What is travel literature?
I was in a real estate seminar recently, in which the motivational speaker liked to have audience participation. He would ask the audience questions and expect us to raise our hands for our choices. He was doing this, without calling on anyone, just asking, for example, who would like to have a million dollars or a huge 8 bedroom house, and then wait and look to see who would raise their hands. I don’t enjoy these kinds of seminars, but I was there for my husband. The speaker asked, “who here would say that real estate is your passion?” and most of the listeners raised their hands. Then he asked, “Who would say that something else is your passion?” I, and a few others raised our hands, and this man called on me to tell what my passion was. I wasn’t expecting this and I stammered, “um, well, travel, hiking and um, books, I guess.”
“Where do you want to travel, be specific?”
“Umm, maybe Latin American countries, I would love to tour across South America.” How could I pick just one place, so quickly and in front of all these strangers who were here to learn about their business, not my travel plans?
“OK, and books, what do you like to read?” He asked.
“Travel literature,” I answered. He paused, looked at me strangely and said, “Well, I suppose that makes sense.” The idea of travel literature seemed to confuse and bore him, but luckily he moved on to other people and topics.
I thought about his reaction, and realized he probably thought that by travel literature I was saying I enjoyed reading guidebooks. He was imagining me sitting in my chair curled up with a guidebook of France, or of Costa Rica. Guide books are useful in planning a trip, I can see the names of restaurants, relative cost, location and hours that they are open, but this is not exciting reading. Pouring over the lists of museums found in San Jose can be useful, but this is not the kind of riveting reading I was thinking of. Travel Literature is the stories and adventures and relationships made during a persons travel. These stories are usually fact, but can have some fiction woven in to the narrative. Sometimes they are pure fiction, but give off the sense of moving through a space, growing and experiencing new cultures.
Travel Literature can include geography and cultures, but it also includes philosophy, religion, and experiences through the eyes of the traveler and also through the various people he meets. When John Steinbach traveled around the United States in the 1950’s he was recording a section of our history that cannot be understood easily by those of us that were not there. He met Canadian migrant workers in the northeast, and he witnessed the hatred of angry parents against school integration in New Orleans.
I have read many books about people walking or biking across our country, and the one fact that sticks out is how friendly and helpful people were in each of the states crossed. We learn about true experiences that help to shape our view of our own countrymen. When the adventures take place in more exotic locales, we see the vast differences in cultures that can explain why misunderstandings can take place, but we also see how generally we are all the same, with similar problems and desires. Readers can feel a giant connectedness with people of all countries and cultures, something that transcends politics and governments. Travel literature opens our eyes to the problems of others, to people we might not see or understand otherwise.
One of the draws of travel literature to me is the enjoyment of following the writer, not so much as he or she moves through a geography but more how this person changes and grows with his experiences. Just moving through life with your eyes open is a type of travel, and all our experiences shape and help to define us. We grow through difficult times, we learn from pleasant experiences, and we develop relationships as we pass through life. Travel is just an intense and exciting version of this, and just as we never escape life unscathed, we also grow and change from travel. I am not talking about guidebooks, nor am I talking about preplanned cruises and shopping expeditions, but true travel where the adventurer lives and participates, experiences and suffers at times, only to return home and share those experiences with us. This makes for exciting reading.