Travel writing: how not to do it

We’ve had some interesting posts on travel writing lately, including Don George’s secret formula for writing a successful travel narrative and Pam Mandel’s report on Book Passage. While studying good writing is vital to learning how to write, it’s also important to study bad writing so you know what not to do.

Talented writer Steve Almond tackles this for us with his hilarious skewering of Toto’s 1982 pop hit Africa. I never liked this song, although it was the background theme to far too many high school memories. While this is a song and not a travel article, it includes many of the mistakes sloppy writers make when covering travel in general and Africa in particular. Watch, laugh, and learn.

Thanks to my friend Hannah for showing me this vid!

Top 10 travel-themed 80’s songs

Something happened to songwriters during the 80’s. Synthesizers became required instruments, hair got bigger and most importantly, songwriters were increasingly interested in the theme of travel. Why was travel suddenly such an important subject? Though there’s no one right answer, the reasons for the glut of travel-themed 80’s songs are many, including the influence of globalization, the rise of international pop stars and, of course, because the bands just wanted to seem cool and more worldly. Isn’t that always the best reason?

With so many great travel-themed 80’s pop songs out there, it was only natural for Gadling to compile a list of our top ten favorites. After hours of intensive polling, debating and arguing, we’re happy to present you with the following gems. How many do you remember? Think you know the best? Take a look below:

80’s Travel Song #10: The Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian

How does one “walk like an Egyptian” you might ask? Well, if you were The Bangles, it involved some awkward imitations of ancient hieroglyphics. Though they never do the dance in their video, the song kicked off a wave of hieroglyphics imitators, all turned sideways in tribute. So did the band ever visit Egypt? Were they avid archaeology buffs? I’m afraid the answer is probably no. But hey, the dance makes you look pretty cool. Make sure to show it off the next time you find yourself on the streets of Cairo!

80’s Travel Song #9: Murray Head – One Night in Bangkok

So what exactly is going on here? 80’s one-hit wonders Murray Head sing this ode to Bangkok, originally composed by the former members of ABBA, as part of the soundtrack for the hit musical Chess, and the music video doesn’t stray too far from the theme. A guy plays chess, people are dancing with Asian masks in a dark scary room and there’s lots of smoke. I haven’t yet been to Bangkok, but based on this video, I think I have a pretty good sense of what to expect. If nothing else, it’s got quite a hummable chorus, no?

80’s Travel Song #8: U2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In 1986, U2 began work on a new album called The Joshua Tree. The record was meant to describe all that they loved about American musical traditions, including Blues, Gospel and Folk. The result of their efforts was their most popular album to date, including hit singles like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song’s themes of wandering, discovery and open road remain just as resonant today as when the song was first released back in 1987. Make sure to watch the official video (we couldn’t embed it, sorry) to see the band as they wander around Las Vegas.

80’s Travel Song #7: Go-Go’s – Vacation

Not only is “Vacation” the name of a hit song by 80’s all-girl group The Go-Go’s, it’s also the name of their 1982 album. Propelled by bouncy melodies and catchy guitar hooks, “Vacation” might seem to be the perfect carefree soundtrack to that next trip down to the Bahamas. But if you listen closely, you’ll notice the lyrics to “Vacation” really have nothing to do with travel, beaches or road trips: it’s actually about a relationship. That said, don’t let the lyrical content spoil the fun – “Vacation” remains an 80’s travel song favorite.

80’s Travel Song #6: B-52’s – Roam

They might not have known it at the time, but this quintessential ode to wandering by 80’s super-group The B-52’s was destined to be included on every travel-themed iPod playlist. It has all the right ingredients – the references to dusty trails, a sugary melody and plenty of killer choruses. Anytime you stuck at home or at the office and dreaming of that next big trip, throw on “Roam” and you’re guaranteed to be transported back out on the open road, if only in your mind.

80’s Travel Song #5: Billy Ocean – Caribbean Queen

Remember the first time you heard Billy Ocean’s Caribbean Queen? Was it in a dentist office waiting room? Streaming from the “Lite Rock” station at a coworker’s cubicle? It’s likely you don’t have fond memories of it, and frankly, that’s a shame. The ultimate “King of Smooth,” Mr. Billy Ocean, brings us this easy listening staple, a must-have on any self-respecting 80’s travel song list. The easygoing rhythms paired with the luxurious string section give this song a carefree, island vibe that’s hard to describe. You either want to break out in spontaneous dance or go cry in the corner – it’s hard to decide which feels more appropriate.

80’s Travel Song #4: Men at Work – Land Down Under

This one is just too easy. Men at Work’s Land Down Under music video has just about every 80’s and Australian cliche known to mankind. That includes the unnecessary man sitting in a tree playing a flute solo, a stuffed koala, band members wearing leather pants in the desert, and plenty of gratuitous Foster’s product shots. If you want to (mis)understand what the 80’s were all about, just watch this video. It’s amazing.

80’s Travel Song #3: Duran Duran – Rio

Like so many other epic pop singles, Duran Duran’s Rio is a tribute to that “special someone.” In this case though, the place and the person are used interchangeably. They call it “Rio,” an earthly paradise of beaches, twinkling stars and sensuous “curves.” Are they talking about Rio de Janeiro? Some other “river” of fantasies? A fair-skinned beauty? The answer is up to the listener to decide. Make sure to watch the sailboat-themed video (which we weren’t able to embed in this post).

80’s Travel Song #2: Toto – Africa

Africa has long been a source of mystery and intrigue for travelers, a fact one-hit wonders Toto play off in this tribute to the famously “exotic” continent. The action in the video inexplicably kicks off in a library (in Africa, I guess?) where the band is searching for answers. Sadly, despite pulling a number of dusty tomes off the shelf, including one appropriately titled “Africa,” they don’t seem to find anything of use. Soon an errant spear is thrown into the bookcase and chaos ensues. If you’re looking to find every possible stereotype about Africa embodied in a catchy pop song, Toto’s Africa is it.

80’s Travel Song #1: Big Country – In a Big Country

Big Country might not have achieved the same degree of 80’s-hit stardom as Duran Duran or Men at Work, but their grand opus, “In a Big Country,” is among the most epic travel songs of all time. Much like Rio, “In a Big Country” mixes subjects between special places and people, singing of the inspiring places around us and the people that inhabit them. The soaring lyrics and catchy chorus never fail to get your body moving and your mind dreaming off distant lands. Plus, in the music video, the band seems to be having plenty of fun along the way, tooling around on 3-wheelers in search of adventure.

Straight No Chaser brings me back to Senegal with “Africa” and Christmas cleverness

I learned to make a food dryer while I was a Peace Corps volunteer at a food preserving training in Thiés, Senegal. It looked a bit like a space ship, but it did work. The friend who was my partner and I created the design ourselves. Oh, we were so proud when the flies were kept out and the mango slices began to dry. That night, after a few beers, the other volunteers who had also come to this training and we danced outside in an open air pavilion to someone’s boom box. I distinctly remember “Africa” by Toto. It was March and a breeze was blowing gently. This was a night when all elements seemed to come together in perfection.

My husband’s cousin who was also in the Peace Corps, but in Cameroon emailed me the link today to this You Tube video of the a cappella group Straight No Chaser. This group hails from Indiana University–all alumni, and I have to say, they’re terrific. You’ll see. Halfway through, you’ll also find out why hearing their music evoked images of Africa–Christmas too–the beginning of this is a how many Christmas carols can you recognize in the Twelve Days of Christmas, but by the end I was in Thiés. I love this blend of elements–a cross-pollination of sorts. Since this group tours, you may catch them live somewhere. Here’s a link to Straight No Chaser’s performance dates.