Friday, March 5, 2010

Smile When You're Lying

Sometimes I like to imagine myself as a sort of travel writer, although admittedly one who only writes about one country and whose pieces lean toward self-centered. Fine, so they're all about me.

I read a lot here. I read so much I don’t want to tell you how many books I’ve finished for fear you’ll think I’m shutting myself inside my house. I’ve been knocking back a novel a day lately, so you do the math.

I just finished Chuck Thompson’s Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. While I get the feeling that Thompson tries really hard to be a hard-ass Anthony Bourdain sans foodtalk, I still really enjoyed his book. He claims that in all the professional travel writing he’s done, his bosses have forced him to leave the most fascinating parts of his stories on the editing room floor. So after creating and nearly killing’s magazine (Have you heard of it? Nope? Exactly.) and working for years at Maxim and other assorted rags, he decided to write a book, talking about the truth behind his decades of travel.

Sometimes, in writing as in life, I have to bow to the powers that be and admit that there are people who can do what I do much better than I can do it.

One issue I’ve really been wrestling with is the question of whether or not I have to love every place I visit. If I just don’t like a place, is that because I’m not trying hard enough? Am I not adventurous/spontaneous/brave enough? Thompson says no.

“Like being a sports fan, one of the best things about being a traveler is complaining about the parts you don’t like—hating the Dallas Cowboys not only doesn’t make me any less a football fan, it probably makes me a more avid one. This is a concept the travel industry has never embraced.”

Yeah! I can love the places I love and hate the places I hate and my feelings are only more credible because beyond all of that is the fact that I really, truly love the game—traveling, learning, exploring—so much, right? I think it’s unfair, of course only a challenge I’ve given myself, to want to fall in love with every city I see. But it’s a comforting thought to me that maybe knowing what I don’t like and being able to recognize it and defend it only reinforces what I do know and love.

If you read a travel article, and usually most travel books, each one tends to end with a Perfect Moment. It’s that instant when the narrarator is standing with his toes in the sand, watching the sun set with his new native friends, when he suddenly realizes blah blah blah.

In fact, if you love books about traveling as much as I do, I think there’s a lot of pressure put on Perfect Moments.

“The trouble with Perfect Moments is that they never come at the end of a trip. They come somewhere in the middle. Or the beginning. As a travel writer, you get to cheat. Rearrange chronology. Take your Day Two dinner with the college kids and turn it into the last paragraph, your final hurrah. It’s fake, of course, but so is a lot of travel writing, so what’s the difference?”

I am truly so happy that I made the decision to come to Indonesia this year. I don’t mean to negate that at all, but I’m not sure how to eloquently explain that all of the unbelievable joys are sewn together with the day-to-day frustrations and challenges.

Thompson taught ESL in Japan for a year right after he graduated from college.

“If a school were ever set up to teach travel writing, a year of menial work overseas would be the first required course. If nothing else, living among foreigners shows you that every society produces dreck. Nothing beats the dilettante out of a soul quite like the discovery that you can still be miserable living in an exotic and beautiful place.”

I am not miserable by any means. In fact, until the robbery last week, I would even venture to say that I was very happy. But I love that last sentence.

Thompson only briefly mentions Indonesia, calling Jakarta “one of the great sprawling shitholes of Asia, a reeking mess of poverty, traffic, smog, crime, corruption, and filth. Bursting with people who somehow maintain a bulletproof optimism in the face of decay, disorder, and daily tragedy, [this is a] frenetic, slum-city, where anything, from blow jobs to military coups, can happen at any time. [A city] that you love just slightly more than you loathe.”

This is one of the points where I disagree with Thompson, though only slightly. Within Indonesia, and especially among foreigners living here, it’s very popular to dislike Jakarta. People complain about the size, the traffic, the pollution, etc. But I love Jakarta. Honestly, it rivals the beach areas as my favorite part of Indonesia. I am frustrated by people who say they only want to see the “real” Indonesia. Big, ugly cities are much a part of the real Indonesia as ancient villages and traditional woodwork. I think I may always be drawn more to tall buildings than to sprawling pieces of land, but it was Jakarta, in the beginning, in my first trip out of Palembang, that calmed my nerves and reminded me that I was indeed still in this world.

“In terms of teaching English to foreigners, Thompson says, “Like most institutionalized instruction, teaching English in a foreign country is ‘easy’ because by and large the requirements and expectations are so low, but it’s also ‘hard’ because it’s nearly impossible to remain interested in the task. It’s like trying to stay intellectually engaged for an entire afternoon with someone else’s six-year-old. Then going home to a dingy apartment and wondering what the hell you’re doing wasting your life in a country where no one will ever really know you.”

So he’s a little bitter. But he’s definitely more right than wrong. And he’s allowed to say bad things about his year teaching in Japan because he’s had so many unbelievably successful, enjoyable trips since then. Perhaps someday I’ll look back and say, “Oh, man. Do you remember Indonesia? Wasn’t that about the hardest year of my life?’ But for now, since this is all I have (along with one short summer in Mexico), I’m clinging to the good parts and rejoicing in the Perfect Moments I do have.


  1. and that is exactly what you should do.

  2. I enjoy travel books, too. Lonely Planet has several good ones. I think you'd love "Tales from Nowhere."

  3. hey, i just thought of one you'd like, and Lonely Planet put it out too: The Kindness of Strangers.

  4. You don't have to love every place you visit. I did not like Florence when I traveled. People some times are like, "How can you not like Florence?" Some other know exactly what I'm talking about - I bet they give Palembang a run for its money when it comes Vespas.

    Perhaps you'll want to teach English in American now?