A Meta-Travel Writing Piece, pt. 1

As a generalization, people who travel are interesting.  Not interesting in the sense that they are unique or intriguing (sometimes that is the case), but that they often tell good stories because they have fresh experiences to draw from.  And within the broader fraternity of travelers, the people who detach themselves from the grid and opt for the most self-indulgent of all pursuits – living on a boat, for example – are really the ones who are out there doing it.  Lately, some fortunate journalists from the New York Times have managed to convince their editors to allow them to do just that, and still get paid for their troubles.  And, in the spirit of the meritocratic nature of the Internet, I am going to give a lesson on travel writing.

Someone (not me) entering the propeller

These two articles – “Out at Sea, Relaxing in the Philippines” and “Cambodia’s Sweet Spot” – are basically cubicle fantasies, subtly acknowledging that the whole purpose of the piece is to make you wish that you were there and not where you happen to be at the moment.  In the first, the author takes a five-day sailing trip from El Nido to Coron.  Faithful readers of this blog will remember that Coron is the place where I cut my diving teeth, descending to 42 meters (12 beyond the legal limit for someone of my experience and designation) and into the propeller shaft of the Okikawa Maru, World War II relic of the naval battles in the Pacific Rim.   In a true case of trial by fire, I followed a Filipino dive master who had forgotten to put batteries in his torch inside the ship and was trailed by a Frenchman who almost got lost taking a wrong turn down a staircase in a 168-meter long Japanese tanker sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.   Fortunately, we caught the Frenchman heading to a different floor before it was too late, though his spirit of adventure would have hopefully guided him out of whichever room in the ship he happened to find himself.

The flight from Coron

The second article is about Kep, a sleepy town in Cambodia that has recently seen a surge of interest from travelers seeking an authentic and laid-back beach experience.  As a young backpacker in 2009, I considered myself what people in the business world call a “first-mover,” descending on the place with a small group of American microfinance volunteers and a Belgian epidemiologist who had nothing but bad things to say about two-term president who directly preceded Barack Obama.  Ironically, the Belgians, led by King Leopold, made the Americans look like Mother Theresa during the 19th century in Africa.  Unfortunately, this blog was only three posts long at the time, and the fourth – classified in my “travel and culture” section” – read as follows:

I am heading to Vietnam until December 23rd, and Cambodia until January 4th.  I am going to try to update the blog as much as I can during the break.  See you in 2010.

Clearly I was not as knowledgeable about geopolitics as I am today.  Had I met this Belgian the 260th post (this one), he would have received an earful.  Fortunately, another Kiva Fellow and frequent travel buddy, Gemma, did know a thing or two about a thing or two, and let him have it.

The only way off the island off the coast of Kep

These articles in the Times follow a classic pattern of travel writing.  Each one opens with an anecdote describing a mundane situation which generally would not happen to in your daily life.  Levin comes out swinging in his piece, opening with a brief paragraph setting the scene:

WE were floating gingerly over a forest of antler-shaped coral when I heard a Swede who was snorkeling with me shout. I popped my head above water and caught only a fragment of his declaration in the slosh of waves: “Monster in a hole.”

When he wrote that line, he surely knew what he was doing, which is to effectively reach out from the pages of the newspaper and grab the poor guy who just wanted to take his mind off the pile of work his boss just put on his desk by the collar and say “See what you could be doing?”.  Now, on top of all that, the man has to deal with the knowledge that someone somewhere is being paid to snorkel with Swedes.  But that is the key to being a good travel writer.  No one wants to read about the guy who stayed on the boat because he was afraid of getting sunburned.  They want to hear about the crazy Swedish guy who is hunting for moray eels.

Hello turtle.

Once you have set the scene, you really need to drive the point home.  Again, Levin pulls no punches in letting you know just how much better his life is than yours.  After finishing the story about the snorkeling Swede, he breaks it down in much simpler terms:

Fortunately, relaxation was never in short supply aboard the Buhay. We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.

Nothing to do but relax.

I know from experience that this is exactly what happens in the waters between El Nido and Coron.  After getting my open water and advanced certification in the span of a week, I flew to Coron to explore some wrecks.  Normally, you would need a special certification and at least 50 dives before exploring a sunken ship 40 meters below the surface of the ocean.  Of course, I had neither a certification nor anything close to 50 dives.

Fortunately, this is not the case in the Philippines, where the same laid-back vibe that Levin describes pervades every aspect of life, including the risk tolerance of the Filipino beach bum in charge of keeping you alive underwater.  When he asked how many dives I had, I lied and said 15 (it was only 10).  Clearly, I should have gone higher, since his next question was, “How good are you?”  But as a two-year captain of my swim team in high school, very little about the water scares me, so down we went.

In part two of this post, I will describe how to use language and stories to make people jealous.

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