Over the past six years I have lived in different countries and kept private journals, wrote poetry about moving, learned tons of trivia about communists uprisings, Korean peasant revolts, and the long relationship between NAFTA, the PRI, and the cartel wars in Mexico. I have learned about the absolute perils of Japanese cyber-bidets, the myriad ways a bathroom may not work, and how to avoid falling until the wet floor in a Turkish squad toilet. One learns to walk in ways that one doesn’t accidentally telegraph either “pick pocket me, I am totally too daft to know” or “I am a creepy American or European sex tourist, and I am totally not fighting my obvious balding and weird post-Christian guilt in the areas of some ‘exotic’ sex worker I am boring into an early grave.” (Side note: Both are generally achieved by traveling with a partner).
Everyone writes about traveling, some people blog about traveling, and before my partner was diagnosed with cancer, we used to watch hours of these things to get tips and make fun of bad advice. Or to mock make-shift half-assed anthropologists who mistake a few tourist insights into “deep knowledge’ of the culture. Of course, I always sound like I too have “deep knowledge” of the culture, but this is mainly from pretending to know some of the language and drinking (coffee or alcohol depending on where) with locals. In fact, if one wants to learn a language, meet cool people, and have allies so you don’t deny–learning backgammon or Goh or chess and drink with locals. Eat the local food, and deal with the cholera later. (Honestly, you probably won’t have to deal with cholera, but then again, I did nearly die of typhoid once, and have taken month long courses of antibiotics from over-zealous love of street food).
It’s the call to prayer here, which you learn to enjoy in the middle east. It’s more melodious than sand, and has more rhythm than the local hustling and bustling in the streets, gesturing, and engaging in the street theatre of negotiation. You’ll probably learn how to be earnestly OVER dismissive or defensive of your home culture–particularly if that culture speaks English as the first language. You will bore your friends with you endless prattling about “real <insert place here>” and fail to realize that traditions you learned are probably only two generations old anyway, and the local folk wisdom is probably, as Hobshawm used to tell us, invented tradition anyway.
Although you really can see where that guy got Trotsky in the head with a pickaxe in Mexico City. It’s generally less busy than Frida Kahlo’s house after that Julie Taymore movie anyway.
This is why I don’t travel write very often: people got pulled into the exoticism and think you are showing them the truth: the Ur-form of local authenticity, which you better not get too close to for fear of cultural appropriation call-outs when you return to states. People will think you are being helpful by telling people where a kahab house is just off the beaten path of the Egyptian market in Istanbul saved you a few lira, and you got bahlava way cheaper. Of course, by the time the viewers get there, your video has gone viral and the prices are jacked up.
Or that time you helped destroy the local economy of a small village in Guatemala by overtipping taxi drivers and making service industry pay more than being a local doctor, leading to the precipitous in locals receiving medical training.
So travel, write about it, and love it. But don’t pretend to be offering anyone some insider knowledge, because if it works, you may be undoing the very thing you love and if it doesn’t, you may just be a jackass, overcoming a cocaine problem, and writing about food in future countries snidely.