The art of arm­chair travel

Great writ­ing takes us into the un­ex­pected, writes Camp­bell Jef­ferys

The West Australian - - TODAY -

We’ve all been there, trapped on a sofa book­ended by a pair re­cently re­turned from a trip to some far-flung or not-so-far-flung place, and taken through dozens, if not hun­dreds of hol­i­day snaps. The theme sel­dom varies, with one or other of the pair, some­times both, in front of a place of note and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing com­men­tary of “That’s me in front of X,” or “That’s her in front of Y,” or “That’s us in front of Z”.

Look­ing at these photos, are we in­spired enough to get on a plane and visit? We say we are, to be po­lite. “Yes, I def­i­nitely have to go there.” And we echo the ad­jec­tives. “Oh, it’s breath­tak­ing al­right. Amaz­ing and stun­ning. So pic­turesque. So quaint.” But the only itchy feet we get is to run for the door, not to the near­est air­port.

This is the thing about travel: it’s per­sonal. Some­one’s hol­i­day photos are in­ter­est­ing to them but put oth­ers to sleep. The same goes for travel writ­ing, that realm of cliched, bloated lan­guage that rarely brings a place to stink­ing, glow­ing, puls­ing life, and ar­guably the hard­est form of writ­ing to mas­ter. Be­cause how do you gar­ner some­one’s in­ter­est in your per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of a place through words? How can you avoid dull travel logs that tread the fa­mil­iar ground of I went here, I saw this and I did that, and it was breath­tak­ing and amaz­ing and pic­turesque?

These days, peo­ple are well-trav­elled. Even if they don’t get on a plane, they can sit at home and travel the world via the in­ter­net, see the sights, learn things, maybe even grow a lit­tle. That’s no sub­sti­tute for real-world travel but it does re­in­force that so much of the world is known. So, when sit­ting down to write a travel story, start with some­thing sur­pris­ing. For ex­am­ple:

“Down­stairs, in Ber­lin’s Ge­sund­brun­nen train sta­tion, there is a green door which thou­sands of peo­ple pass ev­ery day, com­pletely ig­no­rant to what lies on the other side. This door leads to a net­work of tun­nels and bunkers . . . 11 of us, in­clud­ing two guides, pass through the door and go down a long stair­case.”

Lots of peo­ple have been to Ber­lin but do they know about this green door and the tun­nels be­yond? From this open­ing para­graph, from pass­ing through the green door, the reader is now one of the 11, head­ing down into the dark­ness to bear wit­ness to how cit­i­zens coped and sur­vived (or didn’t) through two world wars and a divi­sion that split the city in half. The air gets thin­ner, it’s hard to see, shad­ows dance. The bunker is sound­proof as well as bombproof and, up above, the city is loud and life con­tin­ues apace.

This story about Ber­lin, its place in his­tory and evo­lu­tion, is told from a dank bunker lit by glow-in-the-dark paint 75 years old. That makes it more strik­ing than ad­jec­tivised sketches drawn from the win­dow of a tourist bus.

Great travel writ­ing does what travel should do: take us to­wards the un­ex­pected, to a place that in­trigues. These are the ex­pe­ri­ences that snap us awake, and they de­fine a place in ways we didn’t an­tic­i­pate, in ways we re­mem­ber for years to come. An­other ex­am­ple: in New York to visit the museums, I end up play­ing pick-up basketball on a fenced-in court at Wash­ing­ton Square. The story takes the reader on to the court and passes him the ball. It’s a muggy Septem­ber af­ter­noon and every­one’s talk­ing trash. And look sharp, reader, be­cause you might get an el­bow to the head.

Travel writ­ing re­quires an ex­pe­ri­ence good enough to share. Not sim­ply you in front of some sight but you fol­low­ing your nose, un­sure of what’s ahead; peer­ing be­hind the green door and head­ing into the dark­ness; getting your­self on the other side of a mesh fence and join­ing the five-on-five fray.

Sure, with the in­ter­net, there’s not much left to dis­cover. But get this: there re­ally is a place called Carhenge in Ne­braska; they play cricket on the Ger­man is­land of Heligoland; the end­less tourists are turn­ing Auschwitz into a theme park; the Vi­en­nese are ob­sessed with death and fu­neral cus­toms; there is a street in Ham­burg only adult men can walk down; and hitch-hik­ing can help you make friends. When trav­el­ling, al­low your­self the chance to dis­cover the un­ex­pected, to be sur­prised, to be ed­u­cated.

And if you de­cide to write about it, start strong, keep the story fo­cused, and fin­ish well.

Travel writ­ing re­quires an ex­pe­ri­ence good enough to share.

Picture: Che Chap­man

Camp­bell Jef­ferys.

Picture: Camp­bell Jef­ferys

Carhenge, Ne­braska.

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