I Don't Know How to Write About Travel
I’m sitting in our rental apartment in Shibuya watching the sun go down. When you think of Shibuya you think of the impossibly crowded Shibuya crossing, or the always on-trend Shibuya 109, or even the statue in memory of the tragic Hachiko, but we’re staying in a residential neighborhood away from all that. One of the nice things about traveling for so long is we’re not obligated to fill every day with sightseeing. Today I watched the daily asadora on TV and then went to the grocery store. Today I enjoyed living in Tokyo.
You may have noticed I’ve fallen behind writing about our trip. I tried sitting down to write this afternoon, I really did. I’ve sat down so many times in hotel rooms, on buses, and in cafes to try and write about Sukhothai, but we visited that nearly seven months ago now. I’ve written thousands of words about the history of Thailand, about the crumbling chedi and what remains of the old foundations.
I’ve spent hours on this and I still haven’t written a post. I don’t know what to write.
Maybe I’m not familiar enough with examples of good travel writing. I didn’t really understand how to write essays until I started reading great essays (sorry high school, Joan Didion and Annie Dillard did not work for me back then). The travel writing I currently read is the practical and informative kind (“negotiate a price in advance; it should be about 600 baht” or “most places are closed during Tết”) and that’s not the sort I want to write. My parents had a bunch of Paul Theroux books around the house while I was growing up and I can’t stand him. I’m sure what I’m looking for is out there but I’m not sure where to start.
Goodreads helpfully lets me know that the most popular book in the travel genre right now is The Martian. Thanks, Goodreads.
I know what I don’t want to write. I don’t want to write about how Thailand is a country of contrasts because everywhere is a place of contrasts. You only have to walk down the street where I used to live in San Francisco to see the contrasts between the people in tech and the groups they’re displacing, or an expensive and trendy restaurant just a block away from a homeless encampment. But by saying “oh look at the contrasts” the writer erases all of the nuance. In a single stroke they actively ignore everything but the extremes; they ignore the places in between where people are.
I don’t want to write about how I learned how people “actually live.” We spent 40 days in Vietnam and I could not tell you how people actually live. We’ve been in Japan for two months and I know less than when we started, even with the unfair advantage of growing up Japanese American. I could tell you that people take their shoes off when entering a house, but shoes are not relationships. Shoes are not feelings or dreams, histories or memories or habits or beliefs. How could I declaratively say “I understand you” about someone?
I don’t want to write about how we are all the same, and that we are all connected. At times during this trip I’ve never felt more foreign and lost. The world is a big place, and we’ve only been to a narrow latitudinal slice of it.
I don’t want to write about how we can all be happy and get along. Every day the news here broadcasts an update about the incredibly divisive presidential election happening at home. This has somehow become the defining thing about us being American—we’ve been asked questions about it wherever we go. I tell people I can’t explain it, it seems foreign to me too.
I don’t understand what is happening at home. I don’t understand the city where I lived for eight years. So how could I possibly pretend to understand where I’ve been for only days or weeks?
Instead of telling you that this is what a place is like, the best I can do is tell you what I experienced and how I felt. Instead of saying this is how things are, I can only offer you a tiny, flawed slice of how things might be. “Of course that’s how travel writing works!” you might think, but when I write something about computers it’s only after an awful amount of research. This is uncomfortable for me, so instead I’ve added geotagging and a map rendering stack to this blog. These are concrete things that I can understand: this is how coordinate systems and projections work, Sukhothai’s GPS coordinates are here. This is how I’m lying to myself by building software that I pretend will make it easier for me to understand a place in a thorough, satisfying way.
This year has been incredible. I’ve seen things I didn’t know existed, places that were so unreal that it seems magic is still in this world. I’ve met people that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’ve tasted food that left me wondering just what I’ve been eating all these years. I just haven’t written it all down for you yet. I still want to try.
So while I work on that, here’s a photo I posted to Twitter a little bit ago. Hello from the active volcano Sakurajima, near Kagoshima, Japan.