The best sort of travel writing works on at least two levels: one narrow and personal and one broadly illustrative.
Good travel writing must be intensely personal. The writer needs to reveal herself, so that narrative can unfold through the lens of a familiar and established perspective. The story-teller must be present in the story, or else the work becomes featureless and flat.
There’s danger, though, in focusing too heavily on personal experience.
We all know the travel blogs that nobody reads, the ones that start off with the line – “Sorry I haven’t updated the blog more, but so much has happened in the past two weeks!” – and then launch into a breathless refrain of “and then I, and then I” that knocks the reader out cold quicker than blows from a police baton.
Illustrating a travel story isn’t about listing every last detail; it’s about choosing the details that resonate.
The writer needs to empathize with the reader, to know which mental snapshot will set off a train of emotional memory and which detail will fall flat. The ultimate question is always: Can the reader relate?
Even if you’ve never fled from a hurricane, bused to Mexico City or searched for a loved one in an Angolan war zone, I guarantee you’ll find something you can relate to in the stories collected below. Enjoy.
1. “Remembering Katrina, Waiting For Gustav” by Eva Holland
Eva Holland’s account of a hasty exit from New Orleans is the best kind of travel blog, one that’s already there, inside the author, and just starts flowing when she sits down to write at 4 am, forming a story that’s raw, clean, honest and beautiful.
2. “Slumming In Rio“ by Rob Verger
The growing phenomenon of slum tourism makes many people uncomfortable, including Rob Verger, the author of this emotive travelogue from Worldhum.
Whatever your reaction to packaged poverty tours, it’s hard to deny the literary quality of this essay. There’s a lot more left to write about slum tourism, but Rob’s perspective is personal, balanced and reflective.
3. “The Aviators” by Xan Rice
The new online presence of Granta magazine is great news for aficionados of fine travel writing. In the words of another reviewer, “Granta has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.” Xan Rice’s detailed, evocative and heart-wrenching story of a father and son lost in Angola epitomizes this ultimate goal of bearing witness.
4. “A Passage Back To India“ by Anne Cushman
Retracing her steps through the India she traversed a dozen years before, Anne Cushman reflects on how she and India have changed in the intervening years.
At turns both deeply personal and lyrically descriptive, Anne’s story is simultaneously a love note to India and a contemplation of how the past flows into the present, and how love and heartbreak can lead to greater depths of understanding.
5. “Sixty Hours To Mexico City” by Justin Nobel
I’m not a fan of interminable bus rides, but for some reason I’m a sucker for travel narratives of those bus rides. The conversations, the towns captured in one or two details, the billboards, the stream of human drama, always passing through…
Jason Nobel’s account of his trip from San Francisco to Mexico City is a classic long-distance bus narrative, one of dozens of fine travel essays in the archives of the standout online publication The Smart Set.
Have you found any great travel stories on the web? Share in the comments!