Experiencing and Writing about Disaster and Distress Worldwide: Part 1

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Danger is the ultimate aphrodisiac when even our guidebooks are “survival kits” and our vacations end up life-threatening, we take a perverse pleasure in bragging about not being able to pull off a boner on the beach. Welcome to the world of disaster and distress!

Lately the trend in literary travel writing is that the best of times is the worst of times. All of us secretly relish the bad trip, especially when it’s somebody else’s. The gist of recent anthologies – Danger! True Tales of Trouble and Survival, I Should Have Gone Home: Tripped Up Around The World, By the Seat of My Pants: Humorous Tales of Travel and Misadventure – is that it’s more rewarding in the long haul to remember nightmare epiphanies than marvelous vacations. We prefer stories of struggling to rescue lost luggage, haggling with crazy taxi drivers, battling golf-ball-sized bugs, and eliminating nauseous food. Not to mention running for your life, dodging troglodytic drifters and touts on once-pristine beaches, while avoiding getting dosed by dirty hippies and lunatic ravers at commercialized Full Moon Parties.

In fact, the very word "travel" itself derives from travail – to suffer or endure. From Homer’s Odyssey to Homer Simpson cartoons dubbed into Flemish or Swahili, bad trips make us laugh at the world and ourselves. Lonely Planet editor Don George said, “My number one rule of the road is this: if you don’t pack your sense of humor with your sunscreen, sooner or later you will get burned.” As Tarantino's thriller Hostel showed us, mixing the European Grand Tour with grand guignol, is now officially a dangerous world.

We are a little more wary about where we dump our backpacks for the night. Literary travel has become more edgy and sophisticated, self-referential and way much darker. So what do we read to prepare us for a life of danger and disaster abroad? They say a classical education helps. Not much. For example, I don’t exactly agree with Darwin, the butterfly cadger from the Beagle. Evolution is overrated. If man descended from the apes, then why are the apes still here? No, I’d rather read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (hungry Hemingway revises his work in landmark cafes) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (desperate Orwell becomes a Parisian plongeur to pay the bills), both good primers for being poor and miserable abroad.

I’m no Rhodes Scholar, but I know when to hit the road. My short lived Unpleasant Vacations: The Magazine of Misadventure (with no subscribers at all), specialized in such dangerous delusions. One feature was an apocryphal humdinger about a year-long trip to the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed and water circles counterclockwise down the drain. In it, I got stuck in a New Zealand mountain hut, on the dreaded Routebourne Track. Eventually a British hiker with blond hair and khaki Tintin shorts blustered into the hut and saved my life, with the goods of the gods: freeze-dried food and whiskey. I summed up boldly, "The mysterious hiker boosted my courage to continue tramping and get out of this mess, convincing me 'to be sure to write it all down when you get back.'"

Upon my triumphant return home, I purchased a nonfiction book called Songlines, and realized from the author’s photo that the mysterious hiker and this canny writer cat appeared to be one and the same: the social chameleon Bruce Chatwin! Peradventure, a chance meeting convinced me to stop traveling to collect countries, and start traveling to come up with experiences to write about. I had become, as Barton Fink crazed, “a writah”. As in any bildungsroman, overcoming adversity on the road is indeed the spam and bugjuice of the postmodern travel essayist.

But forgive me. I still haven’t read On the Road or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I am, however, rereading Larry Dean Olsen’s Outdoor Survival Skills. Olsen, a proponent of Stone Age living, writes: “A survivor also possesses a utopian attitude. . . . He makes even the most miserable existence seem like millennial splendor.”

So what makes a memorable (and marketable) misadventure? One of the best genre books ever written is Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming (“James Bond” – creator Ian Fleming’s brother). It doesn’t get much better than this: every travel book written since the 1930s, including those by the restless Rolf Potts' Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and the peripatetic Tony Perrottet's Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, unwittingly pays lip service to it. In it, Fleming, in search of the missing explorer Colonel Fawcett, laconically elocutes, “Otherwise, beyond the completion of a 3,000 mile journey, mostly under amusing conditions, through a little-known part of the world, and the discovery of one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved.” Fleming admits his book could have had more on the Amazon-adventure-story’s amusingly un-PC “Indian menace", but with no arrows quivering in his tent-pole and no tomtoms throbbing ominously in the night, he’s sure the observant reader will get fed up. A lame story about bad food in a flash Caribbean resort won’t really cut the proverbial mustard.

How about a news story about being kidnapped in Yemen by terrifying turbaned hosts insisting that “kidnapping is part of their tradition of hospitality", where you can really see the country. This somehow works. In my own travels, I’ve penned some frightfully funny settings, often forcing my mouth agape in general mirth and merriment, laughing out loud with blue teeth stained by viciously expensive Burgundy. Hopefully I cajoled a catharsis, and forced a guffaw with my “entertainments", ranging from surviving a train crash in European Thrace to escaping from a sinking ferryboat in the Gulf of Thailand.

Danger adds adrenaline to the thrill of adventure, of being caught with your pants down without toilet paper in a third-world hellhole and learning the close encounters of the turd kind (see Travelers’ Tales' There's No Toilet Paper… and Not So Funny When It Happened...) confirm our worst fears of unfamiliar lands and foreign plumbing). As road warrior Tim Cahill, author of books with lurid titles like Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and Pecked to Death by Ducks, says, “Danger compels us to commit philosophy, and in a big damn hurry to boot"!

For more on the author, read his bio.

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