The Dry World
On a still afternoon in the baking sun on a street in Marrakech, the smell of an old city comes alive - dust and charcoal, stale food, incense, motor oil, damp stone. All these smells, occasionally unpleasant, are the smells of travel, and so while some are surely unique to Marrakech, others evoke places that I can't quite place in my mind. Places and times, fragmented memories and broken images - the fragrance of travel.
I am returning to the Riad after a long day in the sun, walking the Bahia Palace with Hicham, and visiting the Majorelle Gardens. I leave my backpack in the room and climb the stairs to the rooftop, which peaks out over the medina for miles. This is my favorite time in travel; the one where the day is over and there is nothing left to do, nobody to talk to, no responsibilities. Traveling alone is important to me - you see more, you hear more, you move faster, you are less noticeable, you don't have to worry about your traveling companion wearing the wrong shoes. But most importantly, you can take that ladder up the side-wall from the rooftop to a narrow flat surface, the one where the rooftop cats were fighting last night, and you can focus your binoculars on the minaret on the other side of the city, and draw, at your own speed, the cityscape, without having to watch clocks.
I am not sure of how much time passes up here, but as the sun lowers even more, the birds come out. A dozen White Storks are traveling high up in the sky, silhouetted by peach clouds. A buzzard floats in the wind, and dozens of Pallid Swifts and House Martins zigzag through the sky. I work on their identifications, slowly, at my own pace, sketching them and the sky and the city. The cityscape in Marrakech is like no other in the world. For one, no building can be higher than the Koutoubia Mosque minaret, forcing a horizontal architecture. Second, few desert cities are so old and so large; making the maze of sandstone and TV satellites feel endless.
The habits and interests I have formed while traveling are not the interests of any other traveler, just as the habits and interests of any other traveler are not mine. And I have found, that the more years I have under my belt as a traveler, the more specific those interests and habits have become: I sketch, I identify the plants, I eat the local cheese.
I am also a fussy traveler, preferring to do things in my own particular way. In this way, I am like other travelers, because they are all particular and fussy too. Pondering this, I remember a Guitar Magazine Interview in which Jerry Garcia described what made musicians unique. His answer surprised me: He said, "I’ve got nothing but limitations, I’m limited by everything — my technique, background, education, the things I’ve heard. I’m limited by being a human being. In a way, a musician with a distinctive style is in fact a product of his limitations. This is assuming that almost everybody plays at the outside edge of their ability — as good as they can do."
I see traveling as a creative pursuit; a personal ambition to create, and in this way I am able to relate Garcia's explanation of personal limitations to travelers. Our strengths as travelers are our limitations; the particular way and the particular things that we see when we travel force us to see something about the world that others do not. It was the earliest age of travel blogs that first helped me see travel this way.
In the first few years of the web, the first kind of website to proliferate was the personal travelogue. They were not sleek with their light-grayish backgrounds and their Times fonts, but they were readable accounts of travels by people with unique personalities, habits and interests. Perhaps, because these accounts were personal, by amateur authors, uninhibited by the constraints of what a travel blog should be, they were enjoyable to read.
I remember reading the travel accounts of a woman who loved olive oil, and the exploits of a herpetologist in Mexico. A couple who traveled with their ugly little dog, the husband fond of afternoon beer in small pubs. I remember the photo travelogue of a young doctor who had joined a mission in the jungles of West Africa, and who had described his slow acceptance of the food, and later, the death of a fellow missionary.
Sometimes, these accounts rambled, sometimes the subject was so personal as to be worth passing on. But often, because the account was personal, it was passionate and real, and even if I didn't care much for olive oil or ugly little dogs, the accounts were a joy to read and often taught us something unexpected about the world.
Travel blogging has changed so much that it has now grown large and has become such a coveted prize by the travel industry, that the industry has co-opted the term. Travel bloggers frequently visit conferences such as the regional TBEX conferences, in which they speed-date with travel PR executives and tourism bureau officials. Here, the travel bloggers make arrangements and do business with the executives in quick, short bursts: How much will you pay me to write a favorable review of your destination?
Often, the articles are not designed to be read by people; the audience is secondary. What matters is the link pointing from the blog to the destination. Can you give me a well-placed link with the text Luxury Holiday in Portugal? In this way, travel industry websites that engage in SEO practices with travel bloggers - usually destinations with bigger marketing budgets gain advantages over the often higher-quality, more-sustainable destinations.
The rapid growth of this master-server relationship between blogger and travel industry has evaporated the freer, friendlier, more thoughtful age of travel blogs as personal projects in travel. The newer travel blogs write to us as self-appointed experts in the broad subject of travel. Top 10 Things to Do with your iPhone in Italy. Top 20 Ways to Pack Light for your Tropical Destination. Top 30 Ways to Stay Connected and Online while Traveling the World. A unifying theme of these bloggers is that they write as generalists; freely offering wisdom about every aspect of travel. How is it that at age 24 or 25, they have this much wisdom about travel?
Seeing these travel bloggers write this way; drowning with advice and tips and plenty of reminders of their insatiable wanderlust reminds me that the joy of both traveling and of reading good travel writing is the opposite. The best travel literature is specific, bound by the limitations of the interests and personal experiences of the traveler, and the best travel is when you can follow your own pursuits, in your own way. In a way, of celebrating your own limitations.
The two go together, because while my interests in travel and the particular subjects that I pursue have become more specific, those interests were piqued or informed by ideas I picked up from traveling writers.
I have also learned that if I let myself pursue a subject in travel, it helps inform me about the other subjects of travel. When I began traveling fourteen years ago, I spent a lot of time alone in the desert, and being in my mid-twenties, I knew very little about the world. But by wandering alone, some things started to interest me: what is that cactus? What kind of beetle is that?
The subjects chose me over time, but in each case, the subject that you pursue to discover in travel informs you of bigger themes in travel. An example is watching the birds here above the Marrakech cityscape. People who identify birds while they travel are often surprised that the habit causes them to soak in much bigger themes about the world: watching birds inadvertently educates the birding traveler on subjects like geography, habitat and ecology, and in a way that is much more profound than studying the same subjects in textbooks. By watching birds while traveling, I have learned that the habit of visually scanning horizons, skies, trees and cliff ledges, I have come to literally see differently; almost as if I have created a heightened sense of the three-dimensions of my surroundings. In this way, birding has made me more aware of urban spaces. If I have started to gain an interest in urban architecture, I have to say the birds did it.
In that way, the birds brought me to a joy in urban sketching. And urban sketching, as a travel subject, also opens new doors, because it makes you interact with the place you are traveling in much more deliberately. It even draws in onlookers, who are eager to talk with you, and explain the history of the building or place you are drawing.
The sun is now low in the sky. The sun; it offers no wisdom, but there it is, shining down on Marrakech, and all of its subjects; waiting for us to discover those subjects for ourselves.