True Stories from Around the World

The Best Travel Writing, Volume 11 is the latest in the annual Travelers’ Tales series launched in 2004 to celebrate the world’s best travel writing — from Nobel Prize winners to emerging new writers. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes encompass high adventure, spiritual growth, romance, hilarity and misadventure, service to humanity, and encounters with exotic cuisines and cultures. Includes winners from the annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.

In The Best Travel Writing, Volume 11, readers will:

Piece together the puzzle of life in rural Cambodia
Reawaken the joy of travel on a bus ride through Mexico
Reexamine war memories with former soldiers in Vietnam
Learn the ropes and the art of sailing with a “good captain” on the Pacific
Find a true soul sister in the highlands of Ecuador
Follow Vincent van Gogh’s footsteps in France
Survive (or not) a home invasion in Brazil…and much more


Picturesque World

By Rolf Potts

Earlier this year, while road tripping through the American South, I wandered into a New Orleans bookstore and wound up dropping $250 on a nineteenth-century travel tome entitled Picturesque World. I typically wouldn’t have spent that much on an unwieldy old book, but something about it sent me into an imaginative reverie that felt a little bit like time-travel.

Most any journey can, at moments, have a way of making a traveler feel like he’s navigating a blurred line between present and past. Walk through the urban slums at the outskirts of modern Mumbai, and you can get a sense of what New York’s Lower East Side might have felt like in 1900; lose your smartphone in Copenhagen and you may well find yourself trapped in 1999 (that distant age when travelers still used paper maps and the kindness of strangers to find their way around). In New Orleans, I often saw the present-day city through the lens of the previous decade, when I’d spent the first few months of 2005 living out of a rented apartment at the edge of the French Quarter, blissfully unaware that hurricane-triggered floods would soon transform everything around me. Discovering the two-volume heft of Picturesque World in Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur Street sent me back even further in time. Paging through the book’s exquisitely detailed engravings of landscapes and monuments and village vistas from distant lands, I felt like I’d discovered some long-forgotten steam-punk incarnation of Instagram.

At first glance the Instagram comparison might seem spurious, since Picturesque World clearly was designed for an elite readership. Published by Boston’s Estes & Lauriat in 1878, the two 576-page volumes are bound in blind-tooled Moroccan goat-leather and accented with gilt-stamp detailing and gold-painted endpapers. Its full title reads: The Picturesque World; Or, Scenes in Many Lands: With One Thousand Illustrations on Wood and Steel of Picturesque Views from All Parts of the World. Comprising Mountain, Lake and River Scenery, Parks, Palaces, Cathedrals, Churches, Castles, Abbeys, and Other Views Selected from the Most Noted and Interesting Parts of the World; With Original and Authentic Descriptions by the Best Authors.

Picturesque World was assembled at a time when the very definition of travel writing was shifting. For millennia, going back to Herodotus and beyond, the bulk of travel writing was at heart an empirical endeavor, dutifully describing faraway peoples and places for the imaginations of the home audience. By the late nineteenth century, however, the rise of new engraving and photographic technology meant that the reading public could see the world in pictures rather than envisioning it from text descriptions. National Geographic debuted one decade after the release of Picturesque World, and before long the monthly geographical magazine came to be known more for its full-page photographs than for its scientific data. Around the same time, the Exposition Universelle in Paris sparked a fad for picture postcards, which by the turn of the century were being sold in the billions in Europe and North America.

As images of the world continued to proliferate in mass media, cultural critics on both continents began to wonder if something was being lost in the process. Much like Plato once worried that writing would stunt people’s ability to memorize, early twentieth-century academics and newspaper editors worried that images would impoverish the imagination, inhibit cultural literacy, and oversimplify our understanding of the world. In 1906, American writer John Walker Harrington satirically suggested that the world was succumbing to a disease known as “postal carditis,” asserting that “unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain.”

More than a century later, it’s easy to draw parallels between that fin de siècle image boom and the current-day ubiquity of digital photographs on picture-sharing apps like Instagram. Century-old anxieties that postcards might trivialize one’s understanding of the world reverberate in current-day critiques of social media—with the added concern that “selfie culture” lends a veneer of narcissism to the equation. Whereas the postcards of previous generations were inscribed with “wish you were here!” sentiments, artfully filtered Instagram photos imply something along the lines of “don’t you wish you were me?” In this way, critics worry, as more and more travelers reflexively post scenery-fringed selfies to social media, journeys have become less about an inquiry into other places than a roving performance of the Self.

While I can appreciate this concern, I would contend that a degree of superficiality has always been a part of travel, particularly as it has become more and more accessible for middle-class tourists over the past two centuries. The engravings in Picturesque World triggered my fascination not because they were somehow purer than the travel photos one sees on Instagram, but because they are essentially the same as their social media equivalents. Search Instagram for photos of Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal, the Pantheon or the Parthenon, and you’ll find tens of thousands of digital snapshots that share the exact same angles, lighting, and framing as the images in Picturesque World. Regardless of whether these pictures feature a selfie, the most viral social-media travel photos have a way of depicting places in terms of iconic beauty (i.e. the “picturesque”) rather than experiential nuance.

Around the time Picturesque World first appeared in libraries and bookstores, conventional wisdom held that ongoing advances in photographic technology and scientific empiricism would soon render travel writing obsolete. What this assumption overlooked, of course, was that the best travel writing had always shrugged off the conceit of objectivity and embraced a personal point of view. The ancient Egyptian traveler Wenamun is memorable less for his description of the Mediterranean than for his weeping jag of homesickness in Lebanon; the fourth-century Galician pilgrim Egeria is at her most profound when she expresses gratitude for the kindness of strangers who showed her hospitality in the Sinai; the fourteenth-century Moroccan wanderer Ibn Battuta is most relatable when he longs for the lifestyle of a simple weaver on an idyllic island in the Maldives. And, around the time Picturesque World was published, the most telling travel book was not some exhaustive colonial monograph, but Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which exuded self-deprecating chagrin at the prescribed rituals of tourism.

In a way, the flood of travel images stretching from Instagram back to Picturesque World has freed travel writing from the pretense of objective description and underscored its importance as a subtle, open-ended, ragged-edged undertaking. Beholden neither to the panic-driven tropes of news journalism or the forced cheerfulness of tourism publicity, the best travel writing blends reportage with reflection, seeking out the complex humanity of places through a subjective, self-questioning personal lens. Simple attention counts for more than overarching analysis, and wrestling with questions is more important than outlining answers.

The travel stories collected in this book illustrate how, on the road, the most vivid lens into a place and its people is often revealed in the smallest moments and the simplest encounters. For Laura Resau, this means consenting to wear a traditional Quichuan dress while going out on the town with her indigenous host in Ecuador; for Darrin Duford, this means exploring the idiosyncrasies of Panamanian culture through a quixotic quest to find a new Panama hat; for Amber Paulen, this means gaining perspective on her own life by baking bread with a self-described “spinster” in Italy. Mario Kaiser’s experience of Iran is transformed by the fact that, against all conventional wisdom, he and his wife have chosen to travel there in the throes of their honeymoon; in Malaysia Christina Ammon learns that what at first feels like an exasperating inconvenience—her truck breaking down in an obscure provincial town—can, in time, be a window into the joys of friendship with the people who live in an unfamiliar place.

Many of the stories in this book show how, as first-world travelers, the most affecting lessons we learn in distant lands often involve people who don’t enjoy the same privileges that we do. Olga Pavlinova Olenich discovers this while sharing a train compartment with a Moldovan migrant whose travels are motivated not by leisure, but the promise of “illegal” work in Portugal; Michael Sano gains perspective when, far from his out-of-the-closet life in San Francisco, he falls into an ambiguous flirtation with a young gay man in the conservative confines of small-town Nicaragua. Time and movement also have a way helping us understand our relationship to distant places: for James Michael Dorsey this means experiencing Baja California by bus; for Glenda Reed, approaching the Marquesas Islands by sailboat; for Peter Wortsman, digging deeper into the idiosyncrasies of France as his language skills improve over the course of many years. The passage of time also takes on a poignant resonance when—in an inversion of the dynamic insinuated by Picturesque World or Instagram—Marcia DeSanctis reflects on how, as often as not, the most powerful narrative contained in a travel photograph is not found in the subject it depicts, but in the person who chose to leave herself out of the frame.

In the end, the best travel writing risks a kind of vulnerability that is intrinsic to experiencing the world in a meaningful way. In the essay that concludes this book, Don George’s emotional epiphany during a moment of rain-sodden exhaustion in Cambodia reveals how, in travel, getting “closer to the wild heart of life” is often inseparable from embracing uncertainty and keeping your eyes open in unfamiliar places. “I follow the compass of my heart,” he writes, “venturing off the map, making connections, asking questions, going deeper, trying to penetrate the essence of a place, so that I can understand it better and bring back precious pieces to share.”

So long as this attitude underpins the journey, travel writing will always remain relevant.