By Stephen Bugno
There have been times when, leading up to a big trip, I have read and researched, printed and photocopied, devoured and digested all available information about the places I was about to visit. I was well versed in the history, cultural norms, and current politics when I arrived and the locals responded positively to my knowledge of their country.
Downtime at the Washington, DC travel book store I once worked at proved very productive trip planning time. Not over-planning to a degree that there was no room for spontaneity, but considered enough to write an itinerary with steady progression.
Other times, I had arrived in a place with very little informational resources or time or ability to prepare beforehand. Living in Uzbekistan for a year at the time, I turned up in Delhi with no guidebook and wandered around not-so-cozy districts of town after midnight looking for a cheap place to stay. The following day was spent as a wild goose chase of sorts trying to book train tickets and other onward travel plans. My travel partner and I spent the whole day being led into travel agencies, being touched by street kids and beggars, and offered drugs.
While some of these experiences were dangerous and seemed like a waste of time during a 16-day holiday in India, they did, for better or worse, leave an indelible imprint on my impressions of the Subcontinent. And travelers, especially travel writers are looking for experiences.
It is Pico Iyer who summed this up best by saying “the dirty secret of travel writing is that those most uncomfortable, dangerous moments make for the best material, and on a certain level, if you are a writer, that is what you are looking for, even though if you are a traveler, that is what you are trying to stay away from at the same time.”
So, he goes on to explain “I haven’t exactly sought them out, but I have sought out places where bad things are likelier to happen than elsewhere. And I have had a fair number of startling experiences.”
Recently at the New York Times Travel Show, author Susan Orlean suggested we “limit our research and pre-reading about a place” and further recommended that “lack of preparation” seems to help her and may benefit other writers.
Traveling in this manner, we have far fewer pre-conceived notions. We set ourselves up for more discoveries in the place we have come to discover. In the past, this lack of planning hasn’t been something I have done consciously, and it is only since hearing Orlean speak that I have given this a great deal of thought.
In the future I might head Orlean’s advice and deliberately decide not to prepare, not to educate myself; to enter a foreign society with naivety and the need to seek out information.