Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Best American Travel Writing 2006 (Final)

There are plenty of reasons why people travel: vacation, exploration, and/or illumination to name a few. I myself, travel frequently for business, which is merely a convenient excuse for me to hop on a plane every two weeks to land in a city unseen by my eyes. But I have never before heard my desire to see what could previously only be explored through words or through pictures put as poetically and as succinctly as Kira Salak puts it in her piece “Rediscovering Libya”: “to see what cannot be imagined, to be taken into my dreams.” That, when it’s all said and done, is the reason why I travel and it is also why I find pleasure with no end in reading The Best American Travel Writing 2006.

So often, I find, people mistake travel writing for something similar to what you might find in a Lonely Planet guide (a book I never leave the house without when I travel). However, for those of you who might be tempted to ask me if I’ve discovered any hot new vacation spots while reading TBA Travel Writing, I’ll say that travel writing isn’t for those looking for the best restaurant in Tokyo in which to eat, or the hippest club in Amsterdam in which to pick up a hot foreign date. The best travel writing is a highly personal experience, more memoir-ish in its execution, and is written to illuminate something about the author, the place, its culture, or its people. The very best travel writing somehow manages to do all three.

Several of the stand-out pieces are of the journey taken in the literal sense, which eventually comes to stand for the one so often used as a metaphor to mean spiritual or revelatory progress. In one of the more heartbreaking pieces of the collection, Michael Paterniti in “XXXXL” travels to the Ukraine to visit the giant Leonid Stadnik, a man of extraordinary proportions, to escape his own unsettled discomfort with his growing feelings of normalcy. He writes, “I had two great kids and a pregnant wife whom I loved, but a part of me – my old self or soul or me-ness had been subsumed by fatherhood. I’d let it happen, of course, but there were still moments when I found myself going a bit haywire.” So, with the blessing of his wife, Paterniti goes to the Ukraine to visit a man tortured by his own uniqueness: “’In my life, I’ve done my best to become a normal person…to reach something. But because of my unusual body, I will never have a family or wealth or a future. I’m telling you, I’ve done my best. Everything that depended on me I’ve done…God punishes the ones he loves most.’”

But things aren’t all spiritually uplifting and morally illuminating in the world of TBA Travel Writing. Some are of dangerous exploration, as in Mark Jenkins’ “A Short Walk in the Wakhan Corridor”:

I’m surrounded by rocks painted blood red. I know what this means – it’s the first thing you learn upon arriving in Afghanistan: land mines…I am twenty feet into the minefield. Very carefully, step backward. I place one foot precisely in its own footprint…Delicately, imagining myself as weightless as the ghost I could become, I retrace my steps.

Others, like David Sedaris’ “Turbulence”, are - like all Sedaris pieces - hilariously irreverent. In “Turbulence” Sedaris has the misfortune of sitting next to a most unpleasant woman. This wouldn’t normally be an unusual problem for anyone who’s ever flown if it weren’t for this opening sentence: “On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest.” What follows is a classic David Sedaris piece with its classic self-deprecation even when, technically, he’s in the right. I mean, really, what sort of woman gets so angry just because a stranger doesn’t want to switch seats with her husband? If you ask me she’s the one who’s eight-lettered crossword clue might read, “Above the shoulders, [s]he’s nothing but crap.”

Despite the fact that it took me an enormously long time to finish this collection (nearly four months, sad, I know), TBA Travel Writing 2006 is excellent reading nonetheless. It’s exciting, it’s sad, it’s educational, and sometimes it’s scary. And if you’re going anywhere worth going, it’s essentially travel.