By Patty Malesh, Official ZEE JLF@Boulder Blogger

Does travel writing still have a role in an age when everyone travels and Google maps can take you anywhere, instantly, on your laptop?

William Dalrymple

Acclaimed writers and storytellers Christina Lamb, John Huston, Lori Erikson and William Dalrymple shared excerpts from their travel writing experiences in an engaging dialogue at Boulder, Colorado’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

Explorer John Huston and his expedition partner were the first Americans to reach the North Pole unsupported. Huston told a hair-raising story as he recounted his near-death experience as he plunged into the Arctic Ocean and the odd eating habits that helped him survive before and after the plunge. “We have come to love eating butter and deep fried bacon, which I highly recommend,” Huston quips as he details his harrowing journey into the northern wilds.
Travel Writing as Spiritual Self-Help

Lori Erikson is one of the top travel writers in the U.S. who specializes in spiritual journeys. She spoke of holy travels, spiritual retreats, and the quest for self. “While the number of nuns and monks is going down, the number of people looking to experience the serenity of these places is going up,” she says of monasteries and spiritual centers that sustain themselves as retreat centers for the spiritually ambitious. “I do travel writing as a kind of self-help. We travel to change our lives and to change our hearts,” she confesses.

His Excellency Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador to the U.S. speaks of another type of spirituality: the kind one searches for during the transition from body to spirit. He believes travel writing brings one closer to a journey and his case, allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of his own family history in Jerusalem. While some descriptions of this holy and contested place sound familiar, His Excellency Sarna states that ‘the barbed wire was rolled up many years ago but the virtual barrier between East and West Jerusalem still remain. Descriptions of the peaceful and lavender-filled gardens of the 800-year old Indian hospice in Jerusalem move me to a much deeper understanding of this land and the people who call it holy.”

When Travel Writing becomes War Writing  

Christina Lamb is one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and a best-selling author. Her long career as a war correspondent and journalist offers a poignant look at Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and then again 10 years later. She offers glimpses of the humanity that resonates across cultures. Shortly after 9/11, hunkered down with the rest of the swarm of journalists who landed in a hotel in Kabul run by an Americanized Afghani man, she spoke of its makeshift gym complete with dumbbells bought from warlords and a poster of Al Pacino. Ten years later that same hotel owner is no longer thinking of Al Pacino. “You know we say the devil landed in Kabul when he was cast out of heaven,” he tells Lamb.

Jaipur Literature Festival co-founder and best-selling author William Dalrymple spoke of Lebanon in the days and months after the civil war that forever changed the Middle East. He said that war is all too real but, in that, it is also surreal. It is up to those who tell the stories of war to help others understand this. “Yet for all this destruction, in some places the shrapnel marks were strangely beautiful, like a Kandinsky abstract: a perfect peppering of dots and dashes.” In the skeletal remains of Beirut, buildings “so eroded by shrapnel that they resembled a piece of chronically worm-eaten wood” he walked past “washing hanging up to dry on a line or perhaps a shadowy figure taking the air on a half-collapsed balcony.” This travel writing of war illustrates the practical and vital value of travel writers.

Travel Writing as Inspiration
My hope is that travel writing is an aspirational thing,” Huston summarized the thread that bound the panelists. Travel writers want people to travel. Erikson lays it plain, “something in our DNA draws us to wayfaring.” We crave travel and we learn from those who write about their travels. Perhaps this is because traveling is not about exploring breathtaking geography or rich and diverse cultures. It’s about understanding ourselves.

Photo Credit – Atreyee Bhattacharya