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The magic of travel writing

Travel is glamorous only in retrospect. -Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist. 

This month, I collected three of my favorite travel magazines and dedicated time to studying the captivating storytelling each has to offer. By the end of each issue, I had a few favorite pieces. The best travel writing isn’t just about stellar accommodations or fabulous food. It’s about leaping out of comfort zones, emotional and mental maturation and the people who show up along the way. The magic of travel writing lies in its ability to shake up our perceptions of places and cultures—to see new meaning in those things we once believed to be familiar. 

Condè Nast Traveler – The Art of Being Alone” by Paul Theroux

Why it’s good: Master travel writer Theroux reminds readers in this terse journal entry why travel is synonymous with solitude. Theroux, at 73, seems to understand the generational gap between himself and millennials, yet refuses to accept it as an excuse. He assures readers that loneliness can, in fact, feel good and that travel is the true safe haven.

The best passage: “In this sort of confinement, you forgo the big picture for the small one and you discover that the tiniest things are the most telling—knowing the names of people and things, learning what they care about, understanding the subtleties of weather and the turn of the seasons, the look of the landscape at different times of day, its textures and odors.”

Afar – Ashes to Ashes” by David Farley

Why it’s good: This piece is raw, surprising and vulnerable. Farley carries readers through his days in Varanasi, an Indian sanctuary where Hindus go to reach Nirvana, and a “waiting room for death.” Farley tackles this bleak and often rudimentary experience with naiveté and bravery. It helps that Farley enters Varanasi utterly clueless. He shares a bit about his common struggles and motivations, presumably relating to scores of readers. As he learns about Varanasi’s culture, he teaches readers with a sincere explanation of the traditions there—and willingly offers his own realizations. Farley creates a vivacious setting in which he showcases the irony of a physically ruinous city that holds incredible spiritual potential.

The best passage: “The day after my haphazard introduction to Manikarnika ghat, I returned for a deeper exposure to its rituals and protocols. Flames from the pyres punctuated the smoky landscape. The doms quietly went about their business, poking at the fires with bamboo sticks. Human ashes rained down on my head and shoulders as I watched a body being laid upon a stack of wood.”

*His ending is truly the kicker, but I won’t give anything away here.

Travel + Leisure – “Picture This” by Peter Jon Lindberg

Why it’s good: Lindberg’s “Picture This” is a point of view piece about the digital cloud and its increasing role in our lives today, particularly regarding travel. I appreciate his honesty throughout the piece, admitting that his recent week-long road trip resulted in a whopping 1,764 photos. Like a good journalist, Lindberg prompts readers to think—why are we so obsessed with pictures? Is travel still meaningful if there’s no photo evidence?

The best passage: “Perhaps the real issue is that we take too many travel photos; it’s that we rely too much on what those photos—and their reception—say about our travels. (Did people like it? How many favorites?) I’ve certainly questioned my own motivations for charting a trip in pictures, as well as the conclusions I’ve drawn from them. Would I remember the painted desert less positively had my photos gotten fewer likes on Instagram? If dappled sunlight falls in the forest and nobody retweets it, was it really so beautiful after all?”


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