Finding great travel tales often entails getting a little dirty. The best stories are the ones that smell, the kind you can’t hope to spot from inside an air conditioned tour bus.
Get down on your hands and knees and poke around, dig into the muck-heap, grab on to something and pull it out into the light.
After you wipe off the grime, you might just see a buried treasure, a story full of hope and resonance and truth that most people would never think was there.
This week Tales From the Road gets down and dirty, hitting up backpacker ghettos in Hong Kong and Bangkok and diving deep into the garbage dumps of Cairo before swinging back to the Americas and passing out at a Jamaican reggae concert.
The roundup wraps up with an emotional punch, a tribute to the mothers of Argentinian activists who were tortured and killed by a military dictatorship during the “Dirty War.”
Got all your shots? Then come down from that sterile tour bus, breathe in the stink, dirty your hands and open your mind. There’s wonder to be found….
1) “Hope and Squalor at the Chungking Mansion” by Karl Taro Greenfield
I’ve never been to Hong Kong, but friends assure me it’s an absolutely stunning metropolis, the sort of place where you can meet just about anyone and do just about anything in the process of fulfilling all sorts of fantasies.
If Hong Kong is a gleaming city of the future, then Chungking Mansion seems like the grimy flip-side of the new utopia, a vertical slum of endless possibility, a melting pot forgotten on the stove, full of bits of charred, unidentifiable and probably carcinogenic (but still delicious) scraps stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Greenfield’s profile of the Mansion is as hectic, uncomfortable and appealing as the place itself. It’s rare for a writer’s style to match the character of the place he describes, and when it happens, it makes a good story shine brighter than a diamond.
2) “Goodbye, Khao San Road” by Rolf Potts
When Emperor of Vagabonds Rolf Potts gets in a contemplative mood, the resultant essay is always a special treat. In this article, penned in a cafe on Khao San Road just before leaving Southeast Asia, Potts waxes philosophical on the new demographics of travel in the 21st century.
Khao San is “a place that slithers inside its own stereotype,” writes Rolf, “an apt symbol of a travel revolution that began a decade ago and has almost been completed.”
Indeed, Bangkok’s famous backpacker ghetto is a phenomenon that has transcended the very idea of authenticity, and no one analyzes the atmosphere of contradictions better than Emperor Rolf. This story should be required reading for all backpackers.
(P.S. Don’t miss my previous interview with Rolf Potts).
3) “Future’s So Bright” by Sascha Matuszak
Here’s an uplifting story from an unlikely place – the garbage heaps of Cairo. The zebaleen are a community of Coptic Christians who work as garbage collectors and pig farmers in the modern Egyptian capital.
“In overwhelmingly Muslim Egypt, Christians are tolerated, garbage collectors despised and pig farmers abhorred. The combination of all three kept the Zebaleen on the fringes of society.”
But as Matuszak documents, the children of the zebaleen are moving up in the world through a concerted program of education. I finished this story full of respect for the garbage collectors of Cairo.
Matuszak’s excellent article is proof that great stories often turn up in unlikely spots, if you just take a moment to look beneath the surface.
4) “Excerpt Bob Marley? Everything is Everything in Jamaica” by Victoria Brooks
A friend of mine makes a good argument that Bob Marley is the most popular musician in the world. It’s true that the sweet notes of reggae music can be heard just about everywhere these days – from Thai beaches to South African nightclubs to Ivy League fraternity parties.
But nowhere is Marley’s legacy more alive than in his native land of Jamaica. Victoria Brooks has written a flawless, languid travelogue that floats through a history of Marley’s career, touches the concrete floor of a Jamaican concert hall and walks nervously through the fearful alleyways of Kingston.
Like any true travel story, the picture Brooks paints isn’t black and white, but shaded and confused, tinged with uncertainty and a peculiar sense of nostalgia.
5) “As Long as We Live: A Profile of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo” by David Miller
During Argentina’s Dirty War, thousands of young political activists were kidnapped by the military government and whisked away to secret detention centers, never to be seen again.
To this day, the mothers of the disappeared march through the Plaza de Mayo in their children’s memory. Why do they march? “That there is no more bloodshed.” How long will they march? “As long as we live.”
This is the sort of story that weighs on your soul, that descends to the depths of human depravity and rises back up to demonstrate our capacity for redemption, and remind us that there is nothing in this world so strong as a mother’s love.