The picture on the left was taken in Pokhara, Nepal. I’ve seen so many butterflies in my life and yet I cannot forget this particular creature. As you can see it’s not especially dazzling, but there was something unique about the insect that struck me. The room in which we found it was yellow and circular. Another hostel, no more special than the last, except that this room had a butterfly and the others didn’t. I didn’t write about this room while travelling in Nepal. I didn’t even write about it upon reaching India or China or Thailand. I didn’t write about it for years. It wasn’t until my second year of university, the butterfly still flitting in my mind, that I wrote a poem. The poem was so far from what I would’ve expected. It wasn’t a description of the room’s light or the insect’s small body. It was a conversation, a conversation I’d needed to have about sights that followed me home, sights that troubled me. I asked the butterfly if it, too, felt sick each night as teenage prostitutes lined the streets. I distinctly remember sitting in a bar drinking beer when I looked down onto the street and noted a pair of girls in heels. They soon disappeared. This was a common sight. The poem I wrote was edited several times and eventually turned into a series of poems about the amount of prostitution in Nepal. Upon further reflection, I’ve become aware that travel offers my writing an immediate energy, the kind I wish to capture on the spot, in addition to a lingering one, one that follows me for years. I tend to write the most after a trip. I take notes and photographs while traveling. I dream up stories and occasionally jot them down but it’s not until I come home, rekindle a relationship with my desk and laptop, that I begin to write obsessively.
The picture above was taken the morning after my best friend punctured my tent with a knitting needle. We took some time apart as I cried in my ripped tent and she wandered the hillside. Little did I know that a year later I’d take that very same tent to Alaska and have it slashed and bear sprayed by local teenagers then find myself writing about the experience in a cafe in Seattle after stupidly missing my flight home.
Returning home from my trip up North, I was scheduled for a 35 minute layover at Seattle’s Tacoma International Airport. This seemed like a rather straightforward task, only I was given the wrong time by a flight attendant and my smart phone failed me on the smart front and informed me of a time that coincidentally matched that given to me by the attendant. So, thinking it was an hour earlier than it actually was and having foolishly failed to check the clock in the airport, I set off to the food court. There, in the spirit of healthy eating, I sat near a window and munched on soggy fries and the kind of burger that leaves death whooping and clapping his hands as he watches the cholesterol in your body mount dangerously. While I sat packing on the pounds in the food court, my fellow jet-setters boarded the 2842 flight to Calgary and flew away without me.The lesson here is to always check the clocks in the airport. Or to not if you prefer strandedness.
The point is, travel brings out the unexpected. The cliche holds true. People travel as a means to soul search, figure out their next step in life. In the same way that having my tent slashed taught me something about coping with the unexpected, travel has taught me to embrace the unexpected in my own work, let stories take shape in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. I used to try and control my work, I saw “wrong turns” as failures within the text. Now, however, they are more often than not seen as opportunities.
While I love the amount of work I turn out after every trip, I have to admit there’s something magical about writing on trains or buses, on planes or during layovers. I have a copy of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar sitting on my bookshelf. While I’ve only gotten around to reading tidbits (it’s on my read ASAP list!) I can relate to his love of trains. I remember stubbornly trying to avoid taking the high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing because I didn’t want to pay for a ticket (I preferred, or so I said, to take an overnight bus) and yet my recollections of that train ride are some of my most pleasant in China. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember writing. I remember feeling fantastic.
That said, the difference in quality between work produced on the road and work produced at home is, at least in my case, incredibly noticeable. The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote about backpacking in Iceland.
It is before the old road hardens with ice and the black wing of an old snow, and it is before the sky curls into an angry fist, that an old man in a rust licked hatchback follows us down the abandoned road to Thingvellir National Park. The car in which he emerges rumbles over potholes and through the spattering of dust until our shadows are caught beneath the front wheel of his red and shaking vehicle. He pushes his head through the window and stares solemnly into our wind burnt faces, the wild hairs of unkempt eyebrows resting like a snowy overhang above kind and quiet eyes. They look, however, to be suffering a kind of sad defeat, for he has spoken to us once before and asked us to return to the highway where we might continue our journey in proximity to civilization. Should any emergencies arise, we could, in our desperation, flag down a car or knock on the door of any kind Icelandic farmer, such as the man himself.
“You don´t know my country” he argues and I look at the storm forming in the distance. The weather channel has called for torrential rains and high winds, but in our stubbornness, we hike onward.
“We’re from Canada” we say, countering the man’s request with tales of deep snow and bitter winters. We believe ourselves to be well versed in the language of weather, to understand the clouds, which gather, white knuckled and stormy where the snowy peaks of mountains break the horizon. Bidding the man farewell, we wave and he retreats, tires once again clunking down the long driveway to his farmhouse, which, now, is no bigger than a thumbnail embedded in the landscape.
And the following is an example of how I write while travelling (although I’m planning to dedicate more time to writing on future trips):
I had cordon chicken bleu which was a giant piece of brownish chicken. It was so nasty and then after I didn’t feel well at all. Oh and the chocolate fondue was like Hershey’s chocolate out of the can. I also had my first piña colada today and attempted to smoke a cigar which drastically failed. It’s not as easy as it looks.
As you can see, the notes I took while travelling are more like field notes or journal entries. So while I’m often documenting what I’m doing during my travels, part of the fun is fun in coming home to describe the feeling of chocking on cigar smoke or drinking piña coladas in a town square in Cuba. Next up is part of the Appalachian Trail this August, which I plan to write about in detail.
Please feel free to share your own travel stories or thoughts on travel writing in the comment section below. Thank you for reading and enjoy the weekend!