James Ruggia | September 25, 2015 2:18 PM ET
Friday Flashback: The Absence of the Spectacular
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this piece on seeing the beauty in the ordinary wonders of the world from April 17, 2015. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
The endless quest by travel writers to find spectacular phenomena began more than 2,200 years ago when Philo of Byzantium dreamed up the world’s first listicle, the Seven Wonders of the World. Only the Great Pyramid at Giza remains from a list that included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Lighthouse at Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes. Some believe the bronze in the spectacular Colossus returned to earth when it was melted down to make cannon balls.
Now Top Tens and listicles dominate popular journalism as our thoughts become increasingly reminiscent of a thousand post-it notes stuck to the refrigerator door. Since Philo’s original seven we’ve gotten many more wonder lists designed to spur our wander lust to see what’s most wonderful in the world. Perhaps we overdo it. As the late great art critic Robert Hughes wrote, in his 1998 book on the joy of fishing, A Jerk on One End, “It’s easy to look, but learning to see is a much more gradual business, and it sneaks up on you unconsciously, by stealth. The sign that it is happening is the fact that you are not bored by the absence of the spectacular.”
Aren’t some of the best travel moments the ones in which you just feel the satisfaction of being among people in a foreign land as they go about their ordinary lives? Can’t the unassuming expectations of Tuesday afternoon be as satisfying as Saturday night? You know you love a place when you have returned there enough times that you no longer feel the need to visit its most popular attractions. Rome became great for me when I’d gone there enough to not need a visit to the Sistine Chapel. It became really great for me when all I needed to feel fulfilled was a sidewalk table, a coffee, a notebook and sunglasses that were dark enough to hide my eyes so I could look at whoever I wanted to and not be caught.
I recently met a geologist involved in UNESCO’s Geoparks initiative. She was frustrated with what she called the “shallowness of tourism” and the complacency of travel writers to serve up clichés. She said that we were always pointing out highlights. She said we never celebrated the “ordinary but remarkable processes taking place all of the time. Why don’t you tell stories about landscapes and what goes into making them, like the rocks, for instance, they’ve been here for millions of years. They have a story too.”
Now I’ve often heard how we in the press distort the way things really are, but never from this angle before. The geologist had a point. Sometimes travel writing should stimulate interest in what was commonly overlooked, not just what was spectacular. I promised her that I would try to be more attentive to aspects of destinations that I’d glossed over before.
“Remember,” she said, “tourism has a lot to do with the identity a place and its people adapt. People will follow the lead of what writers say about their homes, their towns and their countries. Tourism will single out a moment in history, a work of art or a fun activity, but places are much richer than that. Every destination has an earth history, a culture, nature, regional traditions and more that go into forming a holistic identity. By singling out highlights you’re ignoring the identity that the local people have of the place.”
All good points, but in truth, every piece of writing distorts because it directs the attention of the reader to what interests the writer. To read is to be guided by a writer with biases and bigotries, some personal and some imposed by the publications he or she writes for. By every by-line there should be an implicit buyer beware sign, that’s understood by every reader. Readers need to be aware of who they’re reading.
So what should travel writing be doing? We all know when it isn’t doing what we’d like, but when it’s right, it can provide approaches to understanding places, people and the motives for travel itself. For example, I’ve been writing off and on about the Pacific through most of my career. I’ve never been able to capture to my satisfaction that feeling I get when I am on a small island in the vastness of that ocean.
So I was dazzled recently, when I picked up Paul Theroux’ The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, and in the first few pages he’d captured exactly the feeling I’d had so many times, but never formulated. He wrote, “And yet the Pacific was vast. It had half the world’s free water, it was one third of the earth’s surface, and it was the balmiest place on earth, too.
“More than an ocean, the Pacific was like a universe, and a chart of it looked like a portrait of the night sky.” In those few lines, Theroux gave me a way to contextualize everything I’d done and every place I’d been in that part of the world and in succeeding chapters he recorded the fascinating ordinary in the lives of the people that lived on those islands.
He made me richer. That’s what I want from travel writing.
More by James Ruggia
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Airlines & Airports
Hotel & Resort
Destination & Tourism
Airlines & Airports
Airlines & Airports