I´m learning to become a travel writer—which has a lot more to do with learning to travel, and travel differently, than it does learning to write.
Sure, it´s its own genre, a new craft to negotiate. And, yes, it involves hours hunched over a notebook or a computer, weaving images and experience and attempting to capture the whiffs of a place, the strange sentiments it evokes—those vague stirrings that Viriginia Woolf lamented go “fluttering through the nets” of even the best writers.
But, for me, the tricky part has been the first half of the phrase, the “travel” part of “travel writing.” It means traveling in a different way, pushing myself more beyond my comfort zone and inherent shyness in order to experience more—more interactions and more adventures mean more to write about. It means forcing myself to follow those little nudgings, those whispers to, say, delve into that shadowed medina alleyway or say yes to going out on the town when I´d really rather sleep. Fuller travels equal richer content; everyone wins.
I knew on the on-set of this trip that it´d be different for me—my first long trip since getting serious about travel writing. And I set out blazing—tromping around, joyfully holding hands with serendipity, taking feverish notes and spending long hours at cheap internet cafes, searching for punctuation marks on foreign keyboards. I was feeling positive, productive, learning more each day to let go and follow my hunches, the random doors that open.
Then came Lisbon.
I loved Lisbon. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe its bittersweet melancholy sunk in a little too deeply. It´s hard to say. But I spent my last morning woefully walking its steep streets, ruing in a mosaic of regrets not too dissimilar from the sidewalk stone designs.
Vibing well with my hosts, I´d stayed a day longer than intended, and still felt like I´d wasted my time, hadn´t used it well enough—missed out on a chance to go to my first football game, didn´t make the trek to a huge experimental design expo, didn´t go inside a cool-looking vintage toy store that probably would have made a killer (and sellable) story. I´d dropped so many balls, as my friend Katie would say, you´d think I was trying to dribble.
I´m not sure why I fell off so steeply, as precipitous as the seven hills of the city (at least I´m making some anaolgies out of it). It´s possible I´m just being hard on myself. I´m a person that always feels like I should be doing more, working harder, being better. I´m excellent at rallying, at pushing myself—working six days a week for months, saving money to travel. I told myself that for every place I visited on this trip, I´d come out with at least one story. This didn´t happen in Lisbon, and I think there´s a lesson somewhere in there.
I arrived in Lisbon tired. Exhausted, and it wasn´t just the six hours of broken sleep on an overnight bus. I´d been power-traveling for over a month, never sleeping in the same place for more than three nights. My clothes were filthy, my chest blossoming in a recurring stress-related rash. I´d had on-and-off-again diarrhoea for almost two weeks, but hadn´t had a period in over six. My last day in Marrakesh was emotionally draining, and I was ready to relax. To hang out with fun people, to eat pasteries in a shady park and watch trashy American movies. Which is what I did. Rejuvenating? Yes. Fodder for great travel writing? No.
There´s no use in wallowing in regret; all I can do now is try to learn something from it. And while I need to continue to push myself to take risks while traveling—to push open those cracked doors, to go into that toy shop—I also need to go easier on myself. Working as hard as I could got me sick for a month with summer (with swine flu, a whole ´nother story); similarily, traveling as hard as I can will burn me out. It´s tough, cause my time is so limited and my resources are so meager, but I need to move a little slower. Schedule in down time. Take moments to breathe.
Of course, it´s a spiritual challenge as well as a travel writing challenge, a lesson I´ve had to have beaten into me repeatedly. Maybe this time, I´ll finally learn.