Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Matador Network.
Ladies, it is high time that we talk. You all are out there, privileged enough to travel — to experience the magnificence of Petra in Jordan, an ancient masterpiece hew deep into the mountains of the desert. You could feel the spirituality of Angor Wat, Cambodia, which has inspired so many before you. Or you could spend hours listening to the silence of a desert night with a million stars to keep you company — but all you can think about is if that cute French guy you met on your 12 hour bus-ride to get there would like you better if you were wearing mascara? You’ve gotta be kidding me!
Don’t get me wrong here. I am really happy, how you all find your true selves or alternatively a one-night stand during life-changing trips. I am glad that you finally found out how to survive without make-up — who would have thought that this was even possible! Just think about all the additional hours of sleep you’ll get; except you are too busy with your newest male conquest, of course.
And if you feel like it, go ahead, tell us stories about your love life in Thailand and how a three-day meditation retreat in India completely changed your life. The thing is: This is not travel writing. But you know, there is nothing wrong with being a writer of other niches. Some of the stories you tell are really well written, entertaining — intentionally or not — and I like to read them. I do follow a few of those…let’s call them “life style blogs with exotic background” and considering the ongoing misery in our oh-so-prosperous society the message of how to live a more fulfilled and happy life is a truly important one. Just do us all a favor and don’t label yourself as something you are not: travel writers.
Call me old-fashioned, but in travel writing, the destination has to be in the center of the narrative, not you and your journey of self-discovery. Sadly I can’t even remember anymore when I’ve last read a simple description of a place, of its atmosphere, the smells, sounds, of every day interactions with locals. A piece, where the writer doesn’t use the destination as background noise for his or her own story, but where the writer, in the opposite, uses his or her experiences only as background to tell the destination’s story. Travel writing is about helping people to understand a place, not a person.
And yes, a part of the whole problem is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which unintentionally has given female travel writing a push in the wrong direction. Ironically, Elizabeth Gilbert herself is not a travel writer. She is just a writer who likes to travel. And how we say where I come from: Just because a cat delivers her kittens in an oven, it doesn’t mean that you should call them bread.
Let’s ask Wikipedia. According to the almighty internet, Elizabeth Gilbert is an author, essayist, short story writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist. And Eat Pray Love is a memoir. Why? Because it is clearly about herself, about her inner journey to overcome depression and find love and happiness. It is a mere coincidence that her inner journey goes hand in hand with an outer one. The destinations are more or less interchangeable. Just as well she could have eaten her way through Spain, meditated in Nepal, and found love in Cuba.
It is the same with your stories. The destinations (as well as the men) are interchangeable. You could find yourself in Thailand, India, or even in Alaska for all I know, as long as there is a yoga center. It doesn’t matter if Antonio from Italy, Juan from Spain, or Bob from Kentucky gives you the best orgasm ever.
For today’s female traveler the destination lost its meaning a long time ago and has given room for her self-projection, turning into a randomly interchangeable backdrop for her own story and — even worse — for her next Facebook profile picture. You haven’t really been to a place, unless you can prove it with a selfie, right?
With many of today’s female travel writers growing up into and with this new perspective of traveling, deeply characterized by self-projection, it is little wonder that they choose themselves as centerpiece and cornerstone of every story they write. They just don’t know it any differently anymore.
But to say it quite frankly, as traveler I am not interested in your love life or your inferiority problems. I want to know the names of the 12 grandchildren of the taxi driver you’ve spent two hours with in Jordan, and not the name of the Australian you screwed in a desert tent. Let me taste the mouse you ate in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam as if I had eaten it myself. But please don’t tell me about that horrible hangover after the full moon party on Kho Pangan, which made you change your life and turned you into a yoga-health fanatic. Better let me know all about that special feeling of drowning a pint in one of England’s oldest pubs, where Oliver Cromwell wet his throat en route to London in the name of the king.
If you want to be a travel writer, then show me the world and not your newly found insights into your father’s role concerning all your relationship issues. Wear mascara or not and hold Juan’s hand while doing so, fine — but go out, explore, and open doors into the unknown for me, that make me want to run straight through them, backpack on my shoulders, expectant smile on my face and in front of me nothing but adventure.
Please don’t get me wrong, neither do I condemn nor judge you writing about your own inner journey. Everything has its place, so do these kind of stories. But again, please use the right name for it, don’t call it travel writing. And newsflash: there is no law against one and the same person writing stories in different genres. So nothing is standing between you being a travel writer but the topic of your next masterpiece.
And nevertheless I am convinced that they are still somewhere out there, the female travel writers with amazing, captivating stories to tell and I am very much looking forward to read them!
PS: I hereby declare to genuinely love Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat Pray Love, which is a truly brilliant and inspiring book by an incredibly smart woman. But if I want travel writing, I still pick up my Paul Theroux, Mark Twain, or Freya Stark.
This commentary first appeared on No-YoLo and is republished here with permission.