Tag: Paul Theorux

The loneliness of the long-distance travel writer


It sounds ungrateful.

A PR company, tourist board or tour operator flies you to an overseas location. They put you up in a smart, often recently opened hotel. They may arrange free passes for attractions and provide a guide to show you around the best sites.

Sometimes they even leave a little gift pack in your room with some chocolates to take home as gifts and a bottle of some obscure local firewater to strip the lounge of its paintwork.

They expect little in return. Just some words and a link to their website in a fact box under the story. And, if it’s not actually a proper story, then that’s okay.

A lot of them don’t read it anyway.

So what’s the catch?

It’s a tricky one. The loneliness of the long-distance travel writer is hard to quantify.

I think it’s a feeling of dislocation from the real world, a bubble existence without normal rules or conditions, a slow-creeping weariness with the very thing that once inspired you.

Being away is a transient, ethereal experience. You find yourself in a new place, or a new district of a place you half recognise. You briefly meet people who welcome you like a new friend, then forget your very existence within five minutes of leaving.

You spend a lot of time alone. Whether sitting in a hotel bar, pretending to be engrossed in your emails, or eating dinner alone in a restaurant, surrounded by uncomfortable glances and feigning an important air while taking notes.

I used to embrace the otherworldliness of it.

I would retreat from the real world to my too-big-for-one suite in the city’s latest boutique hotel and gaze pensively out the window, clearing head space with views across a rain-lashed Northern European landscape.

I liked just being ‘away’. But age and children have shifted the parameters.

I’ve grown tired of arriving in off season to an up-and-coming region still waiting to come up, bored of workmen still fixing fittings in my room at the ironically hip new hotel as I check in, and weary of the prospect of another dinner a un with an elaborate six-course tasting menu and a swarthy waiter with a pitying look in his eye.

Not even the accompanying multiple glasses of carefully selected wines from the extensive New World list can numb the feeling that my assignment has turned into a cruel parody of travel-scribe clichés.

After dinner I sometimes venture out alone, gasping for non-air-conditioned breath, to consult the handy free map. I draw my self-important conclusions about the latest trendy pop-up bar in a previously derelict warehouse in a district that was, probably just a matter of hours ago, a complete no-go-zone.

In essence I have fallen out of love with what Dylan Thomas would recognise as “my craft or sullen art.”

I still go away, although less these days and on far more judiciously chosen assignments. I often take the girls with me and increasingly delight in lights out by 9pm after a couple of chapters of Fantastic Mr Fox.

I still love finding the best angle on the story, the craft of placing the perfect, essence-capturing quote at the perfect about-turn juncture of the feature.

But, for now, the loneliness of the long-distance travel writer engulfs me.

Theroux would scoff as he set off for nine months in Nepal. The teen bloggers would trample me in the stampede for the free peanuts in the airport lounge. And the retired hacks would roll their eyes as they opened their invitation to supper at the Captain’s Table.

Maybe one day I’ll join them. Or maybe I’ll try to re-invent my sullen art for a new era.

Either way, they would all probably think me a whining, ungrateful bastard. And they would all probably be right.

 Can you relate to the ideas in this post? Post your comments below.