Travel Writing at Ground Level 2: Notes on the 'Underground'

by David Miller Apr 12, 2011
Visit MatadorU to learn more about Matador’s online travel journalism courses.

In our continuing study of Ground Level as an ethic for travel writing, we look now at the importance of recognizing what’s “underground,” and how failing to find it can lead stories – even with all facts “correct” – to be untrue.

MY FATHER IN LAW still lives in the same house he built 30 years ago in Buenos Aires. Now he lives there alone. He spends most of his time alone. He works in his garden. He feeds the cats and the goldfish. He takes his tea outside – even in winter when it’s cold – where he sits quietly and watches birds land in the Araucaria.

If you saw him at Ground Level, it would be easy and not necessarily inaccurate to describe him as a “bitter old man.”

But, to leave it there, without knowing what’s underground, makes that statement not fully true.

This past week we visited him. After lunch he started answering my questions about Argentinean political history (“How many ‘real’ political parties are there?”) with an explanation that went, invariably, into the origins of Peronismo, which I’ve heard now at least 10 times and understand about 7% of overall.

I think it makes him feel good to keep recounting this history, as fucked up as it is. It’s a way of accounting for himself, his country, just talking about it to someone who doesn’t share the same context. Telling it to an outsider.

I feel like something is redeemed in the exchange.

I don’t even have to write it out. I don’t have to package it (“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina: My father in law’s musings on Peron”).

Sometimes just being there listening is enough, I think.

I talked about this last night with Julie Schwietert (Matador managing editor and lead faculty at MatadorU). A day after I’d visited with my father in law, she had this experience in Belize:

This afternoon, a driver brought me up to Belmopan from Belize City. He “looked Latino,” whatever that means. Somehow – I don’t even really remember exactly – we started speaking Spanish. And all I had to do was just let him talk — to tell me about his parents coming to Belize from Guatemala during the civil war, and that led to him telling me about what it was like to grow up Guatemalan in Belize and what it was like to establish permanent refugee status here, and how all these different cultures collide and coexist. And I didn’t need to just sit there quietly staring out the window, waiting to get to Belmopan for my next “experience.” I was just wholly in the moment, listening to this guy tell me his story. And when we finally pulled up in front of the place where he was supposed to drop me off we just sat in the van for a couple minutes in silence and then he looked at me and said, “Thanks for letting me tell you my story.”

Looking at different travel “stories” today on the internet, contemplating recent conversations with my crew ranging from (a) press trip organizers sending out “attire / behavior guidelines” for participants, to (b) editors of major guidebooks afraid to leave hotel rooms, to (c) conference organizers censoring all but “favorable” reviews on their sites, it seems like nearly everyone in travel media is forgetting something essential.

Which is, long after the press trips and conferences are over, long after our projects and publications and companies have had their runs, what will still be left are stories.

What matters is listening.

Habituation of one’s own “Underground”

Julie wrote about the scene above: “I don’t ever have to write about Reuben and his story. But he is one of many people who have entrusted me with their stories and their stories stay with me and become part of a backstory or understory of what I write.”

I interpret this as meaning that as Julie travels and talks to people, the stories she’s been given (for example, Reuben’s parent’s immigration via the diaspora of Guatemalans during the civil war) form an increasingly rich context through which she’s able to make more meaningful connections to people and place, and to write about them.

Over time, these connections also form part of Julie’s own “underground.” Even though you can’t see them, they’re there, informing the way she writes, the way she finds stories.

When traveling, living abroad, or just living anywhere, doing anything, it’s so easy to look at others, take only what you see, fail to recognize or gain access to any underground, and then quickly dismiss / judge people as inconsequential, unimportant, disassociated from your own life. In a crowd of strangers in Buenos Aires, my father in law becomes another “bitter old man.” On the streets of New York, Julie becomes “another blond girl.”

In travel media (as opposed to, say, residential construction) where so many people come from privileged backgrounds, objectification of “locals” into either (a) a kind of scenery or even zoo-like “attraction,” or (b) a kind of human extension of a place’s infrastructure — porters, guides, waiters, etc. seems almost normative. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the roles were all suddenly reversed, If the writers were all the “locals” and we – the travelers – were the subjects. What kind of treatment would we receive?

Overlooking the fact that each person has his or her own underground, a history that has led up to the person you’re now seeing, not only prevents us–as writers / storytellers–from sharing that person’s story, but it also, if habituated over time, degrades our ability to listen. It makes us poorer writers.

David Foster Wallace wrote “to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer.”

to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer.

–David Foster Wallace

Cultivating your own underground of listening has this strange and somewhat magical effect: it builds on itself over time. It’s as if stories want to find ways out. If feels sometimes like they want to find you.

Asking good questions

A good start is just asking questions born from genuine interest. The two most important questions – the ones that lead underground – are “where?” and “when?” “Where did your family come from?” “When did they get here?” Those two questions alone tend to lead people into their own storytelling modes . The why’s and how’s come out as needed. And in the stories that lead the deepest underground, sometimes, the “why” doesn’t come out at all.

Often this is when we as writers make the biggest mistakes, attempting to fill in the “why” with our own undergrounds, imposing our own interpretations or packaging on them.

A very instructive example of this is found in Philip Gerard’s essay at Brevity, The Facts Behind the Facts. As a cub reporter, Philip was sent out to get “a hero’s story” about a guy who pulled his girlfriend out of a burning car. Philip got all the facts right, but neglected to dig underground (the question he missed: how did the fire start?), and so inadvertently wrote a false story out of all true facts.

As we move downstream, these questions: (1) how do we habituate our own ability to listen, to dig underground?, (2) how does this listening over time form our own undergrounds?, and (3) what is the relationship between underground and ground level and how is this expressed? continue to help shape our progression.

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.