Surfing PanamaI’d like to kick off this week’s edition of Tales From the Road with a quote from the stellar travel journalist Robert Kaplan, from a speech originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing.

Travel writing is more important than ever as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports. In and of itself, travel writing is a low-rent occupation, best suited for the Sunday supplements.

But it is also a deft vehicle for filling the void in serious journalism: for example, by rescuing such subjects as art, history, geography, and statecraft from the jargon and obscurantism of academia, for the best travel books have always been about something else.”

Enjoy the stories.

1. “A Capital Built For Kings And SUVs” by Robert Reid

Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, hacked from the jungle by paranoid generals, seems like it must be a mysterious and forbidding place. Turns out it’s just a crappier version of Houston, TX, built with oil money by people who like SUVs, shopping malls and Big Brother.

2. “When Maximo Was Our Captain” by Spencer Klein

The other day I asked Spencer Klein to write destination guides to secret surf spots in Central America for Matador. He declined, graciously, and had this to say:

I try to keep things vague and have readers read between the lines. The mission is to get people on the road searching for themselves, right? At least that’s how I see it – the journey is the real experience. I feel like if a travel writer can inspire people to jump out of their comfort zone and search for the wave or town they’ve written about, then it’s a job well done.

Job well done indeed, Spencer. I don’t even know how to surf, but his article made me want to find that perfect Panamanian wave.

3. “Agent Orange: A Chapter From History That Just Won’t End” by Ben Quick

Agent Orange was a chemical weapon used by the United States to devastate the land and people of Vietnam. But the carcinogenic defoliant wounded America too.

In this deeply personal, poignant and beautifully crafted narrative, Ben Quick journeys to a graveyard of Air Force bombers to confront the poisonous folly of the American experience in Indochina.

4. “Africa’s Next Slaughter” by Nicholas Kristof

The New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof is the best journalist of our time. While so many journalists write their stories from hotel rooms, Kristof goes straight to the root of the story, wherever that may be, and pulls no punches in his delivery.

In this disturbing dispatch from southern Sudan, Kristof alerts the world to an impending massacre and demonstrates how travel writing can be so much more than PR driven fluff.

5. “Mengele In Pataguay” by Graeme Wood

Graeme Wood ventures into the humid jungles and yerba mate plantations of Paraguay in search of the legacy of the notorious Nazi Josef Mengele.

The writing is top-notch, and Mr. Wood even manages to inject a little humor into the narrative, referring to the South American network of safe houses for Germans post WWII as “a sort of Hosteling International for Nazis on the lam”

Come across any great travel stories lately? Leave a link in the comments!

BNT contributing editor Tim Patterson travels with a sleeping bag and pup tent strapped to the back of his folding bicycle. His articles and travel guides have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Get Lost Magazine, Tales Of Asia and Traverse Magazine. Check out his Matador profile.
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