Sunday, January 20, 2008

Confessions Of A Rogue Travel Writer

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of A Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson (Holt 2007).

Everything you are about to read is true:

“Like Bangkok, Jakarta and a handful of other festering, beggar-laden Third World megatropolises, Manila is one of the great sprawling shitholes of Asia, a reeking mess of poverty, traffic, smog, crime, corruption, and filth. Bursting with people who somehow maintain a bulletproof optimism in the face of decay, disorder, and daily tragedy, these are frenetic slum-cities where everything, from blow jobs to military coups, can happen at any time. Cities that you love just slightly more than you loathe. For those unacquainted with the region, ‘sprawling Asian shithole’ is employed as a term of endearment.”

So says Chuck Thompson in his book of travel sketches Smile When You’re Lying.

Says I: Amen, brother.

Many of the great cities of Asia are great because they’re anarchic dystopias. Nothing invigorates the spirit like the realization that, as long as you’re not maiming or murdering someone important, you can do anything you want and there is nothing the constabulary can or will or cares to do to stop you. The locals figure this out by the age of three, which is why some of East Asia’s merchants can’t be bothered with the detail of unscrewing the Russian license plates from the stolen Mercedes sedans they’re selling.

Your opinion of Asia’s scruffier cities may be different, but, warns Thompson, if your opinion isn’t blandly complimentary, don’t bother pitching your vision as a story idea to a travel magazine. The editors are only interested in non-threatening articles which put the readers in a buying mood and attract advertising from the travel industry – which doesn’t appreciate it when a tourist magnet like Bangkok is referred to as a “sprawling Asian shithole” (which it is, and I say that lovingly).

Thompson argues that the problem with much of the writing in travel publications is the complete absence of authorial perspective or point of view. “The most memorable experiences – getting laid, sick, lost, home – always seem ‘too negative,’ ‘too graphic,’ or ‘too over the heads of our readers’ to find their ways into print,” he writes. In addition, “the writer who dares make anything other than holistically supportive judgments of any foreign culture (not counting Arab) risks career suicide.”

Which might be why Thompson decided that he needed his own book to make observations like this one:

“Americans are the new Germans. Around the planet, ‘America’ has become a byword for the kind of pushy, greedy, arrogant, ignorant, scheming, intolerant, hypocritical, violent, militaristic, goose-stepping, blood-gulping, Limbaugh-worshipping bullies that civilized people since time eternal have despised and occasionally battled to the death. All you 82 million Germans can start thanking the United States anytime now for taking those goat horns off your heads.”

Thompson grew up in Juneau, Alaska, as one of a small number of humans who thought of Canada as being to the south. He describes his time as a hard-partying assistant sergeant at arms in the Alaska House of Representatives, then various adventures in Japan, Latin America, East Asia and the former Soviet Bloc.

And don’t forget the Caribbean:

“I find myself wondering why anyone – much less the 35 million people who go to the Caribbean each year – would blow presumably limited vacation days and budgets on a place where the definition of ‘paradise’ is fluid enough to include sullen service, neglected hotels, and restaurants where waiting forty-five minutes for a small mango juice is considered an immense honor. The whole place needs a fresh coat of paint, a platoon of chefs who understand how to prepare sea food, and a ban on thirty-year-old white women having their hair cornrowed by fourteen-year-old black girls.”

Thompson’s not all negative. He loves Latin America and regrets the fact that his countrymen are too timid to travel there because of “the overcautious zeitgeist of an America in which half the population now behaves like insurance adjusters.”

OK, even when he’s being nice to one region, he’s swiping at another, but Thompson’s goal is to present a personal, uncompromised opinion – the travel industry be damned.

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