Read The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

Tags: #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Travel

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents




A Prison, a Paradise

The Bull Passes Through

The Way I’ve Come

Blot Out

The Year I Didn’t

Tea and Kidnapping

The Paid Piper

Dentists Without Borders

Confessions of a Packing Maximalist


The Wild Dogs of Istanbul

Bombing Sarajevo

Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets

Babu on the Bad Road

The Pippiest Place on Earth

Dreaming of El Dorado

Caliph of the Tricksters

A Farewell to Yarns

Pirate City

Contributors’ Notes

Notable Travel Writing of 2012

About the Editor


Copyright © 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Introduction copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Gilbert




The Best American Series
is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
The Best American Travel Writing
™ is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.


No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available






“The Pippiest Place on Earth” by Sam Anderson. First published in the
New York Times Magazine
, February 12, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Sam Anderson. Reprinted by permission of Sam Anderson.

“Dreaming of El Dorado” by Marie Arana. First published in
Virginia Quarterly Review
, Fall 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Marie Arana. Reprinted by permission of Marie Arana.

“The Wild Dogs of Istanbul” by Bernd Brunner. First published in
The Smart Set
, February 29, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the Smart Set. Reprinted by permission of the Smart Set.

“The Bull Passes Through” by Kevin Chroust. First published in the
Morning News
, July 13, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the Morning News LLC. Reprinted by permission of Kevin Chroust.

“Pirate City” by Rich Cohen. First published in the
Paris Review
, Summer 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Rich Cohen. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Way I’ve Come” by Judy Copeland. Published in
Legal Studies Forum
, Volume 36, No. 1. First published in the
Florida Review
, Volume 28, No. 2, under the title “The Art of Bushwhacking.” Copyright © 2012 by Judy Copeland. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Caliph of the Tricksters” by Christopher de Bellaigue. First published in
Harper’s Magazine
, December 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Christopher de Bellaigue. Reprinted by permission of Christopher de Bellaigue.

“Babu on the Bad Road” by Jesse Dukes. First published in
Virginia Quarterly Review
, Winter 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Jesse Dukes. Reprinted by permission of Jesse Dukes.

“Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets” by David Farley. First published in
, May/June 2012. Copyright © 2012 by David Farley. Reprinted by permission of David Farley.

“A Farewell to Yarns” by Ian Frazier. First published in
, November 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Ian Frazier. Reprinted by permission of the Wylie Agency, LLC.

“Bombing Sarajevo” by Dimiter Kenarov. First published in
, January 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Dimiter Kenarov. Reprinted by permission of Dimiter Kenarov.

“Blot Out” by Colleen Kinder. First published in
Creative Nonfiction
, Spring 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Kinder. Reprinted by permission of Creative Nonfiction and the author.

“Summerland” by Peter Jon Lindberg. First published in
, August 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Jon Lindberg. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Dentists Without Borders” by David Sedaris. First published in
The New Yorker
, April 2, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by David Sedaris. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Paid Piper” by Grant Stoddard. First published in
T Magazine
, November 12, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the
New York Times
. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.

“A Prison, a Paradise” by John Jeremiah Sullivan. First published in the
New York Times Magazine
, September 23, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by the
New York Times
. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.

“Tea and Kidnapping” by Sarah A. Topol. First published in
The Atlantic
, October 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Sarah A. Topol. Reprinted by permission of Sarah A. Topol.

“The Year I Didn’t” by Daniel Tyx. First published in
Gulf Coast
, Volume 25, No. 1. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Tyx. Reprinted by permission of Daniel Tyx.

“Confessions of a Packing Maximalist” by Lynn Yaeger. First published in
, September 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Lynn Yaeger. Reprinted by permission of Lynn Yaeger.


about travel writing, I often think about photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. A few years ago, I tried to write a critical essay about the Museum of Modern Art’s huge retrospective on Cartier-Bresson. But over and over again, I failed.

At first, I thought I’d been swayed by a number of esteemed art critics, most of whom seemed disappointed by the exhibition. The show was deemed “almost unenduringly majestic” by
The New Yorker
’s Peter Schjeldahl, who gave this stern assessment of what he called Cartier-Bresson’s “platitudinous” work: “richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart.” This was seconded by the
New York Times
’ Holland Cotter, who claimed that Cartier-Bresson’s “ideas and emotions are diffuse” and that “surprisingly little tension builds” in the exhibition. Both critics also trotted out tired old comparisons to the work of Robert Frank, a detractor of Cartier-Bresson’s who once unjustly said of the older photographer, “He traveled all over the world, and you never felt he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.”

Soon enough, I started to feel angry about the general critical appraisal of the show, especially a certain loaded, snobbish question I’d seen raised numerous times: should we consider Cartier-Bresson’s photography “art,” or is it
(and here I imagine a critic crinkling his nose as if holding a dirty diaper) “journalism”? This stuffy and frankly out-of-touch notion was most clearly expressed by Cotter: “Are we talking about an impassable line that separates photojournalism (Cartier-Bresson) from art (Frank)?” (To Cotter’s credit, he answered no.)

But I was still confused, still unable to write about Cartier-Bresson, still unable to articulate why I was so frustrated by this supposed “impassable line” between journalism and art. I returned to MoMA for a second viewing, and then it hit me: I was taking everything about Cartier-Bresson—the articles, even the exhibition itself—way too personally.

It hit me as I approached the mural-sized world maps that greet museum-goers at the show’s entrance, with dotted lines tracing Cartier-Bresson’s famous journeys over several decades. Ringing in my ears was Schjeldahl’s snarky take: “This suggests a novel measurement of artistic worth: mileage. It seems relevant only to the glamour quotient—a cult, practically—of Cartier-Bresson’s persona, pointing up what seems to me most resistible in his work.”

Ouch, I thought. But mainly because I was flashing on my own career as a travel writer, one that began almost two decades ago when I gave up on writing a novel. I’ve always harbored deep fears that I passed, miles ago, over that “impassable” line from art to journalism, never to return.

But that, of course, is about me. And compared to Cartier-Bresson, I am a very tiny talent—a hack really, just like all the critics who write about him, as well as most artists who try to emulate him. Cartier-Bresson was a giant. And clearly he never worried at all about whether he was making art, photojournalism, or something else entirely. And this is why I love him.

I can’t remember a time when Cartier-Bresson’s images did not exist in my mind, suggesting an older, more authentic, more beautiful world. I knew those fishermen mending nets in Nazaré, Portugal, before I’d ever seen them myself (and snapped my own inferior version of the same photo). I’d met those old men picnicking in Sardinia before I ever traveled to Sardinia myself and tried in vain to similarly capture them in words. The French boar hunters I followed into the forest had already somehow existed, in my imagination, because of Cartier-Bresson. When I was a teenager growing up in an average American suburb, Cartier-Bresson’s photo provided a particular vision of Old Europe that is permanently etched in my mind, even if it doesn’t exist in the world anymore.

Yes, I know it seems almost quaint these days. “Many of Cartier-Bresson’s pictures could have been made centuries ago, if he and photography had existed then,” reads the MoMA gallery text. The curators, seeming to anticipate the critical response, note that “his keen attention to particulars redeems the strain of romantic nostalgia in his work.”

Pico Iyer, in a 2010 essay titled “The Photographer and the Philosopher,” aptly described the travel writer like this: “A travel writer is, to some degree, Cartier-Bresson roaming around the global or local neighborhood with a book of theology in his hand.” When I was young and beginning my own wanderings, that book of theology was, for me, written by lyrical correspondents like Iyer himself. In Iyer’s classic essay “Why We Travel” (collected in the very first edition of
The Best American Travel Writing
), he lays out a sort of traveler’s catechism: he travels in search of “subtler beauties”; he seeks “an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self”; he calls all the great travel books “love stories” and says “all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” When Iyer writes, “Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology,” he may as well be describing the work of Cartier-Bresson.

With his tendency toward lyricism, Iyer has faced critical complaints similar to those made against Cartier-Bresson, such as this dismissive judgment from the
Times Sunday Book Review
about his book
Sun After Dark:
“Iyer too often relies on overblown figures of speech and pretty pastiches in lieu of solid observation or reporting.”

This is no surprise. As soon as artists (or is it journalists?) start talking about things like “the humanity of places,” critics uncomfortably reach for adjectives such as
. Likewise, whenever an artist (or is it a journalist?) nakedly sets out to capture beauty in this way, what always comes forth is that nagging question—Frank’s question of Cartier-Bresson—of whether beauty is enough, or whether something
other than the beauty of it
also needs to be happening.

So I guess this is why I have failed, and will continue to fail, to write in any critical fashion about Cartier-Bresson. The couple on the train in Romania. The young boys gathered in a sunny square in Madrid. The family having a picnic on the riverbank. I can’t imagine my life without images such as these. For me, like so much of the travel writing I love, the beauty simply has to be enough.

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