Six months ago I was in Mozambique, working the morning shift at a small hostel and wandering through a sea of robbers and con men in the afternoons. After four days which featured two robbery attempts and a 20-minute standoff with bribe-seeking police officers, I decided to spend less time wandering.
Unfortunately, blogging had gotten stale and the hostel’s book exchange was a terrible collection of crumbling books. A handful of Lonely Planet travel guides were flanked by two dozen pulp novels, each of which had sat untouched for so long that the bookstores almost gave them away just to get rid of them. I looked daily hoping to find something interesting. Then it happened. A guest brought in a book which immediately caught my eye: Paul Theroux’s masterpiece travelogue Dark Star Safari. I dug right in.
Dark Star Safari changed my perspective on travel writing. The travel section of most any bookstore is 80% travel guides and leaves very little room for travelogues. This Barnes & Noble has four shelves of travel writing and over 35 shelves of guides
While I had found excellent articles and blogs on disaster, robbery, and the less sexy side of traveling, most every travelogue I found featured a clear protagonist exploring beautiful places while winning every important battle. If you’ve read my stories, you understand that I don’t have a clear protagonist and my surroundings are often hideous. I’m a flawed antihero finding misadventure in dark alleys. When I started reading Theroux, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had these experiences. He lived outside the bubble too. He was robbed, harassed, and stared at too. And his book was amazing. It seemed that every page of Dark Star Safari featured a depressing story, disaster, or filthy mattress. And it was thrilling. Every page. And then I realized it.
I could do this too.
I had been there: blacking out in crime-ridden neighborhoods, experiencing several robbery attempts, stumbling into exorcisms, surviving through the charity of strangers, and fighting an endless battle against scheming taxi drivers, con men, hotel owners, and police officers. I had gone from a naive traveler unsure of how life worked on the road to being comfortable living from a backpack, unsure of how life worked for normal people. I had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the world in ways I didn’t know existed. I had seen my true self reflected in my reaction to a world stripped of predictability and comfort. This journey was more than a collection of short stories. I should turn this into a book.
So I did. I started writing a book and a friend, Jamey, who runs the site One Prodigal Daughter and is an editor at the Mount Carmel Register, offered to edit it. Six months later, the first draft is done.
I’m taking a couple of months before the second draft to read extensively: mandatory re-readings of The Alchemist and The Old Man and the Sea, plus chapters from travel anthologies, horror and mystery selections, classic short stories, and histories of Palestine and South Africa.