Edited by Tim Cahill.
2006. 318 pages. Paperback.
From: the public library
Last year, I read and reviewed The Best American Travel Writing 2009. I enjoyed it so much that I’d like to read all of this specific series. I love the variety in location, style and tone. Some essays delve into the wonder of travel, others the disorientation. Some writers muse, others are amused. Nature, history, culture, politics, food and the absurd can all be covered under this category of “travel writing.”
Here is a rundown of the essays in the 2006 compilation that stand out in my mind:
“After the Fall” by Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis
In this essay, the authors visit Vietnam, a week in advance of the 30th anniversary of South Vietnam’s surrender. Things go wrong for the journalists when they visit a few too many dissidents. The end of the article finds one of them stumbling around Saigon while the celebrations commence, his companions having been forced to leave the country.
“The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie” by Alain de Botton
Attractive girls born outside Switzerland are particularly against going to Zurich. Such girls (and modern science has proved this) prefer Los Angeles or Sydney. Even if they are looking for something Protestant and homey, they choose Antwerp or Copenhagen instead. (p. 71-72)
“Ain’t It Just Grand?” by Kevin Fedarko
This was a lovely essay where Fedarko travels on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – a three week journey. Their lead guide is a conservation legend: Martin Litton, who fought plans to dam the Colorado River, helped champion the cause of the redwood forests, and also set up this unique whitewater company in the Grand Canyon, which uses wooden dories instead of inflated rafts. The essay describes the journey and also profiles Litton.
“The Price of Paradise” by Caitlin Flanagan
This was a hilarious New Yorker piece about the author’s fascination with Hawaiian vacations, despite being vaguely disappointed each time. The essay particularly focuses on a recent stay at the Grand Wailea, where the battle for deckchairs is fierce.
“Where They Love Americans . . . for a Living” by Sean Flynn
This is one of my favorite essays. Flynn starts out deceptively nonchalant in describing the prostitution scene in Costa Rica, the American men trolling the bars. Then Flynn suddenly spins the narrative around and shows some teeth, shredding into the male fantasies that have branded Costa Rica as a ‘sex haven.’
“Out of Ohio” by Ian Frazier
The essay is an wonderfully written ode to the author’s hometown of Hudson, Ohio. When he describes the days spent there after his college graduation, he captures the feel of summer and transition. He also describes hitchhiking to Chicago, Florida and New York.
“A Short Walk in the Wakhan Corridor” by Mark Jenkins
One of the adventurer tales in the compilation, Jenkins’ essay describes his travels in the Wakhan Corridor, a northern valley in Afghanistan. It used to be part of the famous Silk Road. Greg Mortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea) is a friend of Mark Jenkins and is present for some of the journey.
“XXXXL” by Michael Paterniti
In rural Ukraine, there lives a giant – a man who is over eight feet tall thanks to a botched surgery in his childhood. Fascinated by a news story about this man, Leonid Stadnik, the author decides to travel to Ukraine to interview him. The travel narrative within the travel narrative is the story of Leonid’s only trip outside of Ukraine – a short visit to Germany. It is a gentle, haunting story and I was left with the image of the giant in his apple orchard “because only the apples and the beets don’t care what size you are.”
“The New Mecca” by George Saunders
The setting is Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I love how Saunders does not settle for the easy story here. He is in awe of the excessive luxury of the place but also aware of the immigrant labor that runs the city. It’s a kaleidoscopic piece – each segment is a newly shaken perspective.
“Airborne” by Sally Shivnan
Anyone who likes looking out the window in flight will love this essay. Shivnan muses on how the aerial view of the United States affects how she views the country.
… even Manhattan, viewed from the right altitude, is defined not by its population density but by the chunk of rock between two rivers that it stands on; it is an island with a city on it, not a city on an island. (p. 273)
“A Peaceful Angle” by Patrick Symmes
Symmes wrote my favorite essay from the 2009 compilation. This essay is not as brilliant, but is still quite good, and is more personal. Symmes describes a fishing trip in the Mongolian wild. The sought-after prize in their catch-and-release fishing is the elusive, large taimen, from the salmon family. Jim Nachtwey, a veteran war photographer is one of Symmes’ fellow anglers and the essay is also a little bit about him.
There were other good essays in the compilation (including one written by David Sedaris) but I hope these snippets give you a taste for the wonderful stories and writing that this compilation contained. I look forward to reading another from this series later this year.