The Best American Travel Writing 2009
Editor: Simon Winchester
Published 2009. 340pages.
I don’t read magazines often, so I’m grateful for anthologies such as The Best American Travel Writing, which endeavor to deliver to us the cream of the crop in one package. In this collection, essays are gathered from such publications as National Geographic, Slate.com, and Harper’s Review.
Jason Wilson, the Best American series editor, opens with a foreward where he defends travel writing as a literary form. He includes a humorous anecdote about an argument with a (now-ex) girlfriend who compared travel writing to video games. The book’s editor, Simon Winchester, is British and provides an interesting hypothesis on why it is that British travel more, but Americans have all the best travel writing.
I won’t describe all of the book’s 25 essays here, but I will highlight the best of the lot. Strangely, it seemed to me that the best essays were located in the first half of the collection.
Not so surprisingly, the very best essay, Patrick Symmes’ “The Generals in Their Labyrinth” is the first one. Even Winchester remarks in the introduction that Symmes’ essay “is destined to be ranked among all-time great magazine essays.”
In “The Generals in Their Labyrinth,” Symmes visits the country of Myanmar (Burma) in April 2008. From the beginning of the essay, I was hooked and I’ll show you why:
There never was a man on the ferry to Pakokku, and he didn’t say what he said. I didn’t meet Western diplomats from three nations. Not for coffee. Not for drinks. Not in the official residence, with rain and palm fronds pelting down, just hours before the storm hit.
I didn’t talk with the country’s most distinguished astrologer or its worst comedians. Nobody from any NGO’s helped me, either. If I had tea with a prominent intellectual or lunch with a noted businessman, nothing happened. I was just in Burma – sorry, I mean Myanmar – to play golf and look at the ruins.
The boy monks never cried and begged me to conceal their names. At the monastery in Pakokku, they never told me anything at all.
I wasn’t there when the storm hit. There was no cyclone. I didn’t see anything.
Whew. How could I resist such an opening? The rest of the essay details Symmes’ observations of the repressive Burmese regime, and includes his visit to their newly built capital city, Naypyidaw.
One of my other favorite essays was Jay Kirk’s “Hotels Rwanda.” An excellent blend of humor and compassion flavors his writing. I also loved that he had, and wrote about, his travel companions – people who had previously been strangers. Here is a small excerpt from the essay about the group’s first sighting of giraffes, a part that made me laugh out loud:
With their black-and-yellow fur, their stubby horns like eye stalks, and the way they move, lurching almost aquatically, they look like gigantic, yet infinitely graceful banana slugs … They are so strange-looking. Despite their apparent benevolence, it is not a stretch to imagine laser rays shooting from their eyes, scorching everything in sight.
Other notable essays include:
“Intimacy” by Andre Aciman (Rome)
“Who is America?” by Chuck Klosterman (Germany)
“A Dip in the Cold” by Lynne Cox (various Arctic locations)
“Mississippi Drift” by Matthew Power (the Mississippi)
“The Deeds” by Tom Sleigh (Lebanon)
“You Do Not Represent the Government of the United States of America” by Daniel Alarcon (Syria)
EDIT: I searched online and “The Generals in their Labyrinth” is on Outside’s website (Outside magazine was the first place it was published): http://outside.away.com/outside/destinations/200808/burma-cyclone-nargis-1.html
The others may be findable as well online, depending on their magazine’s policy on publishing online content.