Debating ‘What’s Left to Discover and What Should Be Left Undiscovered’

Travel Blog  •  Tom Swick  •  01.11.06 | 6:58 AM ET

imageSaturday morning I stepped out of my Key West B&B and felt a chilly breeze. I had often thought that I personally brought unseasonable weather to a place (almost never unseasonably good weather) but now I wondered if it was maybe travel writers in general.

The morning panel was titled “What’s Left to Discover and What Should Be Left Undiscovered.” Barry Lopez spoke with disdain of “trinket collectors” who travel not with a “pilgrim’s mind” but with a “collector’s mind.” It must have been a difficult stroll for him down Duval Street every morning. He confessed (bragged?) that he had sometimes written about places and given wrong directions on how to get to them.

Tony Horwitz took a less righteous view, suggesting that there are ways to write about a place so that people feel they don’t have to go there. Indeed, I thought, isn’t that the very definition of great travel writing?

Kira Salak declared that, since “the world was largely discovered by white males, there’s a whole world for women to discover.” But what color, I asked myself? She added that “women haven’t been allowed to travel until very recently,” and I wondered if she had never heard of Mary Kingsley or Freya Stark or, though not an adventurer, perhaps the greatest American woman travel writer: Kate Simon.

In the afternoon, Lopez returned for a conversation with Pico Iyer. Every time Pico took the stage there was electricity in the air. “Listening to him speak is like watching a ballet,” my colleague, book critic Chauncey Mabe said. Or, I thought, gazing at a high wire artist. The Philippe Petit of modern letters.

Pico and Lopez made an intriguing pair: both possessing great sensitivity but coming to it from very different angles, which they at one point listed: Lopez was rooted in the past, Pico was fascinated by the present; Lopez lived in the natural world, Pico in the “unnatural world” (the synthetic or artificial world; a world, I thought, in which his adopted home, Japan, seems to excel). To these they could have added the qualities of earnestness and wit, pomposity and self-deprecation, a revolutionary and a mystic. Lopez talked about a new, unofficial movement for a civil society that has started, and the need for travel writers to be socially responsible. Pico said that he was not very good at proselytizing; that he preferred to search for peace within himself and then hope that that would permeate his writing and then, perhaps, affect others. (You hate to paraphrase Pico because you know he said it ten times better.) And all through this the audience, as if eavesdropping on a private conversation in someone’s living room, sat rapt.

Afterwards, a woman I know from Aventura told me: “I want a Pico Iyer at home. Not him, but a wind-up toy of him.” And why not, I thought? If Nancy Pearl can get an action figure why not a wind-up Pico? Or at least a bobble head doll? (Google “bobble head,” as I just did, and the first name that comes up is Martin Luther. And now say “google bobble” three times fast.)

Outside I found Rolf Potts talking to Chauncey. Rolf told of how, when he lived in Thailand, he would meet American travelers who showed great sensitivity to the local culture and then, when they learned that he was from Kansas, expressed the worst stereotypes about the Midwest.

An attractive woman introduced herself. “You rejected me once,” she said. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was a story about traveling with my mother on a cruise ship.” “Yes, I remember it.” It’s so much easier to reject people when you can’t see them.

In the evening I returned to my B&B and put on a sweater and my Polish tweed sportcoat. Coming out of my room I ran into Dervla. I told her I’d walk with her to her talk. “Oh, don’t,” she said, in her Irish accent. “You won’t miss anything. I detest public speaking.”

She had exchanged the Cuba T-shirt for one of Che. “Do you always walk this fast?” I asked. We were doing what I, a proponent of slow travel, considered a rigorous power walk. “This isn’t fahst,” she said.

The cud of a camel, we learned from Tim Cahill’s talk, has a disturbing resemblance, in both color and consistency, to key lime pie.

Later, at the champagne reception at the museum of art and history, a small group of locals gathered a small group of visitors to show them the town. The first stop was a strip club on Duval Street. I thought of it as research; a lot of the strippers, one of the local women told me, are Czech.

And sure enough, the first two strippers I talked to were Czech. The third was Russian. Later, a stripper sidled up to me.

“You look very erudite,” she said.

I looked at her. “That’s a very good word.”

“I’m American,” she said.

And people wonder why I write nonfiction.

We left and walked down Duval to a transvestite show. It was sold out. We backtracked and stopped at a gay bar. Young men in sneakers and jockey shorts danced on the bar. The elastic bands of their underwear glowed in the light. I asked one of the local women if she enjoyed this kind of thing.

“The only man I want to see naked,” she said, “is my boyfriend.” I didn’t take it personally.

We moved on to Virgilio’s and then to the Green Parrot. I recognized a woman at the bar from the literary seminar. She was a high school teacher. Used to teach Barry Lopez to her students, she said, but after hearing him speak she thought she might take him off the reading list.

I talked to one of our guides, a young man who worked as a nature guide. “I sent you a story once,” he said. “You rejected it.”

—South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick will be guest blogging all this week.

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.

3 Comments for Debating ‘What’s Left to Discover and What Should Be Left Undiscovered’

Julia Ross 01.11.06 | 12:32 PM ET

Nice job Tom - I’m finding these dispatches highly entertaining. And you’ve sold me on Pico - if he ever sweeps through DC, I’ll be the first in line.

Mariella N. Bonnivert 01.12.06 | 6:34 AM ET

Hi again, Tom - you seem to keep running into people you rejected stories from quite often… and what a sad evenning for someone who looks like the son of a preacher man like you… ;) I wish I could have attended this seminar though, I would have loved to listen to Pico Iyer. So thanks for the insighful info on the people who were attending. Very informative.  Thanks for sharing.

LJK 01.13.06 | 6:18 PM ET

Tom looks like the son of a preacher man? Gosh…and here I was thinking that all he looked was…very erudite….

Good job on the columns Tom.  Will miss your dispatches….

Invite him back, someone…

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