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Indistinguishable Places: Some Notes on Adjectives in Travel Writing

Yesterday was my weekly review of the Matador inbox.

While it wasn’t pretty (only two of 22 submissions were forwarded on to section editors, and both with a semi-apologetic caveat), it was instructive.

Of the 22 submissions, I noticed a single common problem: almost every place being described was indistinguishable from any other place. New Delhi was Pristina, Pristina was New Delhi, and both could have been almost any other city anywhere else in the world. Two excerpts:

“If you’re afflicted with a deep sense of wanderlust, [insert city] is the perfect place to cure your ailment. A veritable traveller’s paradise, the capital city of [insert country] offers a rare combination of history, culture and big city delights. It is a jamboree of sorts, where street stalls commingle with high-end luxury brands and slums and rural landscapes lie parallel to sophisticated high-street constructions.”


“[Insert city] is a fascinating city. It’s vibrant, young, cheap, full of hope. [Insert country] should definitely be on the radar for anyone who wants to see a slice of [continent] that’s a bit different.”

These two particular examples set me to thinking about how we talk about place. Why do we write about cities as if they are all the same when we see and experience them in different ways? What makes conveying these differences in words so challenging?

I’d like to believe that the answer is deeper, more complex, than simple laziness, but I don’t know. It seems that our descriptions of people do tend to be more nuanced than our descriptions of place. Are we more willing to see people’s individuality than is generally the case with place, and more adept at conveying it?

I find this sad, maybe because I love cities so much and believe each is its own peculiar taxonomy, but mostly, I think, because I simply get tired of reading writing that doesn’t tell me anything new, that doesn’t prove to me that the writer has really been in a place and has trained his or her eyes to zoom in on the most quotidian details there, the details that change everything.

There are a couple writers who do this well, though, and we can learn a lot from them. I’ve written about Lida before and I’ll probably write about both of them again because I just admire their writing so much. Curiously, they both write about Mexico City. Here, a few fragments:

1. From David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century:

“I stumbled upon Plaza Garibaldi, the rowdy nocturnal soul of the city. Squadrons of musicians, mostly mariachis in skintight, tin-studded black suits, trawled for customers willing to pay a few pesos for a melody….In Garibaldi’s most humble cantina, La Hermosa Hortensia–which dispenses pulque, a fermented cactus beverage created by the Aztecs–a staggeringly drunken man offered me his wife…. I refused with as much courtesy as possible, after which the man removed from his neck, and gave me, a string that held an emblem of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Could this be anywhere other than Mexico City (or, at least, Mexico?) What strikes me about this passage is that Lida is in it. He’s not some third person omniscient narrator telling you to drop by one of Mexico City’s “many cantinas.” He’s David Lida, telling you that at the fantastically named La Hermosa Hortensia he was offered a woman by a drunk man, that that woman happened to be the drunk man’s wife, and that the man then gifted Lida with a Virgin of Guadalupe medal.

2. From John Ross’ El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City:

“Those who take rooms at the Isabel are a mixed bag: busloads of Costa Ricans on a Mexico City shopping spree and Tabasco farmers in town for an Alcoholics Anonymous jamboree and a few Mennonites in overalls from Chihuahua who have come to the big city to sell their cheese, but most are low-rent European backpackers.”

What I like about this excerpt is how it simply observes and documents who’s present in the scene. There’s no judgment, but each image has a very specific association and conveys an undeniable and unique sense of place.

Yes, I know these excerpts are from books, but that’s beside the point, really. Any portion of any of these books could be excerpted as an article. And I know this isn’t “travel writing” in the strictest sense, but maybe that is the point. Lida and aren’t trying to sell their readers on a place. They’re merely documenting it.

Maybe this, then, is what makes a place distinguishable from another, writing that doesn’t try to sell the place or an experience of it to a reader, but writing that simply observes the place and tells you about it. It doesn’t tell say something like “This is the ‘real’ Mexico City.” or “This is what you should do.” or “The city is this way or that way.” Instead, it says “This is one part of the city.” “This is what I do.” and “The city is so complex it has taken me years to even begin to understand it.”

If that seems self-absorbed, maybe it is, but their writing–and my reading experience– is better for it.  Their writing isn’t the “This is what I did on my summer vacation” type of writing (one reason being that they both have lived in Mexico City for many years); it’s supported by research and acute, astute observations that just can’t be confused with any other place.

And it makes me want to go there.

Do I want to visit New Delhi or Pristina? Not based on the articles I read this weekend. I’m waiting for someone to convince me.