The Death of Travel Writing

If Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta read a modern travel blog they would’ve scratched their beards in confusion.

It’s not even the plagiarism and repetitive clickbait titles that would’ve shocked them. Those guys were totally okay with the lack of originality. In fact, the more they perpetuated what had been written by great writers of antiquity, the more respect and authority was given to their text. The details of Strabo’s or Ptolemy’s Geography, or Pliny the Elder’s Natural History were all too well known to travellers at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. So, despite the increased mobility and opportunity to see places with their own eyes, a lot of travel accounts from the Middle Ages up to the 17th century talked about same old and odd things: India is an exotic place that has unicorns and sciapods, one-legged people who cover themselves from the sun with their giant foot; Ethiopia is the the land of Prester John and Blemmyes, headless people with their face plastered on their chest.

Medieval and Renaissance travellers were naive and brilliant in their naiveté. Afraid of missing something and hungry for all things new, they jumped on the task to describe in tiniest detail everything they encountered in the foreign land. Of course, this also had to do with their mission of economical and political explorers, rather than leisure travellers. But along with the practical purpose of travel, for them, all the wondrous creatures of nature were testimony of God’s infinite power. With every written travel account, the world just grew bigger and more mysterious.

Was this the birth of travel writing as we know it? Probably not. There is even doubt among historians that Marco Polo ever travelled to China. For what we know, the whole text could have been a compilation of what other contemporary travellers talked about. Marco Polo certainly was not a travel writer because he’s never written anything in the first place. But if he indeed, went on that journey, lived at the court of Kublai Khan and memorized every detail so well that he could narrate it to his cell mate Rustichello da Pisa, then he definitely was one of the most accomplished travel storytellers of his time. The core of his narrative is everyday life at the court of Kublai Khan, and Marco’s own travels around Asia, the stories of people he meets along the way, the expressed otherness of their life, religion, and traditions. It is no wonder that Marco Polo’s story lives on in modern films and TV productions.

Berber traveller Mohammad Ibn Battuta started his journey a couple of years after Polo’s death. Over the course of 30 years, he explored the entire Islamic realm and came upon many a non-Muslim country in the course of his journey. Most notably perhaps, he stayed at the court of Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, and spoke with orthodox priests about his journey to the Holy Land. Aware of religious differences and frequently involving himself in political life, Ibn Battuta’s journey was not just a pilgrimage to Mecca, but a detailed account of his great contemporaries and foreign lands, wonderful in their diversity of beliefs and customs. Again, he did not write any of it – the account of Ibn Battuta’s travels was the work of Ibn Juzayy, a contemporary scholar and historian.

If Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta lived in the digital age, their social media of choice would be LinkedIn, that would allow them to forge powerful connections with kings and emperors, merchants and diplomatic envoys. But if Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta read a modern travel blog, they would’ve scratched their beards in confusion. How can a story about the marvels of foreign lands be so focused instead on the author’s quite mediocre self?

In 1904, a young woman called Isabelle Eberhardt died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, in southern Algeria. Her body was laid to rest in the sands of the Sahara, but her soul got to live on through the writings that were published posthumously by her friend Victor Barrucand in Paris. Isabelle left behind a series of notes, containing her travel diaries and short stories, all inspired by her love for the Sahara desert and Sufi teachings. It is unclear if she ever had any intention to publish those, but Isabelle’s tragic demise introduced the world to one of the most extraordinary female voices in modern travel writing.

Isabelle’s journey from a blessed childhood in Geneva to a life of vagabond in colonial North Africa was one of self-discovery, spiritual search and obvious escapism. It was not just the death of her parents and brother that pushed Isabelle away from the “normal” settled life. She was in her early twenties when she burned all the bridges connecting her to Europe and started her new life in Algeria, dressing up as a man and making friends with local people rather than colonial settlers.

“The Nomad”, Isabelle’s travel diary, is one of the most honest and sincere travel accounts of its time. Considering her age, she was perhaps too radical in her anti-colonial and anarchist rhetoric. She was a rebel, a fatalist, and open to all the challenges the world would throw her way. Everything she wrote about in her travel notes, from political opinions to personal feelings, she was bold enough to say out loud. It was the hypocrisy and dishonesty of Swiss society, to which her brother and sister-in-law belonged, that Isabelle found particularly repulsive. If Isabelle Eberhardt lived in the digital age, her social media of choice would’ve been Twitter. She’d post sarcastic remarks about the French colonialism and upload occasional nostalgic photos of the desert. She’d eventually have to sell her iPhone to make ends meet.

Every page of Isabelle’s writing, is the manifestation of her love for Algeria and its people. It was the love born out of grief and loss, but it was also a transforming love that allowed a young outcast to finally find a place to call home.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

The banner of modern travel bloggers. They hang it somewhere between their “10 places to visit before you die” listicle and a selfie from Angkor Wat. They say that Mark Twain wrote it somewhere. Gone are the times when quotations were supposed to include the title of the book, its edition and the page the quote was ripped from. Mark Twain never said any of this in his written works. To imagine Mark Twain in his early years catch the winds in his sails and set off into the unknown like his characters, read “The Innocents Abroad”, his account of a cruise trip from America to the Holy Land.

Unlike Isabelle Eberhardt, who was almost permanently broke and relatively unknown in the wide world, Twain’s journey was a sponsored trip, followed by a well promoted travel book that boggled the minds of his many contemporaries who could not afford a journey so extraordinary. Unlike Isabelle Eberhardt, Mark Twain was in a privileged position of a Western male who wanted to catch a glimpse of the Turks and Arabs he encountered on his journey. He actually called them freaks and particularly disliked Oriental style of dress:

“Ashore, it was–well, it was an eternal circus. People were thicker than bees, in those narrow streets, and the men were dressed in all the outrageous, outlandish, idolatrous, extravagant, thunder-and-lightning costumes that ever a tailor with the delirium tremens and seven devils could conceive of. There was no freak in dress too crazy to be indulged in; no absurdity too absurd to be tolerated; no frenzy in ragged diabolism too fantastic to be attempted. No two men were dressed alike. It was a wild masquerade of all imaginable costumes—every struggling throng in every street was a dissolving view of stunning contrasts. Some patriarchs wore awful turbans, but the grand mass of the infidel horde wore the fiery red skull-cap they call a fez. All the remainder of the raiment they indulged in was utterly indescribable. <…> A street in Constantinople is a picture which one ought to see once—not oftener.”

Mark Twain did change his narrative some 30 years later, in his book “Following the Equator”. In his encounters with the native people of Australia, New Zealand and India, he couldn’t help but doubt his former assumption of superiority of Western religion and civilization over the ’savage’ culture of global south: “There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”

If Mark Twain could use the social media, he’d go for Instagram. He’s post pictures of all the funny freaks and savages from the streets of Constantinople, and get likes from his ignorant compatriots in the eternal confirmation bias of Western perception of the East. But Mark Twain was honest in describing his travel experience, and honest in disproving himself later in life.

The best way to write about travel is to be truthful. It’s not a question of whether it’s a good or bad idea. If it’s the truth, if it’s the way you actually feel, I think the reader trusts you. One of the most accomplished travel writers of our time, Paul Theroux says that a travelogue should read like a letter home, a truthful account of new discoveries in yourself and the world around. One huge step in becoming a writer, is to earn your reader’s trust. In the case of travel writing, this does not necessarily mean trust in the depth of your destination-specific knowledge. If you travel the world, you cannot possibly hold a PhD in history and language of every country on the planet. The trust, in travel writing, comes from the reader who does not know you personally, but expects a sincere and honest letter home.

But modern travel blogger works for a different kind of travel reader. The reader that has a short attention span. Modern reader wants a shortcut, a portal that regurgitates the “content” about their travel destination and packages it neatly into magnetic headlines starting with: “How to…”, “Cheapest deals…” and “Why … is the best”. With every travel blog of modern-day “nomads”, the world becomes smaller and flatter. Ultimately, travel blogging is where travel writing goes to die.

Somewhere between commercialization of travel and rise of social media, travel writing genre merged with personal finance and self-help literature. Modern travel blogging, aimed to fill you with wanderlust and adventurous spirit, in the end just makes the world seem incredibly small and dull, too perfect and clichéd to be true. But this is what answers the reader’s demand.

The moment travel writing enters the “self” domain, it risks to lose its primary purpose of introducing the ‘otherness’ of foreign countries, whether you like it or not. I open a travel blog to learn something new about the world. I close the tab having learned that the author really loves his/her life and wants to teach me how to live. Travel writers like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux allowed themselves to be led by a story. Modern travel bloggers know from the start where the story will lead them: back to themselves. Travel culture came to be perceived as ‘liberation’, the ultimate path of self-discovery, breakout from the vicious circle of capitalism and office slavery. But ironically enough, the world of travel blogging is a commercial phenomenon that just sells you a packaged dream of being free.

Among the favourite quotes of modern travel bloggers, are exempts from Kerouac. Just about half of these travel bloggers manage to spell Kerouac’s last name correctly. And Jack Kerouac knew what made his writing so captivating to the reader: his role of a bystander and curious follower, while the lead part of the story was carried out by the people he met. “I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”.

There is too much “I” in the travel blogging of today. It is not the soul-searching and brutally honest “I” of Isabelle Eberhardt, not the humorous and self-ironic “I” of Bill Bryson, not the curious “I” of Paul Theroux, always searching for serendipitous encounters. The “I” of a modern travel blogger is nothing but a self-made brand, a narcissistic self portrait as seen through Instagram filters, always reaching out for their selfie stick at the sight of a perfect setting for Facebook profile photo.

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