Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022
I’M SURE you’ve noticed—with much envy in my case—how so many of your friends have been traipsing around the world these past few months on what’s been called “revenge travel,” that perfectly human impulse to flee the cage after years of imposed isolation.
And whether you’re guzzling down a pint of beer in Munich, chasing pintxos in San Sebastian, or crossing a bridge in Kyoto, the chances are you’ll be happy with a raft of digital photographs to show for your adventures. Many will want to post about their tours on their blogs, while a much smaller group will—perhaps months later—sit down to reflect on their experience and write about it in an effort to make better sense of what they went through.
That’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and so I thought of sharing some notes for the prospective travel writer—not just of the usual travel feature we produce for commercial media, but of a more personal kind of travel essay, one focused as much on the traveler as on the place itself. Beyond reportage citing facts and figures, this is writing that implicates and engages the traveler, the writing persona, and makes him or her a character in the piece.
At my age, I consider myself a fairly well-traveled person, but one of the first things I want to say about good travel writing is that it’s really not about where you’ve gone or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s not about quantity, but quality of experience, perspective, and insight. The challenge isn’t to go to what to most Filipinos would be an exotic place like Paris or Tahiti. It’s to go there and to find and to tell us something about it that millions of other visitors or tourists have never seen.
And when I say “something others have never seen,” it’s not about looking for obscure places, new bars, strange customs, or unique souvenirs. They could all be part of a great story because they’re intrinsically interesting, and if all you want to do is a standard feature story for a magazine, that would be all right. You could even make a good and exciting living writing these travel features, because the industry travel constantly needs them and they sell.
For many of us, that would be a dream job: fly off to faraway destinations and to first-class hotels with all your expenses paid, just to write about how wonderful the place and the experience was. In my two decades as a columnist for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Star, I was lucky to have had a taste of that kind of luxury, having been sent on special assignment to the US, Germany, Israel, and Malaysia, among many other places. When I traveled for academic or professional conferences, which was quite often, I wrote those up too as travel pieces.
But—putting on my creative writing teacher’s hat—I also want you to think of travel writing not just as a function of place, but rather a function of mind. I want you to realize that you don’t need to go to an African safari or to ride a gondola in Venice to be a good travel writer—or a good writer, period. I want you to be able to turn a place you may have been to a thousand times or even lived in—say, Cubao—into a travel destination, and to explore not just its surface but its culture and subcultures, its inhabitants, its range of markets, its daytime and nighttime versions.
There are always two tracks embedded in a good travel essay: the story of the place itself, and the story of the traveler. To put it another way, there is the external journey, and the internal journey.
The external journey is the story of the journey itself—the purpose of the travel, the choice of destination, the mode of travel, observations along the journey, reaching the destination, first impressions, engagements with the local people, sights, food, experiences, and other vignettes until departure time.
The internal journey is the story of the traveler’s life situation at the start of the travel—his or her expectations, anxieties, distractions—and then his or her reactions to the unfolding environment, his or her interactions with the place and people, and his or her terminal thoughts and feelings about the whole experience, whether explicitly stated or implied. Very often, the internal journey involves some kind of quest—a search for something beyond the place itself, or some object in it, but an answer to some personal question, which gives meaning to the visit and the encounter with the place.
That question could be “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” or “What do I really want?” or “Is there hope?” As the travel progresses, the answers to these questions begin to be formed or revealed. Thus do the external and internal tracks run parallel or congruent until they bend and meet at a certain point. Indeed, it can be argued that the external track, the travelogue itself, is simply an excuse or a device to tell the personal story, which emerges as the true point of interest in the piece.
The internal track could also be subtle and subdued, embedded in the main narrative, and palpable only upon closer reading. Nevertheless it will be there, the result of a place or an experience’s impact on a person. In the travel essay, therefore, it is the interaction between person and place and the insight that comes from it that is the real, unified story.
As the great travel writer Pico Iyer put it, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
So when you write your next travel story or travel essay, don’t just tell us about what you’re looking at, which many thousands of visitors before you have already seen. Try to look at it from another angle, or find an interesting detail that’s been paid little attention to, and reflect on what it says to you. Your perspective is as important as the place itself; it may not be shown or expressed too strongly, but it will be there and should be there, for the work to be truly yours, truly unique, and truly worth doing. Happy trails!