HISTORY WITHOUT TOIL
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The most interesting aspect of traveling, for me, is to delve into the history of those places that I visit, to uncover the past. It has to do with discovery. There’s a bit of Indiana Jones in all of us.
The fact is there is no limit to how deep I can dig. But on the other hand, I don’t like to have history forced upon me. I like history without toil. Tour guides usually do that, throw history at you. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much but often tour guides are not always well versed in history. They sound like they are but they are not. They are programmed and can be misleading. It’s mostly textbook stuff they hand out, stuff they had to master to get their licenses. They are like tape recording machines on fast talk. And if they are government tour guides, I can be certain I am being fed propaganda. When this happens, I find it best to let the guides ramble on and never question them. And they can lead me to a gift shop or jewelry store but I don’t have to spend money so that they can get a commission. In fact, I don’t even have to get out of the bus. A travel writer, or any tourist actually, is not there to argue with locals about their traditions and culture. We are there to listen. What I like to do is read up on a place and study it as much as I can before going there. When I do this I don’t have to thumb through a guidebook to find out information about a site while the others in my group have gone and left me standing there. I then have to run to catch up with them.
When I write a piece I like to let history come naturally. History should not be burdensome for the reader. It should be subtle. I try to apply this not only to travel articles but to just about everything I write-short stories, novels, essay, biographies. But to inject history into a story, I have to know my history and that means being as accurate as I can. Most important, I have to like that place I am writing about if I want to be sincere.
I received a letter from one young lady who wanted to be a writer, except, she said, she didn’t like to travel. A travel writer who doesn’t like to travel! It might sound odd, but I have been in the travel writing business long enough to find there are travel writers who don’t like to travel. They are worn out, and it shows in their work. It does happen, the same as it does to seamen and politicians. I often think about Robin Lee Graham, the youngest yachtsman to have solo circumnavigated the globe aboard his twenty-four foot sailboat Dove. He was sixteen years old when he began and twenty-one when he finished. He did this incredible feat to please his father and to make the press happy. After he completed the voyage, he tied Dove to a dock in San Diego and moved to a farm in Montana, as far away from the sea as he could get. He never returned to the sea. Traveling can do that to some writers.
There is much more to travel writing than traveling. I call it learning. I never stop learning when I travel. I don’t mean learning about the craft of writing; I mean learning about the world in which we live. Sometimes I feel like the archaeologist sitting on a mount of dirt with a tiny shovel and a small soft- haired brush dusting a dried-out bone trying to discover the truth. But unlike the anthropologist, I find the getting there is more important than arriving. One such image remains vivid in my mind. I was a young Marine working at the Naval Attaché in Paris, bored with my mundane job, when an archaeologist and his team came to the embassy en route to Africa. They were dressed in their khakis, their safari hats and boots, and they were headed to a dig in Libya in North Africa. They really looked their parts. How I wished I could go with them. It got worse when the leader said if l could get the time off I could go with them. I put in for a leave but before it was approved the expedition left for Africa. I was heart broken. About a month later, my leave was approved. I had three weeks. I wasn’t a rich man; in fact I hardly had any money at all. I decided to go anyway. I bought a third class train ticket to southern France, crossed the border into Spain and hitchhiked to Algeciras where I could hop a cargo ferry across the Mediterranean to Cueta. The last few miles in Spain, I actually joined a gypsy caravan when I couldn’t find a bus. It was much the same hopping and skipping across North Africa to Libya. Finally, I found the expedition; they were at their dig, with shovels and brushes, dust covered, doing their thing. The director asked me to sit down. They were happy to see me. They gave me a glass of tepid water from a canvas bag hanging on a tripod in the sun. They sat around me and wanted to know how I managed to get there to Libya and how I ever found them. I told them about my trip, the gypsies, the leaking cargo boat that almost sank, about finding refuge with a band of Bedouins one night when I couldn’t find an inn and other happenings. They all listened with interest, and then the leader said, “Whoa, what an adventure. I’d like to do that one day.” I realized then, at that very moment, that the getting there is the important thing. I found this to be true one other time, after I had succeeded in completing the longest, record-breaking motor trip around the world, and arrived in New City. I was parked in front of the Library on Fifth Avenue, surrounded by the press, being interviewed while photographs snapped away taking pictures. It didn’t take long and the interview ended. Everyone, the press, the photographers, the curious bystanders, they all left and I was alone. What happens now, I thought. I didn’t have to wonder long. “Get that thing out of here,” a policeman shouted pointing to my vehicle. I felt like crying.
Travel writers often find themselves questioned by the critics when they visit a place for a few days and then from their pen comes a long, in-depth piece about that destination. Critics ask what give writers the right to tell about a place they hardly know. What the critics may not know is that the writer did his homework. A good travel writer will come up with facts that even residents are unaware of. More often than not, local people don’t know their own history. I thought about this when I was at the beautiful ancient ruins at Angkor Wat. I had taken my lunch and was sitting on the steps at Bayon Temple when a group of Cambodian workers sauntered by, also during their lunch break. One of them spoke reasonable English. This was my chance to ask him some questions about the ruins. I would have been better off asking him what was the color of the planet Mars. He knew nothing about the history of Angkor except it was ancient and the people who once lived there walked off and left the place. But he could tell me all about computers and the advantages of ending e-mail.
I find this to be true at most of places I visit. People who live there aren’t well versed. I remember one night sitting on temple steps on Bali, waiting for a Ketchak dance, better known as the “monkey dance,” to begin, and was exchanging stories with some inquisitive villagers. The moon was beginning to rise, and I thought this would be a good chance to tell them about the American astronauts who had landed on the moon a few weeks before. It was a top news story echoed around the world. As soon as I mentioned the moon, everyone became highly excited. I had to stop in my story and ask them, through the man who was doing the interpreting, what was wrong. He answered, “They all want to know if you have a moon in America too.” What could I possibly tell them?
When I visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Borobudur on Java, I know I can’t talk to the natives who live there to find out about their history. They simply won’t know. I have to find what I want to know in history books. I can reasonably question the inhabitants on daily matters, how they feel about certain issues, but I don’t expect them to know the answers to the questions I need to put down in my writing.
It’s a fact, generally, people who live in an area know less about it than the visitors who come to see the place. For instance, I lived in Washington, D.C. for many years while attending Georgetown University. Yes, I went to the National Museum, once or twice, and I went to the Corcoran Art gallery, and I climbed the 564 steps to the top of the Washington Monument. But when it came down to facts, I knew very little about the city other than how to get around. Thousands upon thousands of tourists arrived each day by the plane, bus, Amtrak, private cars and yes, even bicycles. I never gave much thought to these hordes of tourists. They led their own lives and I had mine. The twain never mixed. It wasn’t until years later, long after I left Washington and became a writer, that I was given an assignment from a major travel magazine to write a feature on the tourist sites of Washington. The editor who gave the assignment had learned that I once lived in the city and therefore I must know more about the city than the average visitor. How wrong the editor was. I knew practically nothing about the tourist trail in Washington. I had to visit the city as a tourist to find out. I was absolutely astounded after finding out how much there was to see and do. How odd! When I lived in Washington I did none of this. Those tourists who came to town knew more about the city than I did.
Expat writers living abroad, having to do research, find it is not so easy. In Bangkok, for example, text and reference books in libraries are in Thai script. Thus I travel to Singapore often, where the libraries are stocked with English language books. And most important, The Straits Times newspaper is on microfilm and dates back to the last century. I can find more original sources of information in Singapore than I can any place else in Asia. The Internet, or course, is useful, but when I go to a search engine I find straight facts and sometimes facts are not enough. At The Straits Times I click on a date in history and what I discover is amazing. For instance, when I read the ads that appeared fifty years ago, I learn that smoking is good for me. It’s healthy to start off the day with a cigarette . That’s what the cigarette ads said back then. I can compare looking at The Straits Times to watching a Turner Classic Movie. The old movies, without car crashes and vivid sex scenes, show me how people dressed and h w they acted thirty or forty years ago. Today’s movies can teach me very little.