A travel guide is an example of informative writing – it sets out to give a sense of a place – it is not necessarily trying to persuade you to visit the place. It should be interesting, and the writer can allow their sense of personality to come across, but it is usually more impersonal. Think of the typical tourist books that are travel guides.
A travel journal is slightly different to a guide. It is more like a narrative. It can be in diary form. It does not necessarily have to point out many features of the place that you have visited. It is more an interesting piece about your experience of the place. In other words, most of it could be set in the hostel that you stayed in, or in a typical cafe that was there.
Sample Travel Guide to analyse first:
In this extract the writer gives his impressions of an area of Montana called the Badlands.
Mauvaises terres. The first missionary explorers had given this place its name, a translation of the Plains Indian term meaning something like hard-to-travel country, for its daunting walls and pinnacles and buttresses of eroded sandstone and sheer clay. Where I was now, in Fallon County, Montana, close to the North Dakota state line, the Badlands were getting better. A horseback rider wouldn't have too much difficulty getting past the blisters and eruptions that scarred the prairie here. But the land was still bad enough to put one in mind of Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo astronauts: dusty, cratered, its green turning to seer yellow under the June sun.
Breasting the regular swells of land, on a red dirt road as true as a line of longitude, the car was like a boat at sea. The ocean was hardly more solitary than this empty country, where in forty miles or so I hadn't seen another vehicle.
Here's a closer look at some of the features you should be able to spot
The article is written in the 1st person, " Where I was now.... the Badlands were getting better".
The article describe the places in great detail. The writer creates a picture of the Badlands as being huge, empty and desolate.
The writer creates this vivid picture of place by using very descriptive, imaginative language. Did you spot the writer's use of a simile when he described the size of the Badlands? He said that the prairie was so big that his car was like a "boat at sea".
Notice how the writer made his feelings about the Badlands clear. Words like "daunting" and "solitary" give us an idea of his reaction to his surroundings.
Can you spot any other features of this type of writing which we've not pointed out for you, or some more examples of the ones above?
How to write a travel guide: Key Features for Writing Effective Travel Guides:
1. Overview of the place
2. Facts about the place; statistics
3. Its key physical features; its key monuments or sights
4. Consider writing paras on the people, the weather, the food, the smell.
5. Focus on capturing the setting by using a combination of senses.
6. Could being with a history of the place.
7. Could consider how the place is markedly different to the clichéd, stereotypical image of it.
8. Can be more formal than a personal travel journal.
9. Bring in anything famous about the place – perhaps it was used in a movie, perhaps the site of a natural disaster, or terrorist attack? Perhaps the site of a famous protest? Perhaps where a famous person lived. Consider bringing in a quote about the place by someone famous.
Key Features for Writing Travel Journals
1. Everything above!
2. Eye-grabbing or vivid opening; effective closing.
3. Be personal
4. Try to bring in amusing or unusual ‘colour’ features – ie interesting details or odd features of the place or people.
5. Focus on capturing the people and the life of the place, rather than just describing the physical features and statistics of the place [even though you should obviously bring them in!].
6. Bring in anything famous about the place – perhaps it was used in a movie, perhaps the site of a natural disaster, or terrorist attack? Perhaps the site of a famous protest? Perhaps where a famous person lived. Consider bringing in a quote about the place by someone famous.
7. Definitely capture the inhabitants of the place. Try to get a sense of their unique identity, and how they are different to you, or else similar underneath the external differences. Try to bring in interesting dialogue – perhaps show the dialect or unusual way they speak English to you; perhaps try to use the dialogue to show how racist or ‘backward’ they are, or how witty they are, or how chauvinistic they are.
1. Write a travel guide aimed tourists about Dublin city centre / Lucan village
2. Write a serious or satirical travel guide to St Joseph’s College. [could pretend it is a wild, exotic exciting place, writing in a David Attenborough-like style]
3. Write a travel guide to an imaginary place.
4. Write a travel journal about a memorable holiday.
Brainstorm about the Guide to an imaginary place
1. Overview of the place, the landscape, where it is located, where it got its name from, inhabitants etc
2. Famous attractions
3. History of the place
4. The People – what they are renowned for; their reputation
6. Type of govt; education; something about how it is unique;
7. Food – is there a traditional dish?
8. Night-life – restaurants, bars, night-time entertainment
Sample Travel Guides and Travel Journals Sample 1. Power Trip [Note how smart the pun in the title is]
I like freakish travel destinations. Also, I’m cheap. So when Naruto University, the rural Japanese school I attend, announced a free bus trip to a neighboring nuclear power plant, I thought, Damn, this could be better than last semester’s trip to the mayonnaise factory. I took out my daily planner. As I suspected it was nearly blank. I penciled in FREE NUCLEAR POWER PLANT TRIP in capitals. Then I circled it and waited.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no lifelong love affair with mayonnaise, or nuclear power, or any combination of the two for that matter. It’s just that I’m an American at a rural Japanese university, and the year is turning out to be pretty rural and, frankly, quite Japanese. I have to take my excitement where I can get it. Whether it’s cutting my hair in my dorm’s communal shower (last Friday night) or touring freakish destinations for free, I’m up for it.
When I finally board the tour bus, I am not disappointed. I receive my name tag, a free canned beverage, a pencil, and nuclear power brochures written in Japanese. I sit by my Korean friends who also enjoy a good free industrial tour. One leans over and asks, “They aren’t giving us highlighter sets?” She is serious. I say, “Wait. The tour is just beginning.” I am also serious. Sometimes you get the sets at the end.
The tour begins like any other Japanese tour around the world: with a tour guide’s description of the weather and other obvious high-pitched pleasantries over a loudspeaker. The Japanese students on the trip, the ones with actual interest in nuclear power, behave like Japanese on a tour. They promptly fall asleep. The tour guide is unscathed. Perky, even. She wonders aloud how the weather will affect our viewing of the nuclear power plant. She is hopeful for minutes about this very topic. She describes the view on the right side of the bus. My Korean friend leans over and asks blankly, “Is that woman going to talk the whole trip?” The tour guide, who has clearly heard, tugs up her white gloves, points to a hill on the left side of the bus and says, “A beautiful mountain can be seen on the left side of the bus.”
There are, however, brief pauses in the tour guide’s chatter for bathroom breaks and three mini-films about nuclear power. From the films I learn about condenser tube leaks and turbine shaft vibration. Pie charts are used. From the bathroom breaks I learn that about every other rest-stop in Japan carries mint chocolate chip ice cream in their vending machines. Old people linger by the toilets and knickknacks at every stop.
Eventually we break for lunch, which, as promised, is free. All the other foreign students, who horde their university scholarships and resent spending money on the so-called necessity of food, are happy with lunch, or rather its fundamental quality of freeness. I agree with them. I think, I just saved myself 500 yen by coming on this trip. The tour guide, once we re-board the bus, wants to talk about the deliciousness of lunch. “Wasn’t the ramen delicious?” she says over the loudspeaker. The Japanese students are already asleep again. On the last leg of the trip, those of us who are conscious are relieved when the tour guide starts the video of Japan’s Funniest Home Videos.
We arrive first at the nuclear power museum, where we receive a copy of the Yonden company annual report and a pair of 3-D glasses. I’m stoked. I immediately put them on, as do most of the foreign students. We sit through a nuclear power lecture. The tour guide tries to make the lecture fun by using colorful graphs and asking the audience to vote on how large we think the reactor vessel head is. These words are beyond my vocabulary. Sometimes, when I’m tired, I forget the word for Wednesday in Japanese.
Sometimes I forget it in English. My ignorance doesn’t prevent me from voting, though. If I have any doubt about, say, what percentage of Shikoku Island’s electricity comes from nuclear power, I just vote more than once. I am still wearing my 3-D glasses when we’re told to put them on in preparation for the movie.
The movie, which is entitled “A Flying Tour of the Yonden Nuclear Power Facility,” has a cheerful take on nuclear power. It is not at all like the one I saw in high school about Chernobyl, which was downright depressing. This movie has a talking 3-D kangaroo, and shots of the members of the friendly Yonden company “family” engaging in sports day.
I keep my glasses on for the museum tour, where it is explained to us how to get into one of those scary yellow anti-contamination suits. My Chinese friend and I lag behind the group to pose obscenely with the mannequins in gas-masks. When we reunite with the group the tour guide asks us if we were enjoying the museum on our own. My friend says yes because in our own special way we were.
By the time we finally take the bus to see the power plant in person, there has been an incredible amount of buildup. I fear a letdown. In the movies and brochures, the pictures are of the plant in cherry-blossom season with the blooms framing it in the foreground and an impossibly blue ocean behind it. While it is slightly overcast as the tour guide feared, I am still impressed. This is one mother of a freakish trip. The bus pulls over for photo opportunities, and I get out and take pictures. I hear several Japanese people use the adjective “pretty” to describe the nuclear power plant compound.
Inside the plant it is loud and hot, and because I went to public school and spent my time in the museum pretending to make out with the gas-masked mannequin, that is about all I understand. I feel briefly sorry for the nuclear power workers with their stressful yet boring jobs in their unfortunate green uniforms, and then when the Japanese science students pose for pictures in front of what looks like a big water heater decorated with cartoon characters, I go ahead and do it too. I do not, however, understand that it is a nuclear reactor vessel. Nor do I really care.
Instead, that night’s free hotel is the highlight of my tour. All of us students eat a free fish dinner worth 10,000 yen, get drunk on our own convenience-store plum sake, and then at the end of the night go downstairs to take baths. I am drunk and scrubbed once in a lifetime clean when I discover a hot bath on the balcony. My Korean friend and I soak and then, as it starts to rain, we climb up on the metal railing. We see the ocean, the Japanese urban sprawl, and finally right below our warm buck-naked bodies a cemetery crawling out of the darkness. “This was really fun,” I say, and then I wonder what the implications of that are. I guess it means I can stand a little Japanese nuclear power propaganda in the name of a free vacation. I guess, disturbingly, it also means I’m beginning to enjoy the freakish propaganda part of my free vacations
How to write a travel guide to impress someone
Many Travel Stories Begin as an Attempt to Impress Pretty Women
A. Once you have walked across the small Pyrenean nation of Andorra, you should proceed to Barcelona. Here, you will look for a nightclub called L’Arquer. According to your guidebook, L’Arquer contains a fully functioning archery range, and you are intrigued by the idea that one can shoot bows and arrows inside a nightclub. As with Andorra, you are attracted by L’Arquer because you find it charming that such a place exists.
B. In actuality, of course, L’Arquer will not likely live up to your expectations. The archery range, for example, will probably be in a separate, cordoned-off area, and your fantasies of chugging beers while shooting arrows over crowds of drunken revelers will not come true. For this reason, you will not look very hard for L’Arquer, and you will end up settling for a pub called Shanghai. This way, L’Arquer will remain perfect in your imagination—unlike Andorra, the memory of which has now been tainted with jagged brown ridges, chintzy souvenirs and drunken Scotsmen.
C. In the Shanghai pub, you will meet a Canadian woman named Lisa, who has come to Spain for two weeks of vacation. Eventually, she will ask you what you’re here for, and you will tell her that you just walked across Andorra. Lisa isn’t exactly sure what Andorra is, so the implicit gag (that Andorra is in fact a very small country, quite easy to walk across) is lost on her. Instead, she asks a neutral question: “How was it?” You reply that it was quite interesting.
D. After this, there will be a pause, which implies that Lisa wants you to elaborate. This is when the real Andorra story begins. What immediately follows the pause will not be the final and definitive story, but it will set the tone for how you’ll remember Andorra in the future. This is where you begin to pick and choose, to play games with reality, to separate the meaningful from the mundane and hold it up for display. Later, when you are writing the story down, you will add details of history and culture—but for now you just want to hold Lisa’s attention, because she has clear blue eyes and a captivating smile.
E. Skipping over the actual details of the hike, you tell Lisa about the Festa Major celebration in Andorra la Vella. Here, a group of mentally handicapped Andorrans singled you out from the crowd and cheerfully bullied you into joining them in a Catalan dance called the sardana. You choose to reveal Andorra through this story because it’s funny and self-deprecating, and you want to single yourself out to Lisa as a charmed person who is instinctively adored by retards.
F. The story goes fairly well upon first telling, save the fact that: (a) Lisa seems faintly offended when you use the word “retards”; and (b) You flub the phrasing near the end of the story, inadvertently implying (to Lisa’s ears) that you were insensitive to the mentally handicapped Andorrans while you were dancing with them. You make a mental note to sharpen the clarity of your phrasing, since you were not, in fact, acting insensitive when it actually happened.
Art by Jeff Wilson.
II. Historical Details Make it Look Like You Know What You’re Talking About
A. After you have left Spain and returned to your home, you will decide you need to know more facts about Andorra before you properly begin to compose your story. Reference books and websites tell you that Andorra has 67,000 residents, only 33 percent of whom are Andorran citizens. Andorra has an area of 180 square miles. This is half the size of New York City, but two-and-a-half times larger than Washington, DC. Since you don’t want to make your hike sound too easy, you will use the Washington comparison when composing your Andorra story.
B. You’ll try to spruce up basic facts by clumping them together in a telling manner. Start by saying that Andorra has no airports, no trains, and no independent universities. Mention that Andorra’s small army has not fought a war for 700 years, and that most of its ammunition consists of blank bullets used for public ceremonies. Point out that, while Andorra has a National Automobile Museum, it did not have substantial roads until the middle of the 20th century. If possible, say: “More like a neighborhood than a country, Andorra’s tourism boom has transformed it into a peaceful suburb of ski runs, luxury hotels and duty-free shopping.”
C. Touch on the history of Andorra, but—since this is primarily a travel story—try to deal with it in a concise manner. Write: “Andorra is the lone remaining legacy of Charlemagne’s ‘March States,’ which were created to keep Muslim Moors out of Christian France in the 9th century.” Then jump forward a few centuries to describe how, in the 1200s, a local power struggle between a French count and a Spanish bishop led to a compromise that made Andorra nominally sovereign. “Called the ‘Pariatges,’” you will write, “this treaty plays French and Spanish influences off one another, and has ensured Andorra’s independence for centuries.”
D. Mention that, to this day, power is officially shared by the president of France and the bishop of Urgell in Spain. Say: “Thus, Andorra has the current distinction of being the only nation in the world to have two heads of state—neither of whom live in Andorra.”
III. Editors Are Impressed By Tidy Narrative Formulas
A. Now that you have prepared the historical facts, you must choose a manner of storytelling. Were you writing a book about Andorra, you might begin your story from a personal or emotional premise. You might say, for example, that your lover has just left you, and you resolved to walk across Andorra in an effort to heal your pain. Or, you might say that your home was lacking in good taste or authenticity, and you walked across Andorra to discover an older and more genuine way of life. Or, you might say that you’ve been fascinated with Andorra since childhood, and to walk it’s breadth would be to actualize a lifelong dream.
B. You are not, however, writing a book. Nor did you go to Andorra to heal your pain, seek a more genuine way of life, or actualize a lifelong dream. Rather, your Andorra sojourn was an extension of a trip to Paris, where you were teaching a seminar in (of all things) travel writing. As you walked across Andorra, in fact, your backpack contained a folder full of student papers. Every so often, you took these papers out and wrote things like: “Show how the villagers act, don’t tell.” Or: “Establish that you are inside the castle before you introduce the janitor.” Or: “Describe what the geishas looked like.” Or: “Don’t give away the samba dancer’s secret at the beginning.” Or: “Tell me more about the one-legged man with the sausage.”
C. Regardless of what happened to you in Andorra, you must choose a template.
(1) You could, for example, present yourself as a connoisseur who traveled to Andorra to sample Formatge de tupí (a local specialty consisting of cheese fermented with garlic and brandy in an earthenware container).
(2) You might present yourself as an avid hiker or skier, who came to compare the slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees with those of the French Alps. (“They are not as tall or dramatic,” you might say, “but the casual lack of crowds lends a certain appeal.”)
(3) If you are good at humor, you could present yourself as a hapless wanderer in a tiny land full of baffling cultural differences and bizarre local folktales (be sure to mention the legend of L’Auvinyana, a feisty Andorran peasant who made her fortune as a prostitute in Barcelona and returned to her homeland, dressed in velvet and ostrich plumes, to seduce lumberjacks at gunpoint).
(4) Another option is to follow in the footsteps of a famous historical, literary, or mythical traveler, making comparisons and contrasts as you go.
Art by Jeff Wilson.
D. You are pleasantly surprised to find that a famous literary-historical traveler named Richard Halliburton walked across Andorra in 1921. “I wasn’t sure whether the vaguely familiar word Andorra meant a fish or a fruit,” Halliburton observed in his book “The Royal Road to Romance,” “until one day I ran across it by accident on the map, and found it was nothing edible, but an independent republic of six thousand people and one hundred seventy-five square miles, all lost for ten hundred years in the tops of the Pyrenees.” Inspired, Halliburton traveled to the French border, rented a donkey named Josephine (which he promptly renamed Hannibal), and spent the next few days hiking the breadth of Andorra.
E. Thus, much as modern wanderers seek to follow the trail of Marco Polo across Asia, you decide that your Andorra journey took place in the footsteps of Richard Halliburton. IV. When Bogged Down in Description, Trot Out Some Colorful Characters
A. Think back to the beginning of your Andorra experience. Like Richard Halliburton, you started on the French side, in a village called L’Hospitalet. You hiked all day, slept your first night at Pedoures Lake, then crossed into Andorra at Ruf Peak, which is 8,500 feet high. From there, you hiked down the Vall d’Incles into the heart of Andorra. As usual, you have difficulty describing this hike, because you feel there is a sameness to describing mountains.
B. You want to just say: “There were a few pines and far-off forests of beech-trees on some of the mountainsides. I climbed up and up and crossed another high Col, and I saw a whole new range of mountains off to the south, all brown and baked-looking and furrowed in strange shapes.” This seems such a simple and appropriate way to describe hiking in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, it happens to be a direct quote from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which you read on a series of bus rides from Paris to L’Hospitalet.
C. You don’t want to resort to the usual clichés, however—the “jagged ridges,” the “crystal clear lakes,” the “quaint chateaux perched on hillsides”—so you check your notebook. Here, you have scribbled observations from the hike, such as “Yellow frogs, brown spiders, orange butterflies,” and “French hikers carry what appear to be ski poles,” and (to your own chagrin) “Crystal clear mountain lakes perched below jagged brown ridges.”
D. In general, you are insecure about this first portion of your Andorran journey, because all you have is background and description, and (as you told your students) travel stories work better when they include characters and dialogue. Thus, you should hurry your narrative hike to the ski-resort town of Soldeu, where you met a retired Scottish ski instructor named Morrie. Morrie was very friendly, very colorful, and (by the end of the night) very drunk. Morrie clapped you on the back, bought you beers, and took you on tours of recently built hotels and bars. Morrie pointed to the local elite and said: “Look at that bugger. A generation ago he and his family were dirt farmers. Now they own half the hotels in Soldeu.”
E. In one pub, Morrie introduced you to a number of British, Spanish and Argentine ski instructors. In your notebook, you wrote: “Ski instructors arm-in-arm, singing along to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You,’ by Stealers Wheel.” Beside this entry, in the margin of your notebook, you later added: “This could almost be the Andorran national anthem.”
F. As it turned out, the ski instructors didn’t know much about Andorra (“I think it became a country because France and Spain didn’t want it,” one Brit suggested). The best information you learned from these folks was that Andorra always wins lots of medals in the “Little Country Olympics.”
G. Now that you’ve have a chance to confirm this, you are pleased to learn that there actually is a Little Country Olympics (officially called the “Games for the Small States of Europe”), which pits Andorra against Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco and San Marino. The Vatican, you are somewhat disappointed to note, does not field a team.
V. Be Sure to Contrast the Purity of the Past With the Superficialities of Today
A. Since the Little Country Olympics is a tangent at best, you go back to your notes and scan for details about the hike from Soldeu to Canillo. “Trail to Canillo actually a thin path following a stream near the highway,” your notebook reminds you. “Ski lifts and power wires. SUVs with French tags choking the highway.” There is not much drama here, so you decide to mention smuggling.
B. Write: “Twisting down from the mountains, this trail is the legacy of Andorra’s time-honored smuggling tradition. Due to her location between two larger neighbors, Andorra has always profited from monopolies and embargoes on both sides.” Illustrate this with an example—say, the French match monopoly of the 1880s, when almost 2,000 pounds of matches were smuggled over from Spain each year.
C. Point out that the smuggling trade has given way to a somewhat bland trade in tourist souvenirs and duty-free goods. Say: “If a country expresses itself through its souvenirs, it’s hard to tell what Andorra thinks it is.” Describe how one can buy Scotch whiskey, Barcelonan newspapers and even figurines of doobie-smoking Rastafarians (which, to your eye, look “disturbingly Sambo-like”) in Canillo.
D. Imply that the superficialities of duty-free souvenirs in Canillo distressed you, and that you then had to find something authentic and redeeming. A church is always good for this. Our Lady of Meritxell would be ideal, since this is home to the patron saint of Andorra, who reputedly keeps her country safe from war and invasion. Unfortunately, you never visited this church.
E. Briefly consider pretending you went there, since you can easily patch together an account from tourist literature.
F. Choose instead, out of dull conscience, to describe St. Joan de Caselles, a 12th century Romanesque church that you actually did visit. Include the following phrases when describing the church: “rectangular nave with a wooden ceiling”; “semicircular apse with a Lombard-style bell-tower”; and “16th century Italian-German renaissance-style altarpiece, which includes scenes from the life of St. John.” Embellish the sense of history this evokes.
G. Since the hike from Canillo to Andorra la Vella is largely suburban, make a quick transition to the capital. Use this 1921 Richard Halliburton quote: “There, on the hillside, was Andorra City, climbing slightly above the verdant floor of this sunlit garden—the most pathetic, the most miserable capital city of any nation in the world.”
H. Contrast above passage with the comparative modernity of contemporary Andorra la Vella. Mention luxury hotels, Spanish tourists driving Opel station wagons, and French middle-class shopaholics, who swarm the duty-free stores.
VI. Don’t Forget to Talk to a Local
A. Since it is bad form to write a story about Andorra without producing an actual Andorran, it is now time to bring out Ms. Roser Jordana. Mention that she was a small, sharp, no-nonsense woman. Recall how her pearls and rhinestones glittered as she fielded phone calls and answered your questions in the office of tourism.
B. As it is somewhat lame for the Andorran in the story to be from the bureau of tourism, boldly bring this irony into the foreground. Say: “Andorra’s tourist economy has turned the nation into a country of visitors. So much so, in fact, that the first true Andorran I meet heads up the office of tourism in Andorra la Vella.”
C. Scan your notes from Ms. Jordana’s personal tour of the Andorran parliament house. Condensing facts, write: “About the size of a large dining room, the Andorran parliament chamber seats representatives from each of the country’s seven parishes. Before the days of roads, this small building doubled as a hostel, and representatives would often sit in the kitchen to eat their sack lunches and discuss politics.”
D. Though your notes say as much, it’s best not to mention that Marc Forne, the current General Syndic of the Andorran parliament, looks a lot like the father from the 1980s American sitcom “Family Ties.”
VII. Public Festivals are the Holy Grail of Any Travel Story
A. Festivals always lend color and climax to a travel story, so you should segue into the Catalan Festa Major, which you had the good fortune to experience on your second day in Andorra la Vella. Establish the scene: orchestras and fireworks; a medieval market; Spanish wine for a dollar a bottle; rowdy parades with huge-headed Catalonian “giant” puppets.
B. Describe the traditonal sardana dances in a square near the park: the old Andorrans dancing in perfect step-step-step; the Spanish oom-pah band under the gazebo; the pretty young women in short skirts, singing. Mention that, because of geographical access, Catalan Spain has had a stronger influence over Andorra than France.
C. You have no choice now but to deal with the mentally handicapped Andorrans. Recall how they began their sardana with inspiring concentration, but soon shook free of their minders and flapped across the plaza with ecstatic abandon. Each of them wore a nametag, so you know that it was a hefty fellow named “Gordoneau” who fixed you in his small-eyed gaze and yanked you out onto into the plaza to join the dance—which by that point was rapidly disintegrating into a gleeful mosh-pit.
Art by Jeff Wilson.
D. Jigging and swirling across the plaza, you slowly came to realize that the spectators regarded you and Gordoneau with the same bemused stare. When Gordoneau stopped at a plastic table and took a sloppy gulp of some stranger’s beer, the old Andorran sitting there merely flinched and smiled up at you, as if you might do the same.
E. You think back to how you tried to explain this instant to Lisa two days later in Barcelona: how there was a wonderful freedom in the notion that—loosed of all expectations—anything you do in Andorra might be forgiven in advance. You intended no moral or quip-joke by saying this; you meant only to imply that one takes one’s epiphanies where one can find them, and you were happy to be invited for a glimpse into Gordoneau’s world.
F. You’ve since forgotten how long the dance went on before the harried minders corralled Gordoneau and his companions back into neat lines. No doubt it lasted mere minutes, but you realize that any accomplishment is relative, and that Andorra was somehow more knowable for the experience. What, after all, did Hillary know of Nepal? What did Armstrong know of the moon? More than most of us, perhaps—but neither of them had the chance to dance with Gordoneau along the way.
VIII. End With a Tidy Generalization, or Perhaps a Knowing Wink
A. Since esoteric digressions make editors nervous, you must find a more conventional way to end your story. Uncertain how else to proceed, you search the Internet for one last detail that might sum up what you experienced in Andorra.
B. Stumbling upon a random webpage about traditional Catalan nativity scenes, you read about a peculiar figure called the “caganer.” The caganer is a harlequin of sorts, a grizzled old man who squats—trousers at his ankles, stogie in mouth—casually defecating in the background of the nativity. A sociologist, Xavier Fabregas, is quoted: “The caganer reminds us that even in the midst of the greatest mystery of humanity, the birth of the Redeemer, there are these ineluctable and physiological necessities.”
C. It occurs to you that a travel writer is not unlike the caganer within his own narrative—an odd character, always squatting in the background, casually presuming the observer will ignore the fact that these brightly colored surroundings have been painted and positioned well after the events they represent.
D. Thus, from this metaphorical squat, you will write about how you packed your bags, bade farewell to Andorra la Vella, and made for the Spanish border.
E. You will write: “I know that I have only experienced the slightest taste of Andorra, but there is a certain joy in concise goals and knowable quantities—of entire nations that can be strolled across in the course of a long weekend.”
Travel Writing from around the world A TRIP TO Turkey
Sex, wine and the baths may ruin our bodies, but they make life worth living.—Ancient Roman gravestone Arriving in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, built atop the ruins of the Greek city of Byzantium and the Roman capital of Constantinople, I already felt like I’d traveled halfway back in time to the ancient world. Then, in tea houses all over the city, I found dog-eared leaflets advertising the pleasures of Cagaloglu Hamam, the city’s oldest bath house:
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN A TURKISH BATH? IF YOU HAVEN’T, YOU’VE MISSED ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT EXPERIENCES AND NEVER BEEN CLEAN!
The sales pitch added that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the composer Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Cameron Diaz had all enjoyed steam baths here. No less than 138 films had been shot within the hamam’s walls, and innumerable newspaper stories written:
THE PRESS HAS MUCH PRAISED THIS BATHING HABIT!
How could I resist? For anyone interested in how antiquity has survived to the modern day, a visit to a Turkish bath is essential: the Islamic hamam is possibly the most striking link we have to a key social practice of the Greco-Roman world—especially for a traveler.
Two thousand years ago, if you were visiting any city in the Roman Empire, you would be woken by the melodious bass of a copper gong resounding through the streets at dawn, announcing the opening of the thermae, or heated public baths—a sound, Cicero rhapsodized, that was sweeter than the voices of all the philosophers in Athens. These ancient baths were far more than mere palaces of cleanliness: They were the Western world’s first true entertainment complexes, combining the facilities of modern gyms, massage parlors, restaurants, community centers and tourist information offices. They were the ideal place to meet locals or get hot travel tips: In those palatial halls, citizens of all classes lolled by the pools, met their friends, played ball games, relaxed, flirted, drank wine and even had elegant candle-lit dinners. And like nightclubs or gyms today, a city’s baths were unofficially graded: Some were chic, others déclassé; some were expensive, others cost only a copper; some were magnificently designed, as large as cathedrals, decorated with enormous mosaics of Neptune and his dolphins.
In short, a visit to the baths was the ideal way to enter the social life of a strange city.
Modern Turkey offers a unique connection to this ancient tradition. Two thousand years ago it was the Roman province of Asia Minor, and it’s the only place in the Mediterranean where the historical line back to the thermae is unbroken. In Western Europe, the habit of public bathing did not survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, good Christians became ashamed of their bodies, and showed their repugnance of earthly matters by refusing to wash, remaining smelly, squalid and flea-bitten until the late 19th century. But in the Eastern half of the Empire, soon known as Byzantium, the great Roman baths stayed open, and were even more popular after the Ottoman Empire conquered Turkey in the 15th century A.D. Islam adhered to the ancient obsession with personal cleanliness, as well as the Greco-Roman tradition of bathing in public. Of course, there were some big changes, too: Total nudity was forbidden under Islam; men wore loincloths, and women were provided with separate baths. But the connection is still powerful. In modern Turkey, many bath houses even still stand on the original classical sites. In fact, the very name “Turkish bath” was given by British visitors to Constantinople in the 16th century, who saw the ancient Roman thermae still in operation and incorrectly assumed they were an Ottoman invention.
Today, there are over 60 baths still officially registered in Istanbul. Sadly, these last hamams are under siege, as Turks in the big city increasingly prefer Western-style bathing in the privacy of their homes. Young Turks find steam rooms decidedly outré—several warned me that they were dens of disease and foot-rot, frequented only by country bumpkins, geriatrics and male prostitutes. And yet the venerable institution staggers on.
Visiting Istanbul was obviously my big chance to experience this ancient travelers’ tradition. Still, I found myself delaying: The embarrassing fact was, I’d never had a massage, let alone visited an actual bath house back home in New York. But by the time I’d picked up my tenth leaflet singing the praises of Cagaloglu Hamam, I finally decided to give this famous washing experience a shot. After all, it was reputed to be the most palatial bath house extant in all Turkey, and has been in continuous operation at least since 1741. An English photographer I was traveling with reluctantly agreed to join me. I wasn’t sure if Nik was a wise companion: Even more than most of us self-conscious Westerners, he viewed public bath houses as deeply seedy places, and held an unshakable conviction, apparently gleaned from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Midnight Express,” that Turks were polymorphously perverse.
But we grabbed our towels and headed off valiantly into the night, on a modest expedition into the damp underbelly of antiquity. Admittedly, my first vision of Cagaloglu’s exterior did give me pause. In a noisy side street, a sunken entrance displayed a frayed sign in four languages, along with a string of bleached photographs showing a parade of rather louche-looking semi-celebrities who had sweated it up here in the 1960s.
“Are we feeling confident in our masculinity?” Nik mused.
Inside, the once-palatial entryway looked grimier than 260 years of continuous use could possibly account for. The courtyard of marble and mahogany must once have been an uplifting sight; now, its latticework was dark and dimly lit. The elegant fountain was dry, and half a dozen cockroaches lay belly up in one corner, alongside an empty Evian bottle.
An old man at the desk woke from a deep slumber and blinked at us in surprise.
“Are you open tonight?” I asked.
He shuffled some papers. “Why not?” He raised a hand, and an attendant in a bright orange loincloth slouched like a tubercular genie from the shadows.
Ahmed the masseuse was thin and wiry, with sunken eyes, and decidedly yellow around the gills; he appeared to be coated from head to foot in nicotine. He stood solicitously by as we made the financial arrangements. I passed on the obscure “Sultan Service” and agreed to the standard “bath and massage.” Nik cautiously paid up for bath-only.
“Ahmed’s not really my type,” he helpfully explained.
At the sight of the change rooms, dank little vinyl-covered cubicles, Nik was all for turning back, but I had a sense of duty. This was my direct link to the Romans—although it occurred to me, and not for the last time, that a lot can change in 2,000 years.
Back in the fourth century A.D, when Constantinople was the Empire’s jewel, the atmosphere at its bath houses was not unlike a crowded Mediterranean beach in summer today. The noise was infernal. All around, merry-makers were exercising, splashing water and playing hand ball; food vendors bellowed from their podiums, and professional hair-pluckers induced shrieks of pain in their clients that rose well above the general din. Petty thieves worked the crowd, rifling through belongings while the owners swam or slept, while the wealthy trawled the steam rooms handing out banquet invitations to potential sexual partners.
It’s not surprising that the Christians were horrified by pagan behavior at these places: Bathing, sex and food were the Holy Trinity of the Roman good life, and the co-ed thermae encouraged all three. Romans learned to parade naked in the heated pools—those who hid themselves were ridiculed. The poet Martial was affronted when one young woman refused to share a bath with him; he assumed she was trying to hide some dreadful physical defect. Even worse, from the Christian point of view, were the male-only baths, since homosexuality was openly accepted in Roman society, at least between teenage boys and their adult “mentors.”
Erotic foreplay continued all the way from the steam rooms to the baths’ bars and restaurants, where flushed lovers—or wealthy women and their Adonis-like young slaves—could eye one another over a jug of chilled wine and figs. Private rooms were provided for consummation, decorated with lewd frescoes. Special magical spells were devised to incite romance at the baths. (Some were a little bizarre: “To attract a lover at the thermae: First, rub a tick from a dead dog on your genitals…” Another spell needed to be written in the blood of a donkey on a papyrus sheet, which should then be glued onto the ceiling of the vapor room—“you will marvel at the results,” the author promised). As one graffito in a Herculaneum bath crowed: “We, Appelles the Mouse and his brother Dexter, lovingly fucked two women twice.”
Soon Nik and I were ushered from the fetid changing booths to the first steam room, where a wall of hot, stale air hit like the exhalations of a demonic laundry.
I had to admit that the domed vault of Cagaloglu was impressively cathedral-like—there were even Corinthian columns harking back to the Roman style—and shafts of white light glowed through thick swirling mist, descending from holes in the domed ceiling and ricocheting off the polished marble interior. But a sullen lethargy pervaded the air. About a dozen sallow customers in loincloths lolled about in the shadows, groaning ominously, as if they were drunk. A couple of guys looked as if they hadn’t left this room for years.
I lay for a while on a hot stone block, before Ahmed the masseuse emerged again from the mist like a zombie in the Louisiana bayous. Without fanfare, he got to work for the skin-scraping, wielding an abrasive mitten—the modern descendent of the ancient strigile, a curved metal instrument that removed dirt, sand, sweat and exfoliated skin, all mixed up in the olive oil that was used throughout antiquity as a soap; this nauseating mixture would then be flicked by the ancient masseurs onto a nearby wall. Ahmed kept swiping languidly, as if he was brushing a longhaired dachshund, while the scent of tobacco mingled with the perfume of foot odor wafting from the floor. Abruptly, he paused and brought his head next to my ear.
“You want—special service?” Ahmed breathed.
“No!” I jumped. “Why? What is it?”
“Shampoo massage,” he confided, pointing to a running fountain. I could get a real massage—but I had to pay top dollar.
“Going for a little rough trade?” Nik asked from the nearby mat, after I’d agreed.
Ahmed looked at him archly. “You would like special massage also?”
“Not me,” Nik put up his hands defensively. “I’m strictly self-service.”
We have a modest insight into how a Roman traveler might have behaved at this stage of a bath house visit, thanks to the fragmentary survival of a bilingual Greek-Latin phrase book. Like any modern Berlitz guide, its vocabulary list is complemented by a colloquia, or “dialogue scene.” The Roman speaker arrives with a sizeable party of friends and imperiously chooses a slave attendant: Follow us. Yes, you. Look after our clothes carefully, and find us a place.
Let me have a word to the perfumier. Hello, Julius. Give me incense and myrrh for 20 people. No, no, best quality.
Now, boy, undo my shoes. Take my clothes. Oil me.
All right, let’s go in.
A few minutes into my modern “special massage,” I could have done with a language phrase book myself. Specifically, what was the Turkish for: My spleen is about to burst.
As my unaccustomed flesh was torn and chopped by Ahmed’s tobacco-cured fingers, I tried to distract myself, yet again, with the knowledge that I was part of a tradition dating back to Cicero and Caesar. But I had to admit that only the most superficial elements of the Roman bath habit had really survived.
The formal structure of a visit may be the same—the ancients went from steam rooms to washing rooms to massage rooms—but the fact is, for the Romans, these had really only been excuses for a visit to the thermae. It was the peripheral circus—the people-watching, the chance meetings, the dinner invitations, the ball games, the snacks, the gossip, the pick-up artists, the vendors and beauticians—that made the baths so addictive in antiquity. Today, thanks to the inroads of Western bathing habits in Istanbul, convincing many Turks to shower at home, there has been a quantum leap from that original social purpose.
In one last forlorn echo of Roman times, Cagaloglu did maintain a restaurant in its shadowy foyer for a post-massage treat—although all it apparently stocked was moist pistachios instead of fresh fish, venison, blood sausage and pig’s trotters.
When I staggered out of the steam room, Nik was the only one there, quietly chugging down a warm beer. He motioned to a bench. “Take a seat—if it’s not too painful, that is.”
As I was recovering, a trio of pale Danish visitors wandered in, looking around with some confusion, and then were ushered into the changing rooms. Most things may have changed in the baths since Roman times, I thought, but at least the travelers were still hopeful: It was only tourists to Istanbul, really, who were keeping Cagaloglu’s doors open.
You could call it the last vestige of ancient tradition—which was something, I supposed
Lust in Translation
I‘ve always considered my hotel rooms to be refuges—places where, no matter how foreign the culture around me, I could retreat and unwind, free from the challenges and confusion of the outside world. That was particularly true in China. I’d arrived with only a few words of Chinese at my disposal: “hello,” “thank you” and, as a result of an ill-fated attempt at a community college Mandarin course, “I like to eat rice.” While I had little trouble procuring a bland, starchy lunch, other tasks, such as asking for directions or buying a train ticket, often devolved into exhausting games of charades. The language barrier felt as insurmountable as the Great Wall, and at the end of each day, my well of patience having run dry, I would escape into the safe confines of my hotel room.
That’s exactly where my wife, Leslie, and I wound up after exploring the northern city of Xian late one afternoon. So when the telephone suddenly rang, intruding upon our sanctum, I was in no hurry to answer it. None of our friends knew where we were. Not a soul at the hotel’s front desk spoke English. And I had no interest in proclaiming, yet again, my great love of rice.
I considered ignoring the phone, but when the caller didn’t relent after nearly half a dozen rings, I flopped down on the bed and picked up.
“Ni hao,” I said.
A woman at the other end uttered something in Chinese, her voice rising in a way that suggested a question.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mandarin,” I replied in English, assuming that would put a quick end to it.
As I was about to hang up, she said something else, this time exhaling between words, as though she were pedaling an exercise bike.
She offered a few more words in a warm, soft voice, and then breathed into the phone, this time in a way that evoked not a sweaty gymnasium but a romantic, candlelit bedroom. I had no idea what she was saying, but I liked the way she was saying it.
Leslie, standing across the room, shot me a quizzical look. I pulled the receiver away from my lips and whispered, “I think it’s a prostitute, but I’m not sure. She doesn’t speak any English.”
Leslie shook her head, then wished me a good time and disappeared into the shower.
I’d remembered reading something about Chinese prostitutes occasionally calling hotel rooms to seduce potential clients, but I’d never received such a call myself.
On the streets around our hotel, amid the noodle joints and mom-and-pop markets, we’d seen a number of curious shops with barber poles, hazy pink lights and young women inside. Was this woman calling from one of them? Was she hoping to lure me in?
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I just don’t understand what you’re saying.”
She said something back, her breathy voice rising and falling seductively.
I cursed the Great Wall of language barriers. What to do?
I summoned my most charming, debonair voice and said, “Wo xihuan chi fan.” I like to eat rice.
My phone friend giggled with delight and cooed, as though I’d just whispered a sweet nothing in her ear.
I felt as though I’d unlocked the door to some alternate Forbidden City where gibberish was an aphrodisiac and young women had nothing better to do than to giggle and coo and flirt on the phone with strange men. I liked it.
I picked up my Mandarin phrasebook and rifled through it, searching for another bon mot.
“Wo yao zu yiliang zixingche,” I said. I want to hire a bicycle.
My friend laughed. Then she whispered something else, her soft voice revealing, I was almost sure, a deep and heretofore unspoken yearning.
A picture was forming in my mind of a young woman who looked not unlike Lucy Liu, flaked out on a sofa in one of those pink-lit rooms, twirling a finger in her long hair, smiling coquettishly. When she replied this time, I could swear she was telling me, “I know a great place where we could share a bowl of rice.” Or maybe she was just saying, “My prices start at a very reasonable three hundred yuan.” Whatever. The important thing was that she seemed to be into me.
I scoured the transportation section of my phrase book for another enchanting line.
“Moban qiche jidian kai,” I said. When is the last bus?
My friend giggled. I laughed.
Just about then, Leslie stepped out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her, patting her damp hair. She looked puzzled.
“You’re still on the phone?” she said.
I smiled and shrugged.
Leslie furrowed her brow and then cracked a smile. She couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or amused. I wasn’t sure myself whether to feel guilty or stupid.
It was, in an odd, small way, not so different from the confusion I’ve often felt traveling in a country where the culture and language are not my own. I arrive eager to make sense of everything. But the more time passes, the more I’m reminded that this is not so easily accomplished, and that the world is an impossibly complicated place. And then, as hard as it is, I try to make peace with my confusion, and even, on rare occasions, embrace it.
I decided it was time to get off the phone. I searched my phrase book for a few parting words. Then, in my best Mandarin accent, I said, “Is there a lifeguard on duty?”
My friend giggled. We giggled together. Then I gently hung up the phone.