A Meta-Travel Writing Piece, pt. 2

The beach in Koh Phanang off the southern coast of Thailand.

The other day I talked about the need to really draw your reader in with a short anecdote about something that could never happen in their lives right now, but could if they did what you are doing.  Another key to enhancing the reader experience is to include language that makes your movements seem just a little bit crazy.  Look at what Levin does in this paragraph:

So I hitched a van ride from Puerta Princesa to El Nido, a tiny, dense warren of dive shops that clings to Bacuit Bay in Palawan. What I found, after six hours swerving around goats along a dirt road, was a bangka launching pad to the region’s spectacular islands.

This is genius.  Hitching a van ride could be one of several things.  It could be sitting in the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of Filipino cockfighters on the way to a bloody death match, or it could be the driver from the hotel holding a sign outside the airport that says “DEVELOP ECONOMIES.”  The fact is that it doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that the van was hitched and the road was filled with goats apparently unphased by the vans streaming past.

"I rented a motorbike from an old man in Pai and almost hit an elephant."

Later in the article, Levin describes his interactions with the ragtag group of international wanderlusts.  Check this technique out:

All this nautical freedom was affecting my shipmates. Before starting the trip, Marly Pols, 43, a Dutch flight attendant, said she had only thought of the beaches in store. But by the second day we were sharing tales and bottles of rum like a band of leisurely pirates. “This is our home now,” she said as we lounged on the top deck the next morning. “We’re in this together.”

This is a classic move.  I know because I use it in all my pieces of about travel.  It is critical to highlight the fact that these people who you have never met before have become your friends much more quickly had you not met on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no electricity.  In one of my dad’s favorites – titled “Dispatch from a Shrinking Planet” – I described the days and nights with my own band of pirates as I moved from beach to beach around the Philippines:

I mostly traveled alone, and met some cool people along the way.  I dove with a woman representing Slovenia at the World Expo in Shanghai, a professor of comparative religion in Germany, an Italian banker, and some Filipino rastas who happened to be Rotarians.  Diving is a great way to meet people, since you’re out on a boat in the middle of the ocean for eight hours a day, three days in a row, with nothing to do but eat, drink, share stories and play cards.  In fact, some of my best memories are from either from the deck of a boat in the Pacific Ocean, or the bungalows and beachfront bars where I spent most of my nights.

Hanging out with the Italian banker at the front of the boat.

Another non-Somali pirate crew in Diani Beach, Kenya

The key is to highlight the sheer randomness of it all.  Most people wake up every morning and, on average, their day progresses in a similar way as the day before.  But when you are thrown on a boat in the middle of paradise with six strangers from around the world with nothing to do but look at coral reefs, eat fresh seafood, and drink cold beers, you tend to be able to spin a few good yarns.  The fact that you are asking yourself questions like “How did I get here?” and “Is this real?” needs to come through in your writing.  Otherwise, it seems too perfect.

Is this real?

The last element to a good travel piece is the element of introspection.  Traveling is about meeting people and seeing new things.  But it is also about you and the fact that you are doing something sweet.  Here is how Levin closes out the article:

Taking a breather, I crept barefoot off to the beach, empty save for the ghost crabs who hovered by their burrows, watching me with googly-eyes. The tide was a sigh, the sky aglow with constellations, and I was, thrillingly, the only witness.

A notion of independence is essential to good travel writing.  Ultimately, these are not articles about snorkeling with Swedish people in a tropical paradise.  They are testaments to the sense of liberation that comes with doing whatever you want.  It is less about travel and more about freedom.

A few months ago, I wrote a four-part post titled “How to Travel Alone.” In part two, I describe an impulsive decision that was momentous in my own realization that you can do whatever you want:

After an amazing four days of scuba diving in Coron, an island in Palawan that was the inspiration for the novel The Beach, I flew to Manila.  I was planning on taking a bus up north to La Union, a town northern Luzon, to do some surfing.  I bid farewell to a friend I’d met on the boat, and walked to the exit to hail a taxi at around 7 PM.  The main terminal in Ninoy Aquino International Airport has huge glass walls with a view of the city.

I took a moment to reflect on my plans.  Looking out at the city skyline, I thought about the traffic, the pollution, and the seedy red light district where my favorite guesthouse happened to be located.  After a few contemplative minutes, I turned around, walked up to the Cebu Pacific ticket counter and bought a flight to Cebu that night for $30.  I got on the next flight and arrived in Cebu City at 11, called a friend to get a recommendation for a place to stay, took a taxi there and booked a room.

The next morning, I got up early and took a bus to Moalboal, a town two hours south that someone recommended in Coron.  Twenty meters below the surface of the ocean, surrounded by millions of sardines off the coast of Pescadero Island, the decision to re-write the plan was validated.

To this day, I think about staring out at Manila and turning around to buy that ticket.  That, I thought at the time, is liberating.

This sign was hanging in the lobby of the guesthouse I checked into in Cebu the night I booked the flight from Manila.

So my hat is off to Dan Levin, who successfully made the rest of the world jealous.  Your humble correspondent certainly enjoys writing and thinking about geopolitics, international development, poverty alleviation, and other deep matters.  But he is happiest when writing about life on the road, and the impulsive decisions that make it interesting.  So I hope you learned something.  Because this is a great way to make your friends jealous.

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