Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

Are you turning into a traveling stereotype? Find out here.

I’m halfway through cooking a dinner of Ramen Noodles at my three-dollar-a-night hostel in Mexico, and suddenly it dawns on me: I haven’t showered in two days, I have ten pesos in my pocket, and I slept in a cave last night. God dammit, I thought, I’m turning into a traveling stereotype.

To help you avoid the same dark path, I’ve composed a “Field Guide” to traveling stereotypes. If any of the following descriptions start to sound a little too familiar, put down your plate of Ramen Noodles and run. I said, Run, dammit!

The Frugal Backpacker

Description: You’re eager to see the world, even if you don’t exactly have the funds to pay for it. In fact, a person takes a leak with more forethought than you gave to your financial situation before this trip. You barely scraped together enough cash to fly standby to your destination, and your tentative plan is to return in the hull of a cargo ship. Your budget is roughly $2.50 per day, including approximately $0 for gifts for friends and family. Thirty percent of your body is composed of Ramen Noodles.

Aesthetic: Ebenezer Scrooge meets A Map for Saturday

  • Turn-ons: Free refills, haggling over miniscule amounts of money, sleeping in bus stations, raiding wishing wells (I’ve heard)
  • Turn-offs: Shampoo, any accomodation ending in the word “hotel” rather than “hostel”
  • Won’t go near: An ATM

The Business Traveler

Description: You travel with the joyless efficiency of someone who’s spent far too much time drinking overpriced cocktails in airport restaurants with names like “Blue Skye Bar and Grille”. You can visit a Panda Express at any airport in the world and order “the usual.” When taking your seat in a crowded airplane, you clog the aisle for several minutes while folding your sport jacket like you’re in the color guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

  • Aesthetic: Steve Forbes meets immaculate luggage
  • Turn-ons: USA Today, expense accounts, looking snazzy
  • Turn-offs: Crying babies, the middle seat
  • Won’t go near: Coach

The Over-the-Hill Backpacker

Description: Your grandchildren set up a travel blog for you before you left six months ago. It still says “Under construction. Come back soon!” You love sleeping in hostels but don’t understand why the kids have to turn their damn music up so loud.

You wake up before most of your fellow backpackers go to bed. You’re heartened by other backpackers who frequently tell you, “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m your age.” You inspire travelers pretty much wherever you go.

  • Aesthetic: Lonely Planet meets Centrum Silver
  • Turn-ons: Bran cereal, getting up early, bringing all your medication with you for the next six months
  • Turn-offs: Updating your blog, Florida retirement communities, loud damn music
  • Won’t go near: ‘Nam, Korea

The Luxury Traveler

Description: You’re still vexed by the fact that you can’t find ice cubes in Europe. As noted in The Onion, you frequently tell people that you “love Brazil” despite the fact that you’ve only seen two square miles of it. You stay away from street food because you’re certain it will give you some combination of AIDS and leprosy. Your main concern before a trip is what kind of rental car you’re going to get. You still have a travel agent for some reason.

  • Aesthetic: Conde Nast Traveler meets Samantha Brown
  • Turn-ons: Conspicuous consumption, bell hops, a detailed itinerary, blowing your children’s inheritance
  • Turn-offs: Hostels, street food, people who don’t speak English
  • Won’t go near: India, except Goa