A Review Of The Best American Travel Writing 2012

best american travel writing 2012Tijuana. Chernobyl. Sicily’s mafioso strongholds. Cairo’s Garbage City. The contaminated holy waters of Varanasi, India. Bosnia. Norway’s frozen tundra. These might not be the places you’d like to visit on your next holiday, but you will want to read about them in the latest edition of “The Best American Travel Writing(2012), which came out on October 3.

I’ve been an avid reader of this series, which is edited by Jason Wilson, the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, Obscure, and Overrated in Spirits,” since it debuted in 2000. Each year, there are stories that resonate with me and others that make me wonder how they qualified for such a prestigious anthology. Everyone has their own taste, and I for one, would have featured Jeffrey Tayler’s essay in “World Hum” about the travel memories conjured from an old address book, Gadling contributor David Farley’s fascinating account of his time in Minsk, or any number of other stories that appeared here on Gadling over a few of the selections in this year’s collection.And longtime readers of this series can’t help but notice how it seems to get slimmer and slimmer each year. This year’s book weighs in at just 222 pages, the leanest ever, while most of the previous editions of this series tipped the scales in the 300-400 page range. Bigger isn’t always better, and I don’t know if the trend is a sad commentary on the genre or if the publisher is simply trying to keep the price from rising above the current $14.95, but I hope the collection bulks back up in the future.

But BATW is always worth a read and this year’s edition, edited by the author, William T. Vollmann, has a host of standout pieces. The best travel stories are almost always about the kind of places mentioned in the outset of this post – unlikely tourist destinations – and BATW 2012 underscores that reality. Here’s a brief rundown of my favorite pieces from this year’s volume.

chernobylChernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden,” by Henry Shukman, Outside

Tourists have been permitted to visit Northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since January 2011, but I still think Henry Shukman is nuts. In the aftermath of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, 2 towns and 91 villages around the site were evacuated and some 600,000 workers engaged in a massive cleanup operation that left many stricken with cancer and other ailments. According to Shukman, some 2.7 million people around the region were affected, but these days, the 1,660 square foot exclusion zone is a “big untamed forest” where wildlife is making a comeback.

Shukman’s research is impressive and he tells a great story, but the highlight for me was his willingness to drink samogon, a local moonshine produced in the exclusion zone. I wouldn’t have done it, but I certainly enjoyed living through his experience.

zabaleen garbage collectors in cairoGarbage City,” by Elliott D. Woods, The Virginia Quarterly Review

I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time in the garbage dumps of Cairo, but Woods’ story about the city’s zabaleen- Coptic Christian recycling entrepreneurs was surprisingly fascinating. According to Woods, the zabaleen turn 80% of what they collect into postwaste, salable materials. Woods’ account of how the zabaleen have survived despite the entrance of multinational waste management firms is a must read.

“My Days with the Anti-Mafia,” by Thomas Swick, The Missouri Review

I have deep roots in Sicily and have traveled all over the island, but I’d never heard of Addiopizzo, an organization that supports businesses which refused to pay protection money (pizzo), until I read Swick’s informative and beautifully written story. Swick takes us to Zen 2, Palermo’s worst slum and introduces us to brave Sicilians who are standing up the mafia, despite the risks.

The Reckoning,” by Kenan Trebincevic, The New York Times Magazine

This essay from a Bosnian refugee who returned home to confront a traitorous neighbor is one of the book’s shortest but most compelling pieces.

The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame,” Bryan Curtis, Grantland

What do you want from Tijuana my friends? You want to meet a girl? As soon as I read that lead, I knew I was going to like this story, and it was actually even better than I bargained for. Curtis’s account of his trip to the now gringo-free T.J. in search of an obscure sports museum is hilarious.

But it’s also full of perceptive observations about how the U.S. media portrays all of Mexico as a “bloody slaughterhouse” rather than dissecting the crime problem as the “complicated, regionalized” issue that it is. Americans have mostly abandoned T.J. but Curtis concludes that the violence that scared thrill seekers off may now be “mostly a creation of the American mind.”

ganges varanasiMaximum India,” by Pico Iyer, Condé Naste Traveler

India’s holy city of Varanasi, Pico Iyer tells us, is like a “five-thousand year old man who may have put on a fcuk shirt and acquired a Nokia but still takes the shirt off each morning to bathe in polluted waters and uses his new cell phone to download Vedic chants.” Well then, just how polluted are those holy waters?

They “flow past thirty sewers, with the result that the brownish stuff the devout are drinking and bathing in contains three thousand times the maximum level of fecal coliform bacteria considered safe by the World Health Organization.” Iyer, who lives a reclusive, unconnected lifestyle in Japan, knows how to tell a story and this is a characteristically rich, insightful piece from one of the world’s great travel writers.

Amundsen Schlepped Here,” by Mark Jenkins, Outside

Jenkins has made a career out of embarking on trips that sound dreadful but are great fun to read about, and this account of his 100-mile cross-country skiing adventure across Hardangervidda National Park in Norway with his brother is no exception. Jenkins is the rare writer with the fortitude to persevere against winds and cold that kept them to a pace that, at one point, brought them just 14 miles down the path after seven hours of grueling exertion. The story also contains some thought-provoking insights into the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole in 1911.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Flickr users Tim Suess Shackdwellers Intl and JPereira]

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]

Gadling’s Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC

lincoln memorialAs our daily roster of posts and rigorous travel schedules can attest, we work hard here at Gadling (really; it’s not all lying on beaches, slurping pastel-hued cocktails…in fact, it rarely is). We’re a small team of freelancers who mostly have day jobs to help pay the bills, whether or not writing is our primary occupation.

As part of AOL, we also have a pretty intense set of goals, including budgetary and company requirements to meet. That’s one of the main reasons our intrepid, workaholic Editor-in-Chief, Grant Martin, plans a yearly team summit for us. It’s a way to talk shop, brainstorm, work on improving our effectiveness and skill as travel writers, bond with one another, and get a working vacation in a city that for many of us is a new destination.

In the last four years, team summits have been held in Chicago, Austin, New York and, most recently, Washington DC. From May 4-6, sixteen of our contributor crew of 20 headed to the nation’s capital, coming from as far away as Northern Spain (Sean McLachlan, who none of us feel sorry for), Maui (Kyle Ellison, ditto) and Northwest DC (Melanie Renzulli). We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Dupont Circle, right across the street from the infamous Hilton where former President Reagan took a bullet. There’s history on every corner in DC, let me tell you.

Read on to learn more about the cultural sights and flavors of DC, how many travel writers it takes to name the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot, why DC cops are the greatest, and when to use “dollar” as a verb. Names have been changed where indicated to protect…myself (from retaliation).

DC row housesMay 4
With most of the team not arriving until late afternoon, our summit officially kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with an extended Happy Hour at 701 Restaurant, a downtown lounge with live jazz. Two early DC arrivals, however, had taken advantage of a “2 for 1” happy hour at a nondescript establishment across the street from the hotel – let’s call them “Jane” and “Bob.” Jane, who’d suggested going in, thought it was a dive bar but Bob was well aware it was, in fact, a sleazy strip joint. Jane was reportedly quite embarrassed, as she’d just met Bob five minutes prior, but a good drink special is hard to pass up.

Like Jane and Bob, many of us are meeting for the first time – an occupational hazard. The evening is casual, and most of us catch up on gossip, get to know one another and talk shop. Several enjoyable hours later, we splinter off into groups: those of us who want to call it a night and enjoy the balmy weather by walking back to the hotel, and those who want to tear it up. Sweet dreams.

May 5
11:30 a.m. Noon: Most of the team gathers at DC’s Eastern Market, a historic public food hall, for a walking “Food Tour of Capitol Hill.” Led by DC Metro Food Tours, which also offers cultural culinary visits to Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan and other neighborhoods and nearby cities, it’s a way for us to get our writerly juices flowing, as well as learn a bit about the area. It’s also a potential means of generating income, whether we write it up for Gadling or try to sell a story to another outlet. Travel writers: always working.

We have an abbreviated tour due to time constraints, but spend an interesting two hours learning the history of Capitol Hill, particularly Barracks Row, an enchanting micro-neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sweet little row houses. Historical points of interest include the birthplace of musician John Philip Sousa, the Marine Commandant’s home and the Navy Yard.

DC is well known for its ethnically diverse cuisine, which is due to both its immigrant history and the number of embassies located within the city. Capitol Hill, the largest Victorian neighborhood, has, over the past 200 years, been occupied by laborers, craftsmen, members of Congress, the military and significant populations of African American, Latin American and European immigrants.

The three restaurants we visited were chosen for their ethnic significance and popularity. We begin with North Carolina BBQ and soul food (candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea) at the famed Levi’s Port Cafe (beloved by politicos). Our guide explains that DC is considered a bit of a Southern city due to its geographic location and the number of residents who originally hail from the South.
las placitas
We move on to delicious Greek mezze at Cava Mezze, and finish up with fried yuca and manioca, carnitas and margaritas at Salvadorian restaurant Las Placitas. By the end of the tour, all of us have a better understanding of DC’s historical roots, and how they’ve developed its culinary scene.

3 p.m.: Business and Technical session at HuffPost offices downtown. The core of our visit, this team meeting is dedicated to the year’s goals and objectives, brainstorming and new media and travel industry trends. It’s also a chance for us to ask questions and get feedback from Grant on our individual and team performance and address any concerns.

One of the things Gadling is being more meticulous with this year is improving standards. We recently acquired our very own copy editor, the wonderful Robin Whitney (so if you see a typo, blame her…just kidding, Robin!).

7:30 p.m.: We meet for dinner at Station 4, a new, modern American restaurant near the Southwest Waterfront. I grab a cab with “Victoria,” her husband, Sean McLachlan, and Chris Owen. Our driver was a dapper West African gentleman clad in a funky-ass suit. He possessed a distressingly advanced vocabulary and knowledge of global politics and geography, and kept us in hysterics the entire ride. In his lilting accent, he’d ask us questions and quiz us on trivia like, “Name all of the countries in Africa that have four letters in them,” “What is the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot?” and “Name all of the world’s countries located within a country.”

He had no idea we were travel writers, which is good, because we were stumped most of the time. Victoria secretly videotaped the entire episode only to delete it after viewing. She explained that the shame was too great and it read like a bad joke: “A former archaeologist, a musician, a photographer, a food writer and a cruise expert get into a cab…”

After dinner (and a few too many glasses of vino), it was determined by someone that we were all going to take the Metro to a bar in Adams Morgan. We set off in clusters – keeping a posse of 16 together is damn near impossible when cabs and mass transit are involved, alcohol or no.
Thus began a new Gadling summit activity, what Pam Mandel dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Adventure One entailed having your ATM card digested by a Metro ticket machine and being trapped underground for an hour waiting for an employee to resolve the issue. Adventure Two utilized DC’s popular Capital Bikeshare and involved a scenic tour of the city’s historic sites, culminating with a dramatic finale at the Washington Monument.

Led by a team member I’ll call “Ulysses,” it was by all accounts a weekend highlight. Especially when Ulysses, distracted by the wonder that is the Lincoln Memorial, slammed at full speed into the back of a parked police car, denting it. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, and the tolerant officers only issued him a ticket for reckless pedaling.

A number of team members congregated at a popular watering hole called The Big Hunt, holding court until closing. Over on Adventure Four, Bob and Jane got into a debate in the cab over the name of the strip club, which piqued the interest of their fellow passengers, an angelic-looking blogger we’ll call Tiffany, and an esteemed member of the team whose identity shall heretofore be known as “Paul Theroux.”

A trip to said club ensued in the name of research. Readers should note that DC gentleman’s clubs are to be avoided on Cinco de Mayo eve because of the vast numbers of tequila-saturated frat boys in residence, rowdily “dollaring” (a term invented by Tiffany, blowing her “America’s Sweetheart” cover) the girls on stage. Bob and Jane were surprised to note that they’d already achieved “regular” status, and they’d like to go on record as saying that DC gentleman’s club staff, in their limited experience, are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the, ah, service industry. Paul Theroux smiled inscrutably while watching the Greeks, and remarked that the evening had developed into quite the “sociological experience.”

Day Three
All rise and power down copious amounts of caffeine for the 11:30 Noon 12:30 p.m. behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (post coming soon, so I’ll dispense with the details other than to say it was spectacular and an absolute must on your itinerary if you’re planning a visit to DC – and it’s free).

1:30 p.m.: Minus a few early airport departures, a final gathering at the HuffPost offices to hear travel writing gurus/team members Don George and David Farley do a presentation on how to craft more effective narrative travel writing. It was inspiring and interesting, even for those of us who are veterans of the genre, and made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of six pizzas ordered by Grant (Upper Crust on Pennsylvania Ave. NW does it right).

Sadly, most of us had to depart for our respective airports within the hour, but hugs all around, and promises to visit one another soon are made. All kidding aside, it was a truly memorable weekend for both work and play. I can only speak for myself (and what I gleaned eavesdropping on others) but the camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst our current team is something that’s very rare. I feel blessed to have such a fun, talented, diverse group to work with, as well as the leadership of an editor like Grant.

I should also add that it’s the first time I’ve enjoyed DC, despite eight prior visits. It’s true what they say: it’s not where you are, but who you’re with.

Special thanks to McLean Robbins and Jeremy Kressmann for their help in arranging assorted venues and activities for the summit.

[Photo credits: Lincoln Memorial, Flickr user pochacco20; row houses, Flickr user flickr-rickr; rest, Melanie Renzulli]

Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

Jack KerouacWhile blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

Asleep On The Track: The Lives Of Travel Writers

Asleep on the track: the lives of travel writers

Falling asleep on the New York City subway at 3 a.m. is usually not a good thing. I’ve lived in a few places in the world that have subway systems – San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Rome – and I’ve had the good fortune to have never conked out on the subway, waking up miles past your stop in a semi-drunken daze and wondering what strange land beyond your usual station you’ve drifted off to. That is until recently. I was temporarily staying with a friend in Brooklyn and one night, after an evening of drinks and dinner (and, um, more drinks) with friends, I got on the D train to head back home.

It seemed like one minute I was trying not to stare at the drunken couple making out across from me and the next I was blurry-eyed and slumped over – the magazine I had been reading still affixed to my now sweaty palm. I was deep into a Brooklyn I’d never encountered before. I glanced at my phone: it was 3:13 a.m. I got off at the next stop and began wandering. The streets were quiet enough to hear a bagel drop. I was hoping to find a car service but I had no idea where I was. A minute later, though, I turned a corner and, as if a chorus of angels were belting out a heavenly note from above and a divine light beam were cast down from the clouds, there was right in front of me a brightly lit sign: CAR SERVICE.

The first thing I noticed in the Spartan lobby was a man. A large, girthful man sprawled out on a bench – actually spilling over it – like some sort of plump over-sized octopus. My first reaction for some reason was to take his picture. I did, and then I turned to the man behind the plexi-glass and told him I needed a car.

“Andrei!” he yelled past me. And then again: “Andrei! You got a job.”

I looked around and saw there was no one else in the room. Except for the guy sleeping in the bench – Andrei.

Suddenly this rotund giant of a man, looking unusually comfortable in dreamland, was roused from a deep sleep.

Andrei, who was born in Russia, was a friendly man. As we navigated the sedate streets, he peppered me with questions. Where was I from? Did I like New York? What was my favorite vodka?

Then he asked what I did for a living. “I’m a food and travel writer,” I said.

“Tra-vel wrrrri-ter?” he said, sounding out each syllable like he was verbally stepping on terra firma after being lost at sea for a few months.

Somehow he didn’t understand. He’d latched on to the words “travel” and “writer,” acting as if they were as incongruent and incomprehensible together as the words “Yakov” and “Smirnoff.”

I explained it in simple terms: I travel to places where I eat and talk to people and then I write about it.

“Ah,” he said. “You write about where to find restaurant.”


“Where to find nightclub.”

I gave him an affirmative “uh-huh.”

“Where to find prostitute.”

Um … not exactly.

“But, you know,” he added, “there are five different types of prostitute.”

And then he launched into an explanation of each plateau of prostitution. I tuned out, thinking Andrei had a Parkinson’s grip on my profession. As a lot of people might. It’s very romanticized and understandably so. Travel is something we all aspire to – it’s our ultimate expression of freedom – a dream job, or in Andrei’s case, one in which you can direct people to the nearest prostitute.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. Every spring I teach a travel writing class at New York University. Within the first five minutes of the first class, I tell my students the bubble-bursting secret: that being a travel writer is almost as over-romanticized as bacon, Brooklyn and Italy. Not that I’m necessarily complaining. Sometimes on the road, we can experience glimpses of a decadent life of Hemingwayan proportions, but when we get back home, the cash-strapped reality sinks in as quickly as it takes to boil a packet of Top Ramen. Travel we most certainly do; money we most certainly do not make.

I’m often asked if my job ruins the act of travel for me. I think back to the epic flights sitting behind guys who unforgivingly recline their seats into my lap, watching mediocre romantic comedies (which are always much better from 35,000 feet in the air, for some reason) and eating microwave-baked gruel all to chase a story somewhere on the planet. I actually hate the act of travel. The word travel, after all, comes from “travail,” which comes from “tripalium,” a Roman instrument of torture.

My answer, though, is no, it actually makes travel richer. I’m forced to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist so I can attempt to get underneath the place. I end up in restaurant kitchens talking to Michelin-starred chefs, in the passenger seat of other people’s cars going God knows where, and sometimes trying not to fall asleep on the subway after a long night of drinking (and, by that I mean “working,” of course). When I finally do get home, it makes the quotidian pleasures of the familiar that much sweeter. Even falling asleep on the subway and getting a lesson from a Russian taxi driver on how to choose the best prostitute is an exciting endeavor when put in the context of a 15-hour flight.

When we pulled up to my place, I paid Andrei and then suggested that, given his seemingly vast knowledge about the ladies of the night, perhaps he should consider a career change and become a travel writer.

The rub, of course, is that he’d never be able to afford such ladies if he was a travel writer.