Not too many days ago, a colleague told me of an eyebrow-raising conversation. The person on the other end of the line seemed perplexed that a travel writer had been to Hong Kong and returned with stories not of its glittering skyline or steaming bowls of wonton noodles but of sombre tales of its WWII connection. “Why does a travel writer even need to get into politics?” he demanded. The conversation was a short one.
It did however get me thinking: what does travel writing “need” to be anyway? Sure, virgin beaches, magical sunsets, and never-less-than-turquoise waters have never ruffled any feathers. Everybody seems to love the story of an inner demon killed in the Caribbean, or an epiphany in Italy, glass of sangria in hand. But those aren’t the ways most journeys really unfold anyway. You aren’t always the hero of your travel story. Journeys aren’t all Eat, Pray, Love; they come with kinks and creases, with encounters that yank us out of our comfort zones. And not just the lost baggage sort of inconveniences—but a deeper kind; realities you can’t airbrush away from a place.
On a work trip to South Korea in September 2017, I covered Seoul and Gangwon-do, the region that hosted the Winter Olympics this February. However, on one of the three days I had to myself, I emailed Jiyon Ko, a blogger and translator, whose work struck me as thoughtful and full of warm nuggets about a city that moved so fast. We met at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a gleaming, UFO-like structure built by Zaha Hadid, which has food trucks and a flea market beside a garden of 25,000 LED roses. We picked a simple bench, and Jiyon spoke of the Seoul she knew so well, and the experience of being a woman in South Korea. It isn’t easy, she said, so she prefers to put down roots elsewhere. Rampant workplace misogyny disturbs her, as does the pressure on women to look a certain way that often starts with teenage plastic surgery. She told me of protests, Korea waking up to feminism, and things no tour guide would get into. It was too “political,” too real, and revealed Korea beyond its tech and fashion industry. Jiyon didn’t make it to my travelogue announcing the Winter Olympics, but she will come in somewhere someday, beyond this column. Our conversation prodded me to look closely at some of Seoul’s urban projects and structures for my piece, and how the city has mixed feelings about them.
Some journeys hold significance that transcends the time of visit. I remember being sceptical before flying to South Korea, and on the night before my half-day visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—the world’s most heavily armed border—that it shares with North Korea. Queueing up with tourists (mostly American), I peeped into the North through binoculars with some discomfort but also a hungry curiosity; heard stories of families torn apart by this border; and interviewed a South Korean guide who was hopeful that the two Koreas will reunite. Two months after my visit, I read about the North Korean soldier who defected to the South, took five bullets and ran for his life into the spots I once stood in. Back then, I would have found the idea of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un meeting ludicrous, but it is happening in May. When I wrote about the DMZ it became clear to me that a complete understanding of Korea is impossible without getting into its politics. I was lucky to be there as a travel writer, and witness a site so globally important.
When I travel, I have my fair share of mixed feelings about places and experiences. It’s impossible to love everything I see. On a recent stay aboard a Disney cruise, the Disney sceptic in me often rolled eyes at the bevy of princesses and parades. I wasn’t untouched—I was thrilled every time I swayed on the vessel, knowing that the Atlantic Ocean was home; but not so much when there was no getting around the marketing and PR machinery to, say, meet the people under the elaborate Mickey and Minnie costumes. So I decided to find my stories in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, our first port of call. Ignoring the itinerary, I strolled aimlessly, chatting with whoever had the time to tell me more about the city. I went deeper into middle-class neighbourhoods where afternoon routines of eating conch chowder and playing dominoes with friends were largely undisturbed by tiki-bar-seeking ship passengers.
We know the world is shrinking. You can holiday in Antarctica and have a drink in a bar in the world’s most remote inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha. But without real stories—where the place, its people and their politics are the stars instead of some tiresome inner crisis and trite descriptions—travel wouldn’t be the same.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.