The Best American Travel Writing 2001

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9780618118786: The Best American Travel Writing 2001

Already a best-selling addition to the series, this year’s Best American Travel Writing is a far-flung collection chosen by travel writer extraordinaire Paul Theroux, who has selected pieces about “the spell in the wilderness, the letter home from foreign parts, the dangerous adventure, the sentimental journey, the exposé, the shocking revelation, the eyewitness report, the ordeal, the quest . . . Travel is an attitude, a state of mind.” Theroux’s most recent novel is Hotel Honolulu.

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About the Author:

Jason Wilson is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. His next book, Godforsaken Grapes, will be published by Abrams Press in spring 2018. Wilson has been the series editor of The Best American Travel Writing since its inception in 2000.

 

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River 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 Cape Cod.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword
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. I am once again asking editors
and writers to submit the best of whatever it is they define
as "travel writing." These submissions must be nonfiction, published
in the United States during the 2001 calendar year. They must not be
reprints of excerpts from published books. They must include the
author"s name, date of publication, and publication name, and must be
submitted as tear sheets, a copy of the complete publication, or a
clear photocopy of the piece as it originally appeared. I must
receive all submissions by January 30, 2002, in order to ensure full
consideration for the next collection. Further, publications that
want to make certain their contributions will be considered for the
next edition should make sure to include this anthology on their
subscription list. Submissions or subscriptions should be sent to
Jason Wilson, The Best American Travel Writing, P.O. Box 260,
Haddonfield, New Jersey 08033.
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

Introduction
It is not hyperbole to say there are no Edens anymore: we live on a
violated planet. Travelers are witnesses to change and decay, and
when they write we are entertained and sometimes enlightened. But the
mode of expression, like the world, has changed.
In the past it was fairly easy to describe travel writing. An
intrepid person — say, Isabella Bird or Sir Richard Burton — went on
a long trip to a remote place and wrote about it. Bird produced nine
books, her subjects ranging from Kurdistan to Hawaii. Burton traveled
to this hemisphere and so did his compatriots Trollope and Dickens;
American writers went in the opposite direction — Emerson, Twain, and
James to Europe. Many others set sail. The books reflected the
traveler"s personality and literary style as much as the journey.
American Notes is Dickensian, English Hours is Jamesian. Even Henry
David Thoreau, who scorned foreign travel, wrote magazine pieces
about his jaunts to Cape Cod and Maine. So much for the nineteenth
century, a time when much of the prowled-upon world still awaited
discovery.
Bridging the gap between these writers and those of the
1930s — the next great traveling era — is Kipling as well as the
underrated traveler Somerset Maugham, notably in The Gentleman in the
Parlor, about his trek through Southeast Asia. This in-between era
also saw some subtle works of travel-exploration, such as Fridtjof
Nansen"s about the Arctic and Apsley Cherry-Garrard"s about
Antarctica. There were also curiosities by such accidental travelers
as E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerly, who like Kipling (d. 1936) lived
on well into the twentieth century. Some critics assert (mistakenly,
I think) that the thirties produced the best travel books. The
rationale is that it was a time when, as Evelyn Waugh wrote, "the
going was good." This implied exoticism, escapism, no passports
necessary — unlimited access in Mexico, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere
for Waugh, Peter Fleming, Graham Greene, Robert Byron, and others.
Greene was seeing hidden Mexico, Waugh was observing deepest
Abyssinia, Fleming was bushwhacking in Brazil and China — exuberant
writers traveling off the map.
It is true that Waugh"s Remote People and Byron"s Road to
Oxiana are marvelous books, but they are of their time. Every age
offers its own peculiar destinations and modes of reaching them, the
work of the travelers always reflecting that peculiarity. It goes
almost without saying that Greene would not be walking through the
anarchic and bloody hinterland of Liberia today with his young cousin
Barbara. Journey Without Maps, difficult hike that it was, would be a
nightmare now.
In postwar traveling, there has been more latitude and less
luxury, but still a sense of adventure and high spirits — Rebecca
West, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell are transitional figures,
not so lig...

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