Jeff Jarvis on travelogues
The more I find myself welded to this desk, the more I love travelogues. I don’t mean travel guides, which tell you which restaurants take American Express and which hotels have marble baths and minibars. I mean travelogues, in which brave or loony adventurers — who often happen to be British — take you to exotic places that don’t necessarily have restaurants or bathrooms.
Paul Theroux (Riding the Iron Rooster, The Old Patagonian Express), an American who lives in Britain and tries to act British, has taken me to more places than Pan Am ever could — to dingy corners of China and South America and to the boonies of the British Isles.
Theroux is the genre’s best because he has a grand voice, a sly sense of humor, and a discriminating eye and ear. Unlike some writers on the road, he doesn’t turn random anecdotes and observations into overblown sociological theses; he simply tells the story of his journey. What also sets Theroux apart is that he doesn’t necessarily fall in love with the people and places he sees. In fact, he can be quite a kvetch. In Rooster, the Chinese habit of loudly and publicly spitting drove him plain mad. Some say he has an attitude problem but I say he’s just honest. I liked his books so much that I tried other authors: Canadian historian Pierre Berton on the freezer above us in The Arctic Grail and The Mysterious North; Anthony Bailey on the towns along the Iron Curtain in Along the Edge of the Forest; P. J. O’Rourke on the world as a comedy-club stage in Holidays in Hell.
Most great travelogues are books and most don’t inspire me to pack my bags — but there are exceptions. Fat Man on a Bicycle, on PBS a few seasons back, followed a charming and rotund Brit named Tom Vernon as he rode across Scandinavia. The show moved me to try Stockholm on vacation and I had a great time. But that was two summers ago. It’s winter now. I’m at the office so much that this room is beginning to smell like home. I’m suffering from wanderlust — of the literary sort, if not the literal.
And here comes Michael Palin (A Fish Called Wanda), another Brit crazy enough to go to bizarre places where they don’t give you little bottles of shampoo in your hotel room. For Around the World in 80 Days, a series on A&E that just ended, and now for a lovely book published by the BBC, Palin recreated Phileas Fogg’s fictional journey — without benefit of jets —to Italy, Greece, Crete, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, China, Japan, and America.
I adored the series and now I’m savoring the book. Palin has all the attributes of a good travelogue writer: He is smart, observant, funny, and candid enough to admit when he is miserable and would rather be home when, for instance, he gets sick to his stomach during an eight-day sail from Dubai to Bombay on a small boat with a barrel slung over the side as a toilet. Palin becomes quite fond of the crew, who give him odd cures for his sickness — walking on his body and feeding him 7-Up with pepper. But still, he can whine like a mortal. ”Midday: 92 F under the awning. We’re due south of Karachi. Looking at my map I observe that it has taken us a day to travel between the ‘A’ and the ‘R’ of ‘Arabian Sea.’ ” Most of us return from travels with one repeatable adventure or two: I can bore scores telling about the time I turned the wrong way going through Checkpoint Charlie. I’ve had scores bore me with tales of lost luggage. But Palin seeks out bigger adventures every day of the 80 and recounts them with gentle honesty and wit. His travels provided enough wonderful material for a TV show and a book — and each is a great escape.
When I go into bookstores these days, I’m delighted to see the travelogue sections growing ever bigger. There are hundreds of places on the planet that I’ll never see except on paper or on a television screen. Next I think I’ll go to Iceland. Then I’ll go home for dinner.