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Travel, the Write Way

An ad in today’s Los Angeles Times proclaims:

Go from no travel

to know travel

Which caught my attention, since it is a major premise behind this blog.

But, for those who know, it isn’t enough to “know” (you know?). Because, as in all things in life, what makes a thing live, what brings it to life, is the how. As in: how the travel is described. How the trek is rendered into words is what makes that place, or event, the people, their practices and beliefs, their paintings and songs and sports and abodes and pets and sartorial styling and favored slang, breathe. Only then does an object of our attention take on dimension, assume texture, radiate color. So, when it comes to travel writing, there is the travel, sure. And the travel is comprised of the sightings and the happenstances and the cadence of the spaces. But there is also that small matter of the writing that brings it all into focus. The words make the places palpable. One without the other and neither can be. Not complete, at least. Not a perfect sum; a satisfactory set; a finished whole.

Imagine that.

Which, when I do, often freezes me fast in my tracks. As in: "Yikes!" What is it that I must do? To explain this place. And how could I ever possibly make it so? And is this really going to be enough? So that you would possibly, truly know.

Which brings us to this reality. As sad as it is true:

The qualities suited to the travel writer's trade have always been contradictory. The mental (and physical) robustness necessary for ambitious travel often excludes the sensitivity to record it, and vice versa. So there are travelers who write, and writers who travel—and they rarely converge in the same person.

This is what Colin Thubron wrote in a recent piece in the The New York Review of Books ("A Prince of the Road," Volume 55, Number 1: January 17, 2008). This he wrote in reference to the travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor. And now I have an explanation for why my peripaticity often fails to yield bon mots, while, at the same time, even as my prose might scintillate, it often fails to capture the inner truth of the adventure encountered.

The trick (which keeps eluding me) lies in metaphysical impossibility as much as intellectual inability. It is this: people want to hear about places that they haven’t been -- or else places that they have -- to know what they might have been missing; but they want to hear it in a way that rings both different and true. People can be unreasonable that way . . . because what they mean by "true" is: "precisely as it is"; and what they mean by "different" is: "never quite before told in that way". A telling that -- can't win for losing – will not duplicate what anyone else has written, but will cut right to the core of the place encountered. As if such pithy, essential distillations grow abundantly and perpetually on trees, free for the casual and effortless picking.

For those of us pluck-meisters, we are confronted with the logical impossibility: how can our audience know what is "true" if they haven't been there? Producing this strain on human capability: if they've already been there, then isn't "different" asking a bit much? Tempting one, perhaps, to traverse the detour of fiction. Unfortunately, we travel writers are all bound by the honor system . . . leading (unfortunately) to a shelf of pedestrian writing, and (thankfully) to the occasional intriguing human drama.

It's kind of like the soccer game I witnessed today. Over here in the U.S. It was an official, amateur affair, with a crowd of no more than thirty sprinkled along the sidelines. In the midst of the game there was an untoward "happening" that, if told right, would likely capture for a cultural outsider precisely what this particular place is like, through the temperament of its people. In short, the perfect fodder for a peripatetique aiming to write a postcard.

What happened was within the group of twenty mid-teen boys – equally divided into colors of navy and white – who were dashing up and down a rutted, muddy-in-splotches, pitch; these players driven by much passion, but little effective purpose. The field that they held was in unequal parts baseball diamond and football practice ground, with soccer goals fixed, as afterthought, at either end. A rectangle of chalk defined the space which the lads generally observed and within which they tried to adhere. The game was as unevenly played as the ground it was set on. And, as it turned out, the referee was as consistent as the surface. So, when he blew two hand ball calls in the space of twenty seconds (which is to say: he didn't blow the whistle on them) it didn’t really surprise anyone, but it did definitely alter the complexion of the game. It also elicited a stream of invective from the parents standing along the victimized sideline – advising him to be sure to ask for more money from the other team since he was obviously giving them extra calls, or else, perhaps, he ought to take a few seconds during the intermission to brush up on the rule book. But then, the short, pudgy man with the hook nose, jet-black wave of hair, and canary yellow jersey surprised everyone. He blew his whistle the other way, awarding a penalty kick to the aggrieved side, even though their player had slipped in the box of his own accord. There hadn’t been a rival uniform within a step of him.

And in that split second, the internal physics of a game were reconfigured. And why? Because a judge proved that he was infinitely human. And also confirmed that people (or at least one) in this particular place where he resides harbor notions of balance, of fairness -- if delayed -- and inequities redressed. And even if awarded improperly, even (if absolute measures be employed) unjustly, an attempt at righting the egregious miss was made.

Now, whether these observations can be extrapolated to any other person, operating in any other context, is unclear. Perhaps it applies only to the one man; to no one else in this small suburban town in Los Angeles county. This response cannot speak for the larger county or state in which it sits or else the country comprised of thousands of such counties. Whether this applies to anyone other than this referee is anyone's guess. But as a travel writer striving to uphold and service the twin criteria of truth and difference -- at least for a day -- this should suffice.

For a peripatetic postcard, the referee's right way, was a suitable write way.

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