Travel, and travel writing, are born of curiosity. Some travelers hit the road to answer a specific question.

An example: Are Bonobos really the grooviest, most sexually liberated primate? In this edition of Tales From the Road, Ian Parker travels to the depths of the Congo to answer exactly that question.

Some travelers don’t embark with specific questions and are spurred to explore foreign lands by a vague sense of curiosity and wanderlust.

Joe Reynolds decides to bike across El Salvador on a whim; Joshua Kurlantzic wanders from the discos of Ulaan Baattar to the high steppes of Mongolia.

Together with gems of nature writing from Iraq and an interview with Pico Iyer, their stories make this one of my favorite editions of quality travel writing yet.

1) “Swingers” by Ian Parker

The New Yorker magazine’s Far Flung Correspondents consistently deliver some of the most intriguing and tightly-written travel stories of our time. In “Swingers” Ian Parker attends a Manhattan Bonobo fund-raiser to “Save the Hippie Chimps.”

Curious about the mysterious Bonobos, said to be peace-loving and bi-sexual, Parker travels Heart of Darkness style deep up-river to a research camp in the Congo rainforest. His companions include a dour German primatologist and his assistant, “a devotee of the annual Burning Man festival” whose “equipment included a fur hat, a leather-bound photo album, an inflatable sofa, and goggles decorated with glitter.”

2) “Birding Babylon” by Jonathan Trouern-Trend

Previously, I linked to the best feature I’ve read about Iraq since the war began almost five years ago.

“Birding Babylon” stands out as a close second, if only because it’s such a refreshing change from hard-bitten journalism about body counts, political corruption
and corporate misconduct.

Reading Trouern-Trend’s lovely descriptions of warblers, storks and wood-pigeons provides a whole new perspective on the Land of Two Rivers. It’s a welcome reminder of nature’s remarkable capacity to produce beauty amidst the ugliness of human folly.

3) “Mongolia: No Tourist Hordes” by Joshua Kurlantzic

Wow. I need to go to Mongolia.

Joshua Kurlantzic’s terrific article gives a complete portrait of Genghis Khan’s old stomping grounds, pulling the reader along from discos crammed with Russian mobsters to “high alpine cirques where the Tsaatan live in teepees.” Forget Burma. Anyone in the mood for mutton?

4) “Cycling Across El Salvador” by Joe Reynolds

“On a whim, with no previous training, I decide to ride a bicycle across El Salvador…”

Roadjunky.com is a great place for honest, entertaining travelogues that feature half-baked schemes and misadventures all of us can relate with.

Joe Reynold’s story about touring El Salvador on a balky bike named Mamacita Rita is one of my favorite Roadjunky tales, and judging by all the gushy reader comments, I’m not the only one.

5) “Pico Iyer is Lost” by Mark Mordue

OK. I cheated. “Pico Iyer is Lost” isn’t a travel narrative. But when one of my all time favorite contemporary travel writers gives a terrific, thought provoking interview, I can’t resist sharing the news.

Iyer is one of the most thoughtful and eloquent of travel writers in the world today, a master of precise, polished prose. If you love to travel and love to read, this is one interview that’s well worth your time.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Tales from the Road!

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 Get Lost Magazine, Tales Of Asia, Matador Travel and Common Language Project. Check out his personal site Rucksack Wanderer.