Not a Tourist

Tom Swick: On the evolving role of the travel writer in the age of mass tourism and YouTube

03.22.10 | 12:06 PM ET


Row 24, seats A, B, and C.

The young woman by the window turns to the man in the middle and smiles. He smoothes her hair and tells her she is going to love his city. Not even off the ground, and they have already created a private lair in the still-upright theater of coach.

The man in the aisle seat immediately experiences feelings of exclusion, envy, and inadequacy. Travel, most people believe, is best when shared—an attitude that makes the solitary traveler one of life’s losers.

Just in time, the man in the aisle seat reminds himself that he is not a loser. He is a travel writer. He will not be engaged in the superficial pursuits of tourists but in the difficult task of trying to make sense of an alien culture. He looks over somewhat pityingly at the couple now discussing an evening trip to the casino.

Once the plane is airborne, he glances across the aisle at the woman sitting with an open laptop. He overhears her tell her neighbor that she is a public health expert going to fight malaria. She would present an affront to a businessman’s sense of importance. The travel writer leans back with a grimace, caught in the eternal no-man’s land between pleasure and purpose.

The travel writer, when thought of at all, is regarded as a charmed figure, never stymied in front of a customs officer or a computer screen. The travel writer, when he reflects, sees himself as aimless, clueless but nevertheless underappreciated.

He picks a destination, or is assigned one, and often it’s a place he’s never been. Before departure he reads travel books, history books, relevant novels—even learns a few words of the language—but he remains hopelessly behind the humbling crowds of specialists, anthropologists, diplomats, field workers, exchange students, business travelers, expatriates, flight crews, and repeat vacationers who have preceded him.

So he scrunches into seat 24C, furiously skimming the guidebook he didn’t quite get to during his pre-trip preparations. A long flight is an opportunity to cram, a seat-belted all-nighter. There will be a test in the morning.

After the landing, the lovebirds and the do-gooder and all the other passengers disappear in a rush to restart their lives, and the strangeness of the travel writer’s surroundings distracts him from the fact that he doesn’t have one. At least not here, not yet.

Why didn’t he bring his wife, or a friend? Some writers don’t want their assignment looking like a lark. Those who embellish their accounts understandably prefer not to have witnesses. Also, going with a like-minded companion makes you susceptible to feelings of cultural superiority. But the real reason to travel alone is to be free from distractions, to be uninterruptedly absorbed in the place.

Those first few hours are always the most vivid, as everything stands out in its immense originality: buildings, people, cars, mannequins. In a few days these props will pass in a near-familiar blur, but now—right now—the world crackles with high-definition details. And in fact there is no test; the day you arrive is more like an orientation film. Tomorrow you begin your work.

I am talking here of narrative travel writers, not the compilers of information for guidebooks. They tend to hit the ground running, pressed as they are for time and money. It is tiring, thankless work, though—if Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? is to be believed—you can skimp on the research and become a kind of note-taking rock star. Sex, drugs, and flora ‘n’ fauna.

The traveler in pursuit of atmosphere and essence has a more elusive task. If all writers are by nature outsiders—standing on the periphery, taking in the action—the travel writer is an outsider times two. He repeatedly ignores the oldest saw of the trade: Write what you know. He is an observer who frequently doesn’t know what he’s observing. A few years ago in Bangkok I walked out of my hotel every morning past men and women hunched over bowls whose contents remained a mystery to me. And I asked myself: How can I know what these people are thinking when I don’t even know what they’re eating?

Audacity didn’t strike me as a job requirement when I chose this career. I was fresh out of college with a desire to be a writer and a conviction that, after a lifetime of school, I had nothing to write about. So I went to France to learn French, and two years later I moved to Poland to marry a woman I had met on my way home from France. Teaching English in Warsaw, I acquired another language and enough experiences (this was the early 1980s, the days of Solidarity and martial law) to write my first book. Living in a foreign country not only gives you a deep understanding of another culture, it introduces you to new ways of being and seeing that are of inestimable value on later journeys.

Yet non-stop observation—even of things you understand—is not enough for the travel writer. After a few days a feeling of futility, not to mention loneliness, sets in. Business travelers have their meetings, aid workers their clinics, tourists their museums. Foreign correspondents are in search of news. Travel writers have no itineraries or obligations (mummies bore us, nobody’s expecting us), and we have no leads, since frequently we don’t know what our story is. In the absence of a special event, or a specific assignment, we have to find our story, and often it is whatever happens to us.

So we wander, mosey, poke around. This is another reason we go alone: We don’t have to explain to anyone what it is we think we’re doing. A lot of travel writing is creative hanging out. And, inevitably, it looks pretty pointless.

But we’re hoping for an incident or a character or even a calamity that can become our subject. The worst trips, it is famously said, make the best stories, a philosophy that fuels the trend in adventure travel. Risk—its heated build-up and colorful consequences—is an irresistible subject. The problem with much of the writing that results is that it’s heavy on personal rather than worldly insight, portraying not the place but the author’s mettle. A beautiful exception is Joe Kane’s Running the Amazon, which shifts back and forth between gripping accounts of kayaking the length of the world’s largest river and evocative depictions of the lands passed through.

Unlike the adventurers, who have a quest, the rest of us struggle with definition. We are not tourists, though we share their transport, their hotels, their intoxication with the new. Shunning the tour groups, we traipse through neighborhoods and sit in bars and inadvertently make ourselves even more out of place. We are engaged in work that looks a lot like play—even to us. But it lacks play’s essential carefree quality. A story has to result. And it weighs on us, this knowledge, along with the idea of our impertinent existence.

But we press on, watching people with purpose go through their day, remembering friends back home who said they’ve always dreamed of visiting the place where we now schlep. And without any prompting, we think of Bruce Chatwin—not his 1977 masterpiece, “In Patagonia,” but his posthumous collection, What Am I Doing Here.

It is one of the most perfect titles in the history of travel writing, but it could only have graced the cover of a modern travel book. The first travel writers entertained no such uncertainty about their mission. They followed in the footsteps of the explorers, or were explorers themselves. Their objective was clear: to describe to the folks back home an unknown world.

In the 19th century, travel writing became more personal. Alexander Kinglake, in “Eothen,” described not only how the Middle East looked, but also how it felt. To enliven “The Bible in Spain,” George Borrow hung out with Gypsies, theirs being one of the handful of languages he spoke. These writers were joined by others, including novelists—Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain—who brought the imaginative and intuitive skills of their trade.

The 20th century gave us “specialists:” Freya Stark in the Arab world, Norman Douglas in Italy, Gerald Brenan in Spain, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Lawrence Durrell in Greece. Durrell grew up on Corfu and lived on a number of other islands and followed into the field fiction writers like D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who claimed that he preferred “all but the very worst travel books to all but the very best novels.”

Travel writing was one of World War II’s many casualties, and really didn’t engage the general population again until the mid-1970s, when Paul Theroux published The Great Railway Bazaar. Joy-riding on trains through Europe and Asia, the young American novelist boldly ignored the sights and harrumphed about the people. And he made the travel book fashionable again (until it was swept aside by the memoir).

Curiously, the genre’s renaissance coincided with the appearance of its obituary. In 1980, the cultural critic Paul Fussell published “Abroad,” a superb study of British travel and travel writing between the wars that concludes with the pronouncement that the postwar age of tourism killed real travel and, by extension, the writing that was its offspring. It didn’t finish off either, any more than televised baseball brought an end to a day at the ballpark. There is still the authentic experience but, like being a spectator at a game, travel is now altered by its well-recorded popularity.

In an age of mass tourism (and YouTube), the travel writer’s job has changed. It is not enough anymore simply to describe a landscape; we must root out its meanings. Jonathan Raban, playing the immigrant in “Hunting Mister Heartbreak,” goes shopping in 1980s Manhattan and is struck by the tone of bombastic abundance. “Macy’s was scared stiff of our boredom,” he writes, nailing the frenetic nature of not only an American department store but American capitalism. Writers such as Raban, Colin Thubron, Jan Morris and Pico Iyer each possess, in addition to the requisite eye for detail, an agile and well-stocked mind for synthesis, and their findings are riveting (and often surprising) even to people intimately familiar with their subjects. The physical hardships these writers endure in the course of their journeys often pale in comparison to those of their predecessors—though Thubron continues to travel rough—but the scaled-down suffering is offset by the greater creative challenge.

A somewhat related development has been the emergence of the political travel book. Writers such as Robert Kaplan, who has written about the Balkans and other incendiary places, and Rory Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan in “The Places In Between,” resemble to some extent the doughty adventurers of the past as they go off to lands of conflict and return with a mix of history, description, reportage and analysis.

Sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum—like the pretty cheerleader voted most popular in the class—is the escapist travel book. Peter Mayle sipping pastis in “A Year in Provence” and Frances Mayes rhapsodizing about her garden in “Under the Tuscan Sun” prove Fussell half-right, as they are the age of tourism’s frothy answer to Gerald Brenan’s amateur anthropology in “South from Granada” and Norman Douglas’s raffish erudition in “Siren Land.” People read Mayle and Mayes not to learn about the world but to dream of their own idyllic retirements. More recently, the most popular travel narrative has been “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, the Freya Stark of the Oprah generation in that she circles the globe in search of self-realization.

These books have done a great deal to romanticize the profession. (Tell people that you are paid to travel and write about it and you’ll be greeted by exclamations of envy.) They help explain why Raban flatly disassociates himself from the tribe—so emphatically that he now writes novels—and why Theroux once claimed that he does his travel writing with his “left hand.” “Travel writer” may be the one title everyone wants except the people who have it.

We suffer a recurring crisis of confidence. We wonder not just what we’re doing here (wherever “here” is) but how we can ever discover its essence. How can we possibly describe all these faces, all these doorways and shop windows? The scale of every place overwhelms: hundreds of streets we can never walk down, thousands of people—many of them, surely, perfect embodiments of their city’s spirit—we will never meet. A dozen just passed, lost forever. Who, after all, are we to pronounce on this place, and who, outside of our families, cares to hear our pronouncements? Why bother describing in words what can be seen in a video?

Miraculously, these doubts vanish when observation gives way to participation.

My first trip “on assignment” was to Spain and Portugal. It was October 1989, two months after I had taken a job as travel editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. (I had never thought of living in Florida, but I had long dreamed of traveling for a living.) For two weeks I walked the streets—Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Lisbon—ate in the restaurants, took in the sights. I was always alone and painfully aware that something was missing. Desperate in Coimbra, I went to the university English department and accosted the first person I saw. This turned out to be Bibi, a woman from Rotterdam who was spending a semester teaching Dutch. At a nearby cafe she told me about her friend in Lisbon, a poet named Casimiro whom I should call when I returned there.

Casimiro invited me to dinner, after which we went to a bar for fado music. On my solitary strolls I had passed numerous restaurants advertising “folklorique evenings;” this wasn’t one of them. It was a smoky dive, full of what looked like stevedores sitting at long tables before a gaunt guitarist perched on a stool. Occasionally a lone brute would stand up and belt out a song of outstanding melancholy. Casimiro translated. “It smells of Lisbon,” he said after one almost upbeat number. “It smells of flowers and the sea.”

That night I learned how to travel as a travel writer: You approximate, as best you can, in the short time allotted you, the life of a local.

And this is achieved through personal encounters. It is something the adventure writers often miss. Everyone can climb Kilimanjaro, or at least attempt to. They will all, for sure, have their own individual responses to the experience, but they all go up the same mountain. Whereas the person you meet in your travels is yours alone (provided you avoid the cliche of writing about your guide or your taxi driver or your hotel receptionist).

In addition to uniqueness, residents give you a sense of the present (as opposed to museums and monuments, which are all about the past). It’s extremely difficult, and usually presumptuous, to write about a place without meeting and talking to the people who live there. This was Steinbeck’s mistake in “Travels with Charley,” the book about his 1960 road trip around the United States with his pet poodle. Even a dog can hold you back.

People also provide, occasionally, an emotional dimension. In “Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey,” Janet Malcolm goes to Russia and comes to the realization that travel is an inherently “low-key emotional experience.” This runs counter to the popular perception of the activity, which elicits—not just in advertisements but, sadly, in many travel articles—words like “adventure,” “excitement,” “romance.” But, Malcolm argues, most tourists aren’t doing anything exciting or romantic; they are passive observers—visiting cathedrals, looking at paintings—and are less engaged than they are on a typical Monday at home.

Even when I’m in search of a story, many of my trips are uneventful. But it does sometimes happen that I find good people, learn new things, participate in the life of a place. And there are times—like unexpected gifts—when the people become friends, the information becomes insight, the participation becomes engagement; I develop an emotional attachment to the place. And then I think: It’s not the worst trips that make the best stories, it’s the best trips.

Row 37, seats J, K, and L. The teen slumped against the window is snoring loudly, and the man in the middle weighs 300 pounds. Nevertheless, the woman in the aisle seat leans back and smiles. She is a travel writer, and for the first time in a long while she has nothing to do. The place she obsessed about for months has disappeared beneath the clouds. All the anxiety she felt on the flight over is now replaced by exhausted elation (especially if her notebook is full). She luxuriates in the lull between legwork and composition.

The feeling of contentment doesn’t last long. At her computer the old doubt returns, though this time it’s not stirred by the confusion of the new. The chaos of travel has given way to the order of home. She is, as one never is on the road, in control. Her late-night stumble into a slum is rendered calmly, with carefully weighed words.

Yet even when those words are flowing, uncertainty creeps in. What am I doing here? becomes, in its domestic form, Why am I writing this?

It sometimes seems that as more people go out into the world, there is less interest in reading about the world. How else to explain the decline of the travel book in the age of globalization? True, there has been a concurrent rise in travel blogs, but these seem to be, for the most part, cyberspace’s version of the vacation slides people used to inflict on friends.

For some time now, the travel writer has been viewed as a kind of subspecies. Few modern travel books, with the exception of Chatwin’s, have been heralded as literature. Travel writing courses are rarely included in creative writing programs (an omission that may work to the genre’s advantage). Magazines and newspaper sections devoted to travel are mostly unreadable, having moved over the years from gushing boosterism to drab consumerism.

And yet, good travel writing continues to be written and published. Each autumn “The Best American Travel Writing” appears like a national health report confirming the surprising robustness of the genre. A few of the stories in this annual anthology are found hidden between resort ads in the travel glossies, but most are plucked from the less sumptuous pages of general-interest magazines and literary quarterlies and websites.

The best writers in the field bring to it an indefatigable curiosity, a fierce intelligence that enables them to interpret, and a generous heart that allows them to connect. Without resorting to invention, they make ample use of their imaginations. They do what many of their compatriots find impossible: they speak another language (or two). They have a solid grounding in history, culture, religion, politics, economics, architecture, food, plants. You would think this wide range of knowledge would earn travel writers respect (if not a loyal following), but in an age of specialization it tends to do the opposite, painting them as irrelevant generalists.

The travel book itself has a similar grab bag quality. It incorporates the characters and plot line of a novel, the descriptive power of poetry, the substance of a history lesson, the discursiveness of an essay, and the—often inadvertent—self-revelation of a memoir. It revels in the particular while occasionally illuminating the universal. It colors and shapes and fills in gaps. Because it results from displacement, it is frequently funny. It takes readers for a spin (and shows them, usually, how lucky they are). It humanizes the alien. More often than not it celebrates the unsung. It uncovers truths that are stranger than fiction. It gives eyewitness proof of life’s infinite possibilities.

This is why you write it.

This essay first appeared in The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

37 Comments for Not a Tourist

Rob 03.22.10 | 1:53 PM ET

The travel book itself has a similar grab bag quality. It incorporates the characters and plot line of a novel, the descriptive power of poetry, the substance of a history lesson, the discursiveness of an essay, and the—often inadvertent—self-revelation of a memoir. It revels in the particular while occasionally illuminating the universal. It colors and shapes and fills in gaps. Because it results from displacement, it is frequently funny. It takes readers for a spin (and shows them, usually, how lucky they are). It humanizes the alien. More often than not it celebrates the unsung. It uncovers truths that are stranger than fiction. It gives eyewitness proof of life’s infinite possibilities.

As succinct and as perfect an encapsulation of travel writing as I think is possible :)

Global Granny 03.22.10 | 6:28 PM ET

“A lot of travel writing is creative hanging out.”

Though I surely don’t presume to be a travel writer - I rather like the notion that my solo travels are simply random bouts of “creative hanging out”. ;)

pam 03.22.10 | 10:06 PM ET

“True, there has been a concurrent rise in travel blogs, but these seem to be, for the most part, cyberspace’s version of the vacation slides people used to inflict on friends.”

Ouch. Man, that’s a painful truth.

Duncan Fallowell 03.23.10 | 5:44 AM ET

The sort of travel writing worth talking about is literature and a branch of autobiography, not a guidebook service. Creative hanging out is what an artist or writer does. It is how the mind of the species grows.

Duncan Fallowell 03.23.10 | 5:46 AM ET

The sort of travel writing worth discussing is a branch of autobiography and part of literature, not a guidebook service. Creative hanging out is what an artist or writer does. Literature is how the mind of the species grows.

david chase 03.23.10 | 9:50 AM ET

Here is a different sort of travel writing:

Kevin 03.23.10 | 9:57 AM ET

Bravo, Duncan. I could not agree more. Older travel writing, in particular, is interesting precisely because it was done not by professional “travel writers”, but by writers who traveled;  see, for instance, William Beckford’s accounts of his visits to Portuguese monasteries.

By the way, are you the Duncan Fallowell that used to work with the German band Can? Small worlds, if so!

Charlie Cobb 03.23.10 | 10:34 AM ET

One thing that’s true is that travel, especially with good but loose guidance, can be an important learning experience.

Ramesh Raghuvanshi 03.23.10 | 10:43 AM ET

Most travel writer are writing boring,some exaggerated some instead of describe place in interesting way writing their autobiography. some are prejudice of any nation and their people Very few writing their travel experiences interesting way. V.S. Naipaul,Somerset Mom I liked , because both are interested in man and his behaviour. Reader expect from travel write tell the truth in interesting way, when his desire fulfil he wait for that writer`s next book eagerly.

Skeebins 03.23.10 | 1:00 PM ET

Sweet mother of f*** was that a soporific bit of tripe.

Duncan Fallowell 03.23.10 | 1:40 PM ET

Well done, Kevin. Yes, I am that Duncan Fallowell - and also the author of three travel books.

Duncan Fallowell 03.23.10 | 1:42 PM ET

And here’s the website:

Anup Sekhar 03.23.10 | 3:02 PM ET

Fabulous essay on the genre. It would have been a whole different world for travel writing if Bruce Chatwin had access to Twitter while traveling through Patagonia: “Crossing into Chile. Now.”

Hunter 03.24.10 | 4:13 AM ET

I think that there is a very large difference between the experience of touring around a different country and living there and learning the language. The former is an amusing way to pass the time while the latter can give you a completely new perspective on your life.

Duncan Fallowell 03.24.10 | 6:41 AM ET

To view a country without being familiar with it can give a curiously objective Martian view. One sees things which those who’ve ‘gone native’ are unable to see.

Hunter 03.24.10 | 6:52 AM ET

That’s very true, but you often miss 90% of what is going on unless you are very familiar with the history and culture of the place which is generally achieved only if you live there.

Duncan Fallowell 03.24.10 | 7:26 AM ET

It depends what you’re there for. For me, as a writer, unmediated first impressions are vitally important. I do most of my background reading afterwards. 03.24.10 | 9:05 AM ET

Great article!  Most travel writers are solo-travelers.  Yes, they do shun the tourist groups and “touristy” spots.  However, without the tourists some places wouldn’t survive.  Their economy depends on tourism. 

Many travel writers travel because they want an experience that will stretch their mind, body, and soul.  Perhaps their story will enlighten others about a particular place on Earth.  Travel writers climb mountains and sleep on the hard ground to get a story and photograph that will tell a compelling story.  There’s nothing wrong with writing a guidebook, but a narrative travel story shows the true nature of a place.

Lindsay 03.24.10 | 1:43 PM ET

Wow…great piece, I totally get it but I have to say… “SMUG much?”

Pat 03.24.10 | 6:05 PM ET

Wonderful, perceptive piece. Thank you Tom Swick.
My fave travel book of recents years is Matthew Thompson’s “My Colombian Death”.
It comes across like literature and Thompson certainly hangs out with the locals! Crack houses, gang-bangers, mind-warping drugs, etc.
Here’s the website:

Pat 03.24.10 | 6:10 PM ET

Does Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” count as travel writing?

Pat 03.24.10 | 6:36 PM ET

I like too the travel writing that has some weird purpose or aim to it, like Jon Ronson’s “Them”.

Mikeachim 03.24.10 | 10:06 PM ET

Gorgeous. Thank you, Tom.

I can’t believe the demand for travel-writing, *true* travel-writing will wane, as some people are gloomily predicting, citing the current pulling-in-of-horns across the travel industry as a whole. As you note, the writing quality seems to the thriving. It’s popular literature (without the negative connotations sometimes attached to both those words). It’ll forever be fashionable.

But there’s definitely a growing glut of sloppily written, flatly factual writing on the Web masquerading as travel-writing that is going to confuse things no end. The more that’s given credence by marketing bods hungry for traffic above all else, the more the popular definition of travel-writing is going to get muddied.

That won’t affect the good stuff destined for immortality. But it’s going to confuse the hell out of writers fresh to the discipline.

Jason Thomas Norman Murphy 03.25.10 | 3:17 AM ET

I never heard of an anthology of the best travel writing.  The only kind I was aware of was the mush, the revolting unreadable commercial blah, that gets delivered in every Saturday’s paper.

And so I made the first of the two conclusions that you make above:  (after Tolstoy) that happy travels are all alike, every unhappy travel in unhappy in its own way.  When I get back from a trip, I sort out the happiest moments and resolve to never bore anyone with them.  The times I felt worst will be the times that make good tales.  See here:

The conclusion I hadn’t reached myself, but definitely agree with, is that living like a local is the best way to make each town unique.  No local would visit a different Cathedral every morning, and a different market selling the same shit every afternoon.  To have fun, You gotta, gotta, put the lonely planet aside.  The best memories I have of Russia were after running into locals and ending up in odd, dangerous and out of the way places.

Duncan Fallowell 03.25.10 | 8:52 AM ET

I lived with Russians in St Petersburg. They couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Russian. It was so revealing! We got down to brass tacks - and had a dictionary between us.

Alexis Grant 03.25.10 | 3:39 PM ET

Great piece that got me thinking. I love this line: “It is not enough anymore simply to describe a landscape; we must root out its meanings.” Thanks!

The Traveling Writer blog:

David Page 03.25.10 | 5:38 PM ET

Wonderful essay, Tom. Beautifully put together. Made me think also of James Salter’s There and Then collection (with its apt subtitle: Travel writing is something you do for the money, not a lot of money, but the working conditions can be pleasant…). Thanks for posting!

Frans 03.25.10 | 8:48 PM ET

Nice insights. I liked reading it but today i encountered this blog and it grapped me.

Jeremy Head 03.26.10 | 8:04 AM ET

For me this piece really illustrates why writing like this isn’t valued as much these days. I couldn’t believe how LONG it was. Interesting yes, but appropriate for web with its short attention span? Absolutely NOT. That could well mean I am a bit shallow, but personally I’d have cut the piece to a quarter its length before publishing it on-line. Does anyone else agree? (Or to put it another way, as we spend more time on-line and less reading books and magazines, longer pieces like this - no matter how well considered and written - will be read by fewer and fewer people.

Leslie Gaines Clague 03.27.10 | 2:53 AM ET

Thank you Tom Swick. As a former travel journalist, I think you’ve nailed it.

Mikeachim 03.27.10 | 12:40 PM ET

@Jeremy Head

Agree and disagree. What on earth would you cut without losing what was being said? I agree, the online fashion is for short pieces, 300-500 words and the like. But tight writing is independent of length. This was a long piece, but I don’t reckon there was any fat to trim (not that I should be any kind of judge of writing as good as this).

Isn’t it a relief to really sit down and immerse yourself in a piece of writing, instead of doing the flit & sip channel-surfing style of reading that we’re (patronisingly?) told is just the way people are when they’re online? Isn’t a lack of longer, more in-depth pieces the cause of that short attention span? And isn’t that a contributing factor in the development of “cyberspace’s version of the vacation slides people used to inflict on friends”, as Tom puts it?

Walter P Komarnicki 03.27.10 | 8:02 PM ET

it reminds me of photographer Diane Arbus who said: “What I have never experienced, that’s what I recognize.”

The frisson of seeing the alien become familiar.

Or a bit like life imitating art imitating life.

Jasmine Wanders 03.28.10 | 11:16 PM ET

“Yet non-stop observation—even of things you understand—is not enough for the travel writer. After a few days a feeling of futility, not to mention loneliness, sets in. Business travelers have their meetings, aid workers their clinics, tourists their museums. Foreign correspondents are in search of news. Travel writers have no itineraries or obligations (mummies bore us, nobody’s expecting us), and we have no leads, since frequently we don’t know what our story is. In the absence of a special event, or a specific assignment, we have to find our story, and often it is whatever happens to us.”

Though not a real travel writer myself, as a long-term traveler I can relate to this… for me, it’s like show up somewhere, see if I meet interesting people, if I like the vibe of a place, if I can see myself there for awhile, then try to build a life, again and again and again.  Like you, it depends on what happens to me :)

Ashoke Dasgupta 03.30.10 | 11:49 PM ET

I’ve only been in three countries outside my homeland so it may be a case of sour grapes, but I agree with the saying, “It is not worthwhile to travel around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” I lived, worked and studied in the four countries I’ve been in, so feel I came away with some meaningful experience and knowledge of them.

Steve 04.02.10 | 9:45 PM ET

Why does 90% of the content on WorldHum take place in airports or on airplanes. “Row 24, seats A, B, and C.” It’s like a flight that never lands anywhere….is this travel writing?

Patrick Smith 04.12.10 | 7:27 PM ET

Thank you, Tom Swick, for a wonderfully perceptive essay. As a travel writer I’m acutely aware of that outsider’s sense of alienation, the loneliness of travelling alone (especially at dinnertime!) and the fear of coming home without a good story - an anxiety which can itself obscure the new and unexpected. On the other hand, it’s easy to lose objectivity as I slip into whatever experience I’m currently enjoying (a flaw reflected in gaps in my notes). It’s a dilemma faced by any reviewer - be it film, theatre or travel: while part of you sits aside, fearful of missing the telling moments, it’s easy to lose the deeper meaning.

Douglas Arnold 04.18.10 | 12:08 AM ET

As a former CVB director, I’ve met many traveling writers—but few travel writers. So many just touched the superficial side of a destination—never looking below the brochure facade. You could tell immediately if the writer did any prep research, had an understanding of the heritage of the destination or a sense of the “genius loci” of where they ventured.  Some get it and can give it back in their writing.

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