The question about the demise of travel writing hounded me for weeks. I have traveled a lot, written a lot, but what does it mean to write about journeys?
The genre, as I realized in my ruminations, has undergone a palpable shift, but remains ever relevant. Its definition has expanded in a world where knowledge and experience are instantaneous. We can Google our way into the farthest reaches of the globe – our vision surpassed by the optical depth of satellites thousands of miles away. They help us explore every topographic feature of Mongolia or see a live view of a street in Union City, California. But what satellites and the internet don’t do is give a voice to the experience. And that’s where travel writing endures. It is a literary selfie, a time-stamped reflection of an experience that goes beyond a headshot, a staged smile and a sucked-in stomach. The genre continues to be produced and consumed because of an intrinsic human desire – the need to connect and be understood.
One could argue that all writing fits into the genre of travel writing. But travel writing commits the author and the reader to a certain intimacy that other genres don’t quite attain. Why? Because travel writing is epistolary in nature. Travel writing uses the voyage and the destination as referents to communicate something larger – our own evolution of thought and person as we make meaning of new environments and the people we encounter along the way.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of travel writing is that it happens, naturally, when one is away. It is a product of distance. My first piece of travel writing was a letter to my parents in primary school. I was about eleven years old and reporting from the countryside of Surrey, England, where my classmates and I were on school trip. After wishing my parents a happy Nowruz (new year in Afghanistan) in orthographically-challenged Farsi, I broke into English:
The journey was great, and we arrived very safely. The dormitories are very nice. I sleep on the top of the bunk bed. We have enough food and I’m perfectly alright! I miss you very much. We went orienteering and went to a clay pitch.
At that point, I was already far removed from one home (Afghanistan) and adjusting to being away my parents for the first time. Some two decades after my riveting account of a day at camp, I kept a travel blog. It started when I lived in Buenos Aires for six weeks on a whim, and I subsequently used it to share other experiences – exploring scar tissue in Rome, finding faith in Colorado and discovering unparalleled beauty in Rio de Janeiro. Each entry had begun as a email to a friend; internal musings over the course of the day that wound their way back home, to those I cared about, and perhaps the strangers I did not know but hoped to know through writing. Travel reflections populated the void marked by absence of home with words and relevance. What connection can remain between sentient beings a world apart without some form of correspondence?
Travel writing, then, is a timeless medium, perpetuated by a longing to encounter the world an inch or a thousand miles beyond our faces. Writing and reading on journeys is about touching your own soul to someone else’s, an act of cathartic acknowledgment that, simply, they exist. In that process, we come to know ourselves and in sharing it, we come to be understood. And so I write hoping that, like a picture, the words leave an indelible impression where we are most alive and connected – in our imaginations.
Photograph © Ricardo Mangual