Shahnaz Habib is the author of Airplane Mode, a forthcoming book of narrative nonfiction about the complexities of travel. Drawing on her own experiences abroad, she concludes that literature may, in fact, make us better travelers—but not necessarily in the way we think.
Traveling someplace new is not easy. One thought that terrifies me when I find myself in a foreign place is that I might be spotted looking through a Lonely Planet. I stay safe by carrying only electronic versions of guidebooks, downloaded onto my phone. And when I do have to open the Not-So-Lonely Planet or Is-It-Really-Rough Guide on my phone, first I look around and make sure no one, least of all other tourists, has caught me in the act. This is where international literature can be useful. Open a book and hide the phone among its pages while quickly noting the information. Now I can safely walk down the little bougainvillea-draped alley and saunter into the restaurant as if I had just found it. Just me and my intuition.
Obviously you want to be careful with this. Take it from me, a woman who carried a Rumi anthology around Turkey, only to find it on the rickety Free Books shelf of every backpacker hostel, tucked behind the breakfast area.
Jokes aside, I would like to believe that international literature can indeed make us better travelers. It even sounds like the kind of theory that might well be proved dead right in a few decades. Imagine a randomized clinical trial conducted over the course of ten years, in which a bevy of unsuspecting subjects is fed books from around the world, with a healthy proportion of fiber-rich translation titles, to be consumed consistently, one a week perhaps, against a control group that reads nothing. Then everyone is tracked on their travels abroad through regular interviews and online surveys.
It’s at this point that my imagination fails. Not because I have a hard time conceiving of someone funding such a study or because in thirty years, the waters will have inundated us all. But because, for a while now, I have been confused about what it means to be a better traveler.
Certainly it is possible to identify some traits that would make a good traveler: curiosity, openness to the world, sympathy for the people they meet on their travels, willingness to question their own biases and stereotypes.
But I can’t help thinking that with these traits, the “good” in “good traveler” is mostly happening to the traveler. This “goodness” is not particularly beneficial to the place said traveler is traveling to. A lot of places in the world—from Venice to Boracay—are finding out that the best travelers are those who never bother to come. The ones who do not burden precious resources with their search for local, authentic experience.
In fact, it is worth wondering if travel is actually essential to being a good traveler. Benjamin Moser writes about the great writer Machado de Assis, who lived a quiet and provincial life in nineteenth-century Brazil, “Machado is proof that cosmopolitanism comes from reading, not from travel: through books he knew the world.”
Yet we travel. We cannot resist the lure of the world. We hope that travel will make us better human beings—more rounded, more sophisticated. There’s always the hope that by going somewhere else, we will find ourselves. Travel is a self-improvement project that has been sold to us as a world-improvement project.
In his memoir of his time in Verona, Italy, Italian Neighbors, Tim Parks recounts visiting two brothers, Giuliano and Girolamo, who run the farm where he gets his eggs. So far, so good. We are in the territory of the typical Italy travelogue: the enamored foreigner seeking wholesome food in the Italian countryside. Giuliano reminisces to Parks about being a prisoner of war in Scotland, where he lived with local farmers who put him to work he enjoyed in their fields. He loved Scotland! But when the war was over, he had twenty-four hours to decide whether to stay or not. Giuliano would have happily stayed—but pasta! He tells Parks that the thought of a plate of pasta put him on the boat back to Italy. Parks adds: “I wonder if his toothless grin is meant to indicate that he appreciates what a caricature he is offering.”
Something shifts in that moment when Parks suspects that Giuliano might be performing a national stereotype to please the foreigner. We are no longer in a tourist moment; instead, we are in a literary moment involving a character with complex motivations that we cannot fully understand.
Parks has an unfair advantage here as a translator of Italian literature. This gives him a sharp skepticism that other readers may not always have access to. Translators are accustomed to this shape-shifting, the way a text can hide a subtext, the way chasing a literal and obvious meaning can take one further away from the deeper meaning. Unfortunately, when we think of travel as a self-improvement exercise, we are primed to miss this subtext. We are fulfilling our own fantasies of becoming, rather than exploring the being of the place we are traveling to.
A couple of years ago, I spent two lovely long weeks in Montevideo, doing pretty much nothing. I walked aimlessly around flea markets, looked up Eduardo Galeano in the catalog of the public library even though I cannot read Spanish, watched the sunset on the promenade every day. And yet it was only later, after I read a Juan Carlos Onetti story in the recently translated A Dream Come True, that something clicked. Two aging theater impresarios are recruited to stage a reenactment of a woman’s dream. It’s a brief and banal moment on a street, but the woman felt such joy during the dream that she wants to recapture it. The futility of the woman’s quest and the resigned gentleness with which everyone involved makes her dream come true reminded me of the particular languor that I had enjoyed so much in Montevideo. Now I knew I was wrong. It was not languor, it was a tenderness borne out of surviving together.
Perhaps this is why I have found that literature is better at explaining the places I have been to than teaching me about a place I am going to. After you have been somewhere, after you have spent a boring half an hour waiting for a bus in that place, after you have eaten a few subpar meals in that city, it is easier to think clearly about that place, to translate it for yourself. And if you are lucky, back home, a book will fall into your hands, and far away from all the melodrama of travel and its epiphanies and souvenirs and fly-by-night friendships and trains to catch and the pressure to have a bon voyage, the book will tell you what you missed, how wrong you were.
© 2020 by Shahnaz Habib. All rights reserved.