The next time you visit a bookstore, head for the travel section. You will find hundreds of books by the famous and the not so famous. A proportion will be travelogues, and a proportion of those will be written by lesser known writers, documenting their weird and wondrous travels. The trips that most of us take, if written about, would come across as somewhat boring to the reader but travel writers seem to have wild, roller coaster rides that positively scream to be written about. Most people merely have a “relaxing” and “pleasant” time and nothing much to write home about. What makes the travels of the travel writer so different?
I have come to conclude that there are certain formulaic ingredients that go into making the ideal travelogue. They are essential if the writer wants to get his or her book published, out there, on the shelves, and have it showered with rave reviews. The first ingredient is getting ill as a result of one’s own stupidity. One of the central experiences of the travelogue is getting sick in a far away land. No published travelogue is complete without having been laid up in bed, feeling sorry for oneself and suffering from some hideous disease. The travel writer has to love writing about every facet of their latest tale of agony. Over the years, whole rain forests have been felled to accommodate page upon page of in-depth descriptions of splattering liquids, aching limbs and gurgling stomachs.
However, the muse of illness woe can only be effective if certain sequences of events are thrown in and they must revolve around the writer’s own ineptitude. First of all, the traveler-cum-writer must ignore all the safety and hygiene rules set out in their guidebook. They have to drink the local water, eat poorly prepared food served in the dirtiest places, stay in the hotel with the most bedbugs and end up going to the most run down and under resourced hospital that the country has to offer. Bacteria sells! Tales of filthy scalpels, vomit and despair are essential to any travelogue worth its salt. Hanging over a sink, in the throes of a raging fever makes for entertaining reading. The book-buying public love it!
The second ingredient is the nightmare bus ride. Of course, it must take place on the most worn out, dilapidated vehicle that the country has to offer. Dodgy brakes, a half-brained maniac at the wheel, two slow punctures and an assortment of caricature-inspired fellow passengers who have left all traces of common decency at home are crucial if the journey is to be hellish enough to be made readable. Near death experiences on mountain bends, head on collisions with mountain goats and an array of close encounters with other vehicles and stationary objects must be included.
The third ingredient is culture shock. The writer must be adept in mocking his or her own inability to cope with the country at hand, or mocking the apparent stupidity and quirky ways of the local people. Self-gratifying encounters with the idiosyncratic locals must be written about at length in order to contrive maximum mileage from the hilarious, laugh out loud episodes that are the hallmarks of the book. Misunderstandings and misconceptions lead the writer to embark on the most entertaining literary avenues of hilarity, and biting irony must pepper each flowery anecdote to demonstrate literary brilliance.
The finished product will be something like: I took a trip to some hell hole I didn’t really want to go to, nearly died from dysentery, was in complete agony but couldn’t stop laughing all the way to intensive care about the crass stupidity of everyone around me, then took a death ride across the country, before ending up in my country’s consulate after having given all of my clothes away to a beggar who turned out to be a clothes thief, while all the time thinking about just how clever I am to have done all of this. The whole thing was totally outrageous and the writer would probably say that they never want to do it again, that is unless a publisher dangles a wad of cash in front them.
Just imagine the reviews: “I haven’t laughed so much since my bus across Africa was struck by lightening” – “Marvelous, witty and the best new talent ever to have come out of intensive care”.
Of course the writer could have done it the conventional way by heeding warnings about health issues, staying in decent hotels, eating in hygienic places, flying everywhere or using decent buses and the encountering only those locals who were involved in the tourist trade. The trip could have been rather pleasant if uneventful and perhaps they would like to bring the family along next time. I guess the reality just wouldn’t cut the mustard. Increasingly, travel writers have to possess a masochistic streak or a very vivid imagination in order to deliver a tasty sensationalist dish of laugh out loud pain, misery and self-satisfaction.
Colin Todhunter writes for the travel section of the New Sunday Express in South India and is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai.