Experiencing and Writing about Disaster and Distress Worldwide: Part 2

Indeed, adventure’s favorite travel companion is misery. One of my “postcards from hell” involved informing my parents that I was caught in a military coup in Fiji. All flights were suspended. I had to hole up on Nananu-I-Ra island with scores of nervous backpackers listening to censored radio broadcasts ensuring us “Today the weather is mostly fine . . . ,” and try to keep the ugly island rats from eating my food: “One night I had the misfortune of shining my flashlight on my baguette, only to discover a rat hanging by its teeth from it in midair like a skilled Cirque de Soleil trapeze artist.”

Adventure writers like John Krakauer specialize in books that are downright life-threatening. In the tall tales of travel and travail, which attach themselves like ticks to our tongues, we’re utterly on our own. Since the riptide incident, I’ve taken a bevy of bad trips worldwide. I ran out of food while tramping on remote Stewart Island (and had to be rescued by deer hunters), I freaked out on Larium in Vietnam (and almost got lost in the land of “Apocalypse Now”). I was attacked by a Russian fighter pilot in a disco during the Cold War in Prague (and cowardly ran to the safety of my luxury inn). Though these experiences seemed terrible at the time, I can’t help but recall them with a wistful smile and odd gleam in my eyes.

Briting (bragging and writing) about reality can make the improbable seem preposterous and surreal. As T. E. Lawrence, an obvious danger addict said, “I dared to dream with my eyes open". Though most of us search texts for knowledge and experience, to find ourselves on the shifting borderlines of the map, we are at the same time looking for a good story. And the best stories almost always involve frisson: something goes wrong.

I’ve never been in an airplane crash, but I wrote about almost going down once while flying on a small turbulence-ridden craft over Honduras. It was more an out-of-the-body experience, a gorgeous gonzo journey through the geography of the mind. In the book Bad Trips, editor Keith Fraser says, “The fruits of bad trips should be redemptive. The writer escapes, feels wiser perhaps, survives to bring back tales of ennui and strangely focused mirrors.”

When I met the legendary Redmond O’Hanlon, author of the classic In Trouble Again…, at a Barnes and Noble reading in New York, he displayed one of his souvenirs from a malaria-mad Congo trip gone very wrong: a preserved monkey’s finger. The saddest trip I can think of is The Worst Journey in the World, about Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic journey. If you get back from your own worst nightmares come true, you’ve got a twice-told travel blog worth trading on the Internet.

Meeting Sebastian Junger, owner of the Half King bar in New York, I couldn’t help but think the same thing about The Perfect Storm…, wherein the ultimate sense of tragedy comes from knowing in advance the unhappy ending. Even prolific voyager Paul Theroux is known not for praising paradises, but for grousing misanthropically about how boring the people and places are. He’s quite funny about being cranky on his trips, like the Philip Larkin of the travel-writing set.

Of course, the ultimate bad trip is death. But no one (so far) has gotten back from that to tell us about it. It’s quite telling that the title The World's Most Dangerous Places(all about places we won’t set foot in) by Robert Young Pelton, has become an international bestseller. Modern travel books resemble more otherworldly surveys of survival than portraits of place. T-shirts of shoestring travelers setting up “import-export” businesses on the beach in improbably risky places now say “No Fear” rather than “I Got Wrecked on Great Keppel". Thank God for the cash advance. American Express: Don’t drop off the planet without it.

The point is: while braving bad food, head lice, genital crabs, dysentery, undependable transport, tour guides who act like terrorists, and swarthy strangers demanding to “change money", we experience an odd thrill (or chill) when we are in unfamiliar fiascos and foreign predicaments. Yes, though I’m afraid of heights, I’m pleased in retrospect that a Scottish mountain climber tricked me into climbing a volcano in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park. Fear is the ultimate aphrodisiac. I wouldn’t do it again, though.

If you want dangerous mountain scenery, blindly trusting your colorful Sherpa guides to lead you toward sheer drops, death, dismemberment, or worse (spiritual oblivion), just flip through Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet or Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard. When life sucks, such as when we’re rolled in the ubiquitous Old Town back alleyway by a cartoonish mustachioed thug wearing a striped shirt and brandishing a metal pipe, we’re always glad to get back. We have to be careful when we travel, especially when we are writers. One of the best threats I ever heard to obey the crazy codicils of a nameless hard line communist country was, “If you’re not careful, you’re going back home in a body bag!” When not riding around glumly on trains, toughing it out with both “tourists” and “travelers” (I see no real distinction), the intrepid Paul Theroux pampers himself in the exclusive chic shangrilas of Cape Cod and Maui. Sounds great to me.

The search for my ideal summer home goes on. So what if we don’t remember our own expensive packaged “dream vacations” where everything goes (remarkably) right! Astral traveling around gloriously miasmal conurbations of filth and degradation abroad, dodging dens of inequity and iniquity, rejecting the lures and snares of ports-of-call, shelling out for alternative transport (with baby talk names like “tuk-tuk” or “jeepney”), playing cards with ridiculously useless and obsolete “slides", and looking for a late-night conclusion to a mega-essay spiraling out of control, I discover that bad trips drive home the fact that maybe (secretly) we’d rather stay home and lie supine on the couch with a pretend cold watching “Desperate Housewives".

Why do travel writers insist on traipsing about like agents, provocateurs or celluloid mercenaries in vacation “hot spots” divided into war zones? Maybe there is time to brush up on that aborted essay comparing William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to why things went seriously awry on “Gilligan’s Island” (I’m sorry, Piggy and Gilligan ruined everything!). Trust me, we’ll all become only “armchair travelers” secure in the so-called “suburban zone” – the safety net of our own inaction supported by a clockwork mortgage, steady income, and regular heartbeat – if we don’t get off our butts and cash in all our Frequent Flyer miles. It’s time to drag our sedentary writer-ly bodies across the Risk board, test the mettle of imaginary Maginot Lines and the fluid borders of the Forbidden Zones.

No matter how many state secrets you leaked out of your subconscious, you did the right thing. You finked on how dangerous and divine it is to travel around like a psychopath abroad, then write about it, rather than ruminate on an entire life of nine to five. You’re okay. It was way cool and worth it to act upon the world stage, using big words like “Weltanschaung” and “Fetishistic” while in motion with a backpack burden of mostly dirty laundry and serious doubts about the future. Without an e-mail address to keep in touch in a dangerous, declassified world, we can actually experience life, and quickdraw our “sitches” with a Mont Blanc pen powered by awesome divine humor.

Our souvenirs (French for “memories”) link us to the preferred pathways of the future, whether we ever see our stuff in print or not, whether by mistake we take the wrong turn in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Less Traveled". It turns out we can actually take it with us, the treasures of trial and error, the ecstasies of experience and knowledge, the dreams of ideal homes and faraway gardens, the rewards of fact and fiction, the hangovers of imagination and power.

But hey, now in the MisInformation Age, we can Google almost anyplace on earth, wake up total strangers abroad in other time zones with crank calls from our “cell” phones (all conversation is a form of incarceration), and we don’t even need a paper ticket anymore to miss our planes. The head spinning uncontrollably on the axis of imagination, calmly resting on a cloud with a pillow wedged in by the leggy flight attendant, is in the end the ultimate HQ. I reach into the marsupial pouch on the seatback and pull out an inflight magazine, forget the crossword. In the competitive art of travel and travail, not one of us ever prevails. We gladly suffer not for our art but to see as much of the world as possible. I’m not sure if I prefer Bill Bryson or Bill Buford. I am nothing else but my biography, a long list of magazine credits.

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