On Marion Botsford’s post-colonial travel writing, the Trans-Canada highway, and more.
Plus, one reader calls us “hip” and “fancy.”
The Written World
The writing style billed as “travel literature” by Marian Botsford Fraser in “Post-Colonial Journeys” (July/August) takes the reader to two places simultaneously: the (mostly exotic) location described in the book, and the (occasionally mundane) mind of its author. It is inevitable, after all, for authors to end up with their unconscious prides and prejudices marking up the page like sticky fingerprints after a handful of cotton candy. No matter how much you lick your fingers before starting, there is always a bit of goo left to transfer.
Fraser alludes to this duality, at the same time leaving her own fingerprints, by writing that travel literature has “lost its way in the post-colonial era.” Perhaps some Western writers have lost their way, but elsewhere others are waking up after a long, enforced hibernation and taking a good, hard, subjective, and literate look at what’s on offer. Some of the most interesting travel literature today involves Chinese writing about Africa, and Africans writing about China. Indians are rediscovering Central Asia, and Mexicans are heading to Japan. This is where my goo comes in. I much prefer this sort of writing, because in many cases both the destination and the company are new discoveries for me. I’m lazy: I’ll take a twofer any day.
Of course, this is far from a new phenomenon. Travel writing is as old, and as universal, as the journeys of Gilgamesh, Moses, Rama, and Buddha. The long prominence and pre-eminence of Western voices was a bit of an aberration. The “age of the global citizen” may make the world a bit more difficult for some of those travel writers, but it will also make it a much more interesting place for travel readers.
I found Marian Botsford Fraser’s essay “Post-Colonial Journeys” (July/August) both intriguing and frustrating. I, too, am fond of the great travel books written by novelists in the colonial and immediate post-colonial era (and I would throw John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez and Jack London’s The Cruise of the Snark on the pile). But just because we can now GPS any spot on the globe—or send a text message from the northern end of Greenland, which I have done—doesn’t mean post-colonial travel and adventure writing is any less vital. Recording the end of something is just as valuable as recording its discovery. I would point Botsford Fraser to Wade Davis’s epic One River, about his research travels in the Amazon basin, or Gretel Ehrlich’s wonderful chronicle of Greenland, This Cold Heaven. (In both instances, the white “other” functions as a proxy for the reader, leading us more easily down the spine of the story.) Similarly, I would stretch the definition of the travel book to include works like Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly. Yes, it’s a novel, but it is deeply grounded in Gibb’s experience as an anthropology graduate student in Ethiopia. I don’t think travel writing is dead — like everything else, it’s just changing.
In “Post-Colonial Journeys,” Marian Botsford Fraser makes the worrying claim that travel writing is dead, or that it has at least lost its way. Being a travel writer myself, I have to protest that I’m not quite dead, and that I do, mostly, know where I am at any given point.
On a practical level, the fact that people will soon need to take out mortgages to hop aboard planes means that they will need, even more, to live vicariously through travel writers’ sometimes hare-brained adventures. But I have a much more serious problem with Botsford Fraser’s article: the age of the heroic exploration is over, she’s quite right, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to find. Like the novelists and poets of the supposed great age of travel writing, I reconstruct conversations and edit out all the boring bits in order to bring to life both the places I go and, more important, the people who live there.
For example, I spent many hours, over many days, speaking with a Palestinian woman to construct a single paragraph. She spoke about her cement business on the edge of the Gaza strip and how some men she didn’t know had come onto her land and fired rocket launchers into Israel, which promoted Israeli soldiers to retaliate by blowing up her buildings. She shook her head and remembered times a decade earlier when she used to go over the border and have tea with her Israeli friends. Still, she was not angry—just sad. She simply wanted the hating, on both sides, to end.
On another trip, deep in the Amazon, I struggled for five days to keep up with my Achuar guide. I could only talk to Shakee through a painstaking series of translations—from English to Spanish to Achuar and back again—to learn that he had once gone to Baños, a little town on the edge of the jungle, where he had seen, for the first and last time in his life, a car. He didn’t like it. And it wasn’t because of the pollution or the idea of building roads into the forest. He didn’t like it because of the sound it made. The Achuar language is highly onomatopoeic, and on top of that Shakee was a student of the sounds of the forest, whistling dozens of different bird calls and telling me stories about each.
Like Ryszard Kapuscinski, the writer of one of the books reviewed, I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, prone to sipping the occasional latté, but Botsford Fraser’s contention that the “great white perspective on the exotic seems irrelevant, even insulting” is, I think, insulting in itself. I—and the other travel writers I know—take make great efforts to get people’s stories right. We owe it to our readers and to the people for whom we are speaking. In this we follow the proud line of Herodotus some twenty-five centuries before us. And centuries after us, I hope and trust that there will still be writers who bring us other worlds and the voices of those we cannot meet.
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As David Beers (“Grounded,” July/August) urges, we need to acknowledge our addiction to flying and get a grip on aviation’s negative environmental impacts. The International Air Transport Association’s line on this is, I’m afraid, fairly standard industry-speak: air travel accounts for only marginal CO2 emissions; air travel is too important both economically and socially to be restricted; fuel use is constantly being reduced through technological advances. Such glib statements simply confirm that the air transport industry is in deep denial.
While it is true that a combination of better airframes and engines (resulting in larger, more fuel-efficient aircraft) and improvements in the global air traffic management system could deliver efficiency gains of 1 to 2 percent each year through to 2030, the industry is projected to grow 3 to 4 percent annually over the same period (partly driven by subsidies and aircraft exemptions conservatively worth $18 billion in the UK alone). And according to regulator databases, worldwide CO2 emissions from aviation are increasing exponentially, potentially rising to 1,229 million tonnes by 2025.
Resolving the tension between our need to deliver people and goods over long distances and the need to stem environmental damage will require “demand management,” through behavioural change messages (such as former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s policy limiting city staff’s use of short-haul flights) and green taxation. The European Environmental Agency has estimated the damage costs of flying to be around $85 per 1,000 passenger kilometres. We believe adding this to ticket prices would successfully reduce growth to 1 to 2 percent each year, neatly in line with the efficiency gains the industry says it can achieve. Growth would be possible within strict limits, ensuring aviation emissions remain constant in real terms. It wouldn’t make air transport environmentally benign or sustainable, but it would be a start.
Aviation Environment Federation
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Aw, come on, you guys! You may be a hip, fancy magazine, but that doesn’t mean you can reinterpret Renaissance poems to fit your essayist’s Procrustean needs. I refer, of course, to Jonathan Garfinkel’s “Skype Love” (July/August), on the relative merits of the Internet phone as a means of keeping in touch with loved ones when travelling. Garfinkel closes with a hacked-off verse from one of John Donne’s best-known love poems, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” changing its overall meaning. The message the poem carries to Anne, Donne’s beloved, is not, as Garfinkel would have it, that old chestnut about absence making the heart grow fonder. It was meant as a salve to the wound of their separation, which could not have come at a worse time, since Anne was nine months pregnant. (She would lose the baby in the midst of a horrible illness while Donne was away in France and Germany, and he would be tormented by visions and dreams of her in her agony.) The full verse — with the all-important first line, omitted by Garfinkel — reads: “Our two soules therefore, which are one / Though I must goe, endure not yet /A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.”
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Doubtless many read J. M. Kearns’s short story “The Eagle Has Landed” (July/August) with glee, delighting in an alternate universe in which President Al Gore has turned the US into a liberal paradise, while a couple of political has-beens (in actuality the current US administration) hatch a plan to rewrite history. But in playing to such an easy narrative, Kearns obfuscates the truth. The mess we find ourselves in today is not the result of cynical manipulation by a few, but the cynical apathy of many. Indeed, the problem is not Bush, Cheney, or their colleagues, but me, my careerism, and my like-minded friends. The playfulness of Kearns’s story chips away at our ability to understand reality, and, worse, tempts us to absolve ourselves of our own failures of duty. But, goodness, it tasted delicious.
Ian Ross McDonald
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Shelter from the Storm
Jill Frayne writes that her paddling group’s decision to wait out a lightning storm on sleeping mats in their tents “created quite a stir among safety instructors at the local Wilderness Medical Associates,” some of whom apparently advocated using the “lightning crouch” out in the open instead (“Struck by Lightning,” July/August). In fact, the owner of White Squall Paddling Centre, who is quoted defending his guides, is quite right that staying low and little while using the soles of the shoes to insulate against ground currents would be a difficult position to maintain for a long time. Wilderness Medical Associates only advises this as a last resort; in the situation in which Frayne’s group found itself, sleeping pads would indeed have provided better insulation, as well as a more practical method of avoiding a shock. I would add that a tent neither affords any greater protection nor increases the risk of being struck by lightning. However, pitching tents close together or cramming a single tent full of people does increase the number of people that could be incapacitated by a single ground current. Spreading people out and insulating them from the ground are useful rules of thumb, though such guidelines are only useful when tempered by good judgment and what makes sense in the situation at hand.
Wilderness Medical Associates Canada
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Head over Heels
I love Wendy Dennis (“All the Way Home,” July/August). Not in a way that would make her nervous or put me on the receiving end of a restraining order. It’s more that I identify with her history, her pain, and the joy of two-stepping at a place like Jovita’s in Austin, Texas, which beats the heck out of playing bumper cars at Pusateri’s in Hogtown any day. Reading her saga dispelled my belief that a well-packed gym bag, a long drive, and a house on wheels are icons exclusive to the suffering male; a woman can feel the same need to go away before she can come home.
I have met Wendy Dennis. I was a guest at the 40th birthday party she threw for her sister, a long-time personal friend and business colleague. I have also met and chuckled with Dennis’s former husband. All of us who have been unable to maintain the unions we thought were destined are, it seems, linked by the lyrics of departure set to a melody of guilt. And yet there is no bitterness in Dennis’s account of her experience. Neither is there a whiff of resignation to a lesser fate in Austin. The nerve it took her to get there was rewarded with ample proof that you really can carry your life with you in a bag, because the things that really matter are in your heart and soul.
Women who express that kind of strength without having to sing, “I am woman, hear me roar!” are tremendously attractive. A sense of purpose and unshakable confidence that aren’t propped up by a charge account at Holt’s, a rich husband, or a fresh manicure are just about the two best damn things a woman can hope for herself and for everyone around her. Boys, get out your stickpins and slide Angie Dickinson and Ellen Barkin a bit to the right—we may have a new poster for the clubhouse wall.
Did I mention that I love Wendy Dennis…and the horse she rode in on?
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Some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful memories came back to me on reading Crystal Luxmore’s “Tripping on the Trans-Can” (July/August). My brother Hank and I spent the summers of 1969 and ‘70 hitchhiking around southwestern Ontario. From Seaforth, a small farming community of 2,000 people, we hitched to hot spots like Grand Bend, Bayfield, Goderich, and London. Then Hank shocked me one day by saying he was going to Vancouver. He’s my younger brother, and part of me doubted he would actually do it. But off he went, without a word to my distraught parents. He left that to me. He returned a few months later, flat broke and thin as a rail—our father had had to send him the bus fare. After all the anger and tears caused by his disappearance, my parents welcomed him home. It’s a memory of them I will always cherish.
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“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Write to us at [email protected] or 101–19 Duncan Street, Toronto, ON m5h 3h1. Letters may be edited for length, clarity, and accuracy, and may be published in any medium (including the Toronto Blue Jays jumbotron).