What if I told you it really is possible to time travel and it requires no fancy machines?
“Impossible!” you’d say.
Now, what if I told you it’s something you could do from the comfort of an armchair?
“Ridiculous! You’re mad!” you’d tell me again. Your eyes would lock onto mine, looking for any telling sign that I’m either joking or deranged. With your curiosity having gotten the better of you, you finally ask, “How?”
“By reading travel writing,” I’d whisper into your ear a split second before you go absolutely bonkers and your head explodes.
But it’s true, read on!
The purpose of travel writing in ancient times
Travel writing has been around for thousands of years, always evolving and adapting to the times. In past centuries, people relied on the written reports and narratives of travelers and explorers to know what lay beyond the horizon. What countries lie beyond what we can see? Are there people or resources there? Are there monsters in those lands? Are they Christians, Muslims or do they practice another religion? Are they hostile or peaceful? Are they open to trade? Can we immigrate and settle there? The only way for a layperson to know about such things was through travel writing, though it was a good, long time before anyone started calling it that.
The narratives of Marco Polo’s travels in Central Asia and China (which, by the way, most people in Italy thought they were fake at the time) and Pausanias the Greek traveler who trekked all over Greece, just to name a few, set in stone times that have long come and gone.
In later centuries, during the Age of Exploration, countless Spaniards would write narratives on their experiences in the New World that bordered on the fantastical and which take us back to how it was to be a rank and file conquistador encountering ancient, long-gone civilizations (it’s estimated that 90% of the Aztecs, for example, died from diseases brought from Europe and thus left little to no written accounts of how life was like before the arrival of the Europeans).
The travel writer as a preserver of time
In modern times, the extremely popular tales of Jack Kerouac have captivated audiences across decades not only because of his literary style but also because he became the embodiment of a zeitgeist that came to represent an entire generation. His words not only convey a sense of space and time, but spirit, something that no travel guide will ever be able to do. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Louis Stevenson are other prime examples of how travel and adventure abroad can directly impact writers and the quality of their work.
This ability to travel back in time and see for ourselves how life was in the shoes of those who lived history itself is one of the greatest values of travel writing. Whether it’s sailing around the Horn of Africa to India on a British spice-trading ship or traveling Tibet before the Chinese occupation, many of the important moments of history were captured in the pages of artists, travelers, adventurers, and writers. They become like little snow-globes, literary microcosms that paint a picture of who we were as humans.
The difference between, however, a report and true, literary travel writing comes from the writer’s ability to communicate the spirit of the places he traveled underfoot, the people he crossed paths with on his journey, and the nuances of the age he was a part of— a difficult feat, and one that requires a special breed of person.
The travel writer must become an anthropologist, cataloging the human experience and the lessons we need to teach future generations. He must become a journalist and pursue the story of his fellow human beings before they pass on like the breath of a land. He must become a poet so he can capture just how beautiful, tragic and diverse the human experience can be. He must chase the ghosts of his time before they disappear. We must move hearts and take them along for the ride across time and space.
In the end, it’s the travel writers mission to be in the remote corners of the earth, in the fringes of life, for those who can’t be there. As if writing for a living wasn’t a daunting task already, he must brave the dangers —and the beauty— of the road to bring you the vanishing stories of humanity.
So, why do we travel writer’s do what we do?
In the end, we writers preserve the stories of our time because they’re worth it— that and because it’s the adventurous thing to do.