Often I read travel articles and blogs which make an attempt at informed analysis about a place from which the writer has just returned. And it’s hardly surprising: most of us at some level attempt to make sense of what we see and experience, usually by framing it in the context of our knowledge of our home environments. In the course of a week we may come face to face with a few dozen people, more perhaps, depending on our plans, our comfort at opening up to others, and simple serendipity. How can we hope to form an informed opinion of a country in such a short time, with such minimal exposure? Yet that’s what so many writers are tempted to do. To declare a place as friendly, to say that people love their government, that they’re hard-working, easy-going, fiercely independent… the list goes on.
There’s a natural desire to try and make sense out of chaos – to reach conclusions from whatever information we’re given. And yet it’s often a dangerous, foolish or at the very least a naïve path to follow. It was brought home to me on our recent travels in Indonesia. We spent a month there – a long time for casual tourists like us, but by no stretch long enough to form a sensible view on the stories behind the stories. Perhaps more than in many countries, the multiple murky layers of Indonesian politics appear to have an impact on almost every place we visited. I couldn’t have hoped to understand these complexities in such a short time – it was enough to know that they exist, and any attempt at an amateur drive-by analysis would leave me looking silly.
But the temptation is often there – to make sense of what we see, however inadequate our information may be. On our two recent trips to Japan, I was keen to try and explain those aspects of Japanese behavior which appear quirky to western outsiders. But what could I say of any value – other than merely relay my own experiences? And in Micronesia, a region about which I had no insight of cultural or political nuance – what could I offer to explain away the islands’ dependence on foreign aid or their all-too-visible social problems?
So as a writer I’m aware of often consciously suppress the urge to give what passes as an expert analysis opinion, which would stand out as uninformed at the very least to anyone who lives in a place and is familiar with its contradictions and subtleties. So what does this mean? What should I write and what should I resist the temptation to mention? Does being cautious result inevitably in bland nothingness?
Let’s say for example I encounter half a dozen people who are kind and hospitable – should I describe the whole nation as friendly? Ok, that’s an easy one.
What about if I get into a conversation with a local who talks about his government’s corruption and how he regularly has to pay bribes to go about his everyday business – can I draw out any sensible conclusions about the country or its people?
More typical still, if I have a great time exploring a country which has a dubious record when it comes to democracy, human rights, dealing with protests – should I attempt to address these issues in a general travel article? Does it destroy any meaningful analysis of that country, and in the process damage my own credibility as a writer, if I choose to ignore them entirely? Or is the insight about the politics of a country which I gain from a trip so narrow that any mention is meaningless?
On most trips, describing personal experiences with the right detail and eloquence will by itself paint a vivid picture to a reader. As for personal reflections and attempts at wider analysis, perhaps these are best presented as being exactly what they are: the thoughts of one short-term visitor who has seen only what they happen to have seen; and no more.