Inside Anthea’s head: I’m on the road again – pondering travel writing

…Not really, I wish I were though. Happy Friday everyone! Thank you for your patience the last few weeks, I’ve been really ill. Although I wasn’t actually on my deathbed I felt like I was, and now that I’m starting to be up and about, I feel a bit like Lazarus. Being bedridden made me feel extra-wanderlust-y and as the travel loving third culture kid that I am, I started to miss travelling. Yes, even the airport waiting bits. I genuinely enjoy airports, more so now that free Wi-Fi seems to be thing. But I digress. The renewal in wanderlust led me to attempt to travel by proxy, looking at lovely visual travel blogs (The National Geographic Travel Tumblr is awesome) and mentally inserting myself in all manner of landscapes. I also experimented with reading travel writing. It’s never been a genre I have really been into, and I have to say I was struck by the lack of diverse voices in the area, particularly when it comes to off-the-beaten-track travels. Granted I didn’t exactly carry out the most exhaustive search for alternative voices but I did have to wonder: where are all the other people and why aren’t they travelling? Ponder with me.

Travel writing as a genre isn’t new, nor is the lack of global/diverse voices. There were women travel writers in the past and they were by and large privileged. Male travel writers also tended to be wealthy young men whose travelling was supposed to be a key component of their education. Mary Morris asserts that in modern times ‘travel literature awaits its full range of multicultural voices and perspectives’. What’s interesting to note is that these women by and large travelled with large entourages, yet their accounts are not filled with how their companions or their servants or their helpers coped with the varying hardships that would later form part of the backbone of tales they would regale their home audiences with. So it’s not that others weren’t travelling it’s that their travels went undocumented and unremarked upon.

In modern times the nature of the travelling that we like to hear about my also serve to narrow down the pool of potential writers. We (myself very much included) seem to be interested in consuming tales of the unencumbered leisure traveller who goes off exploring and maybe along the way finds (very often) himself, makes unlikely friends and feels that the world is a beautiful wonderful place. However, not many people are sufficiently unencumbered. Not many people are able to spare the time off of work/ families/ other obligations in order to have a good wander around in some wilderness, even if the funds were forthcoming and the desire to do so was there. It made me realise what a privileged position leisure travel and travellers for leisure and self-discovery hold. The mainstream isn’t filled with accounts of an average migrant worker making their way to work in exploitative and often dangerous conditions, or those whose travel is triggered through forced expulsion and deportations, or through the outbreak of war, natural disasters and the like unless of course this information is supposed to trigger a sympathetic response.

The internet does seem to be chock-full of advise about travelling on the cheap, finding deals or travelling to some lesser known places however the people doing the writing and exploring tended to belong to the global North, be white, able-bodied and fairly well off, with the extra security that powerful passports seem to be accorded. Diversity in possible travellers/ consumers of travel information tended to only be mentioned when in the form of a blanket caution that did not delve into the intricacies of travelling whilst not a card-carrying member of certain forms of privilege. There was a lot of “women should be wary of travelling in dangerous areas which are dangerous” type of reasoning or what Kristi Siegel calls the “rhetoric of peril”. This is the idea that women really shouldn’t even be permitted to venture out of the confines of their backyard alone as they will meet a sorry end. Siegel compares the modern conceptions of Little Red Riding Hood (starting with the version by the Grimm Brothers) with the older versions to tease out some of the assumptions that come up when it comes to women travelling. She says that Little Red Riding Hood’s messages to young women are ‘…destructive: we are easily distracted and disobedient; we are not safe alone in the woods (travelling off the beaten path); we are fairly stupid; we get ourselves in trouble, and we need to be rescued by a man.’ Popular culture seems to actively be of the opinion that women are too weak to travel by themselves and/or we risk getting confused/ lost/ hurt etc.

I wonder if the lessons of Little Red Riding Hood continue to influence the idea of who should be travelling and who should be travelling in order to write about travelling? If so, then it seems a shame as in many ways things like race, class and gender are relevant when it comes to navigating other countries. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been assumed to be the help in some European resorts, or the number of times people in rural Europe i.e. places with not that many black women around, seemed a little distressed/ uncomfortable with my presence. My point being my travel experiences are going to be very different from someone else who may be similarly situated in terms of how much they are looking to spend but is male/white/disabled. These perspectives need charting too and it is very inappropriate to assume that white/male/citizen of global North will cut it as the yardstick of the good traveller.

Now, violence against women is unfortunately a very real thing, and I find it very interesting that it seems to be a thing that is particularly highlighted when going into the great beyond as though this isn’t an issue that cuts across cultures. As Siegel asserts ‘ultimately, it is impossible to determine what degree of danger travel poses for a woman’ and I would add that that is true in much the same way that it is impossible to determine what degree of danger staying at home and walking down one of my own streets poses. There seems to be an added element of racism, when we assume that “they” are more likely to cause harm to “our” women than “we” are.

Just a thought.

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