken. I don't want to suggest that everyone who plans to travel should learn to speak a new language in order to do so. Nor do I want to get into another silly debate about what separates a "real traveler" from someone who's "simply a tourist" I happen to agree with Paul Fussell, who, in his seminal book Abroad, wrote: "We are all tourists now, and there is no escape." I bring up the Kwikpoint® International Translator here because it strikes me as the antithesis of what travel is supposed to be. The person who uses this item is a person who, at worst, has an absolute, almost colonial, need to exert control over any people, place, or situation he encounters. The message: I can't understand a word you're saying, but it doesn't matter, because I can point to a picture of pancakes and syrup, and you will fetch it for me. At best, the person who uses the Kwikpoint® International Translator is sadly incapable of leaving any part of his trip to serendipity. He deprives himself of the full experience that travel offers. "Strolling through the marketplace of travel opportunities, one cannot help but recognize that preparedness has become an obsession," writes Edwin Dobbs, observing the proliferation of travel guides and packaged tours in "Where the Good Begins," an essay published several years ago in Harper's. This obsession with preparedness is perhaps part of a larger obsession in our society: to eradicate fear, from every situation and at all costs. But fear and travel nearly always go hand in hand. "Without fear, travel has no meaning," writes Keath Fraser in the introduction to the anthology Bad Trips. "In the finest travel writing the storyteller resolves his fears through the catharsis of narrative." Dobbs, in his essay, says that to travel well, "one must court difference." While certainly far from the only barometers of great travel writing, these are very good places to start. Most often, the fear is simply of the unknown. And since the unknown differs so wildly from person to person, it's one of the reasons why travel writing is a rich genre. An experienced adventurer like Scott Anderson may be at home in war zones and, as his humorous and poignant memoir in this collection shows, it may take the odd brush with a land mine for fear finally to rush in. But your bookish relative from a small town in Minnesota who has never been to Europe may also travel well if he courts difference and embraces fear and allows the world to work its magic while observing intently. Over thirty years ago, that relative my father's cousin Bob, in this case arrived in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese. On his first night in town, he found himself in a restaurant, unable to read the menu. The waiter, finally exasperated with Bob's linguistic attempts, sat him at a table with a young, well- dressed Portuguese man, who spoke just enough English to help Bob order his dinner. Though the two men could barely communicate, they struck up a friendship, and continued to dine together for the next three nights. The young man took Bob to wonderful, hidden, traditional restaurants in the gothic streets of the Bairro Alto, where they both ate heartily and the young man never let Bob pay for his meals. The dinner conversation never got beyond the basics, but over several evenings Bob learned that the young man had once lived in Lisbon, but no longer did, and that these restaurants had once been his family's favorites. On their last night together, the man became very serious and teary, and tried to explain something important to Bob. But in the end, the language gap was too great. Several months later, after Bob had returned home from his European tour, he received a letter, in Portuguese. He presumed it was from the young man he'd met, but the postmark was from South America. Unable to read the letter, he threw it in a drawer, and didn't pick it up again until many years later, when he found it and asked a Brazilian friend to translate. The translation was heartbreaking. The letter had not, in fact, come from the young man, but instead from his wife. She explained that the young man had died soon after their dinners together. His wife went on to write that the young man had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, with only a few months to live. The man's family had been aristocrats of some kind, and lived in exile for many years. He had longed to return to Portugal once again before he died, above all to taste the food of his homeland. She expressed her gratitude to Bob for keeping her husband company during his emotional journey. Bob wept uncontrollably, and suddenly the strange encounter took on the power of a very personal myth. Over dinner last year, Bob told my family this story. Thirty years later, the naive, chance event still brought him to tears at the dinner table. Perhaps it goes without saying that if Bob had been able to point to a picture of a lamb chop on his Kwikpoint® International Translator, this encounter would never have occurred. The wonderful stories that Paul Theroux has chosen for this year's Best American Travel Writing all deal on some level with fear and misadventure and serendipity. That, along with memorable storytelling, gives them power and significance over what generally passes for magazine travel writing the "overedited, reader-friendly text bowdlerized by fact checkers, published with a layout of breathtaking photographs" that Theroux decries in his introduction. Among the stories inside: Salman Rushdie returns to India for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. Gretel Ehrlich fights cold and hunger on a hunting trip with an Inuit family in Greenland. Susan Minot seeks the truth about the abducted children of Uganda. Philip Caputo treks Kenya's Tsavo National Park among its notorious "man-eating" lions. Andrew Cockburn enters an Iran that now welcomes visitors from America. Michael Finkel stows away on a Haitian refugee boat. Russell Banks confronts Aconcagua, the Andes' highest peak, as well as himself and at a climactic moment in the story, he remembers this telling quotation from Rilke's Duino Elegies: "Every angel is terrifying." While many of the stories here deal with serious and gripping topics, there is no lack of humor to be found in this collection. Peter Hessler is robbed in his Chinese hotel room in the first line of his story "View from the Bridge." Yet Hessler maintains his great sense of humor and wit throughout. "Li Peng gave me free food and drinks at the beer garden," he writes. "I had become a local celebrity the Foreigner Who Broke His Finger Fighting the Thief." Ian Frazier searches out Charles Manson's desert hideaway after tiring of golf in Death Valley. Susan Orlean hangs with the international mélange of backpackers on Bangkok's funky Khao San Road. I think it's safe to say that none of the writers in this collection would ever be caught dead with a Kwikpoint® International Translator in his travel bag. The stories included in this anthology are selected from among hundreds of stories in hundreds of diverse publications from mainstream and specialty magazines to Sunday newspaper travel sections to literary journals to in-flight magazines. My eyes are far from perfect, but I have done my best to be fair and representative, and in my opinion the best one hundred travel stories from the year 2000 were forwarded to Paul Theroux, who made the final selections. And so with this publication, I begin anew by reading the hundreds of stories published in 2001. It was an honor to work with Paul Theroux, whose work I have long admired. I want to thank him, and would like to mention that much of the work for this collection happened as Paul was preparing to make a lengthy and difficult journey from Cairo to Cape Town. I enormously appreciate his efforts in the weeks preceding this trip. I would also like to thank Tammy Powley for her invaluable assistance on this year's anthology, as well as the people at Houghton Mifflin who helped put this anthology together: Deanne Urmy, Liz Duvall, Ryan Boyle, Don Hymans, and Janet Silver. But, of course, the writers included here deserve the greatest praise. The Best American Travel Writing is dedicated, as always, to them. Jason Wilson
Meet the Author
Jason Wilson is the drinks columnist at the Washington Post, the series editor of The Smart Set , and the author of Boozehound: On The Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated . He teaches at Drexel University.
PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include A Dead Hand and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari . He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >