On Pilgrimage, Authenticity and Travel in the Age of Abundance

In 2009, Gideon Lewis-Kraus was hanging out in Berlin, with no particular idea of where to go or what to do next, when he got an email from Tom Bissell. Years earlier, the two had met in a bookstore where Lewis-Kraus was working, and they’d stayed in touch. Bissell reminded him that Lewis-Kraus had promised offhandedly to accompany him on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile, 1,300-year-old pilgrim’s route across Spain. So the two writers set off together. Their journey on the Camino was replete with drama, blisters and epiphanies, and afterward, Lewis-Kraus wanted more. He started looking up other pilgrimages, like the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan and the Rosh Hashana pilgrimage in Ukraine, and he went, dutifully toting his never-finished copy of “Middlemarch.” These journeys now make up his new book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. Frank Bures talked to Lewis-Kraus at his home in Brooklyn, New York.

World Hum: It sounds weird to say that pilgrimages are hot, but it seems that pilgrimages are on the upswing. Is that your sense? And if so, what do you think is the draw for modern travelers?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: This book started out as a series of emails from the Camino de Santiago, and after the first one, my friend Ralph wrote to me from Berlin and, half-jokingly, said that as long as I could find a way to argue that pilgrimage was the hottest new thing in international youth fashion, I probably had a book on my hands…

Read the interview here.


Congrats to Peter Hessler

Many congratulations to Peter Hessler, who has been selected as one of the 2011 MacArthur Fellows!  It’s a much-deserved honor for someone who has been doing such great work for so long.  For me, Hessler’s books have always been a source of inspiration and admiration, and last year I got to talk to him for World Hum about his latest, Country DrivingYou can read the interview here.

Best Travel Books of 2010

Until last spring, when the unpronounceable volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded in Iceland, it seemed like we’d almost forgotten that we are a world on the move. But with airspace over parts of Europe shut down for nearly a month, we were reminded of just how much travel has become a part of modern life, how much we depend on planes, trains and automobiles to get us from one place to another. Similarly, some writers still remind us there is magic in travel. Here are some of the books from 2010 that do that best.

Country Driving by Peter Hessler
Several in this year’s literary travel highlights were road books. Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory” is a brilliant evocation of modern China and its conundrum, as Hessler drives far into the now-emptied empire. (Related: World Hum interview with Hessler and book excerpt.)

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
A bit to the north, humorist Ian Frazier takes us along on several forays into the Russian hinterlands in “Travels in Siberia,” a masterpiece of humor and exploration, with Frazier serving as the best possible companion.

Read the rest here.

Six Travel Writers (and an Artist) Who Didn’t Make it Home

Most travel writers venture into the world and make it home in one piece, but over the years, a few have not made it back. Here’s a look at several whose journeys took unexpected turns. May their memories and words live on a little longer.

Dan Eldon

While primarily a photographer, 22-year-old Dan Eldon also kept strange, beautiful, obsessive journal collages of his travels. In 1993, he and three others were killed by a mob in Somalia. Four years later, his journals were published as a book called “The Journey is the Destination.” The story of that journey will be told in a film starring Daniel Radcliffe as Eldon, scheduled for release in 2011.

Claudia Kirschhoch

In May 2000, a 29-year-old writer and editor named Claudia Kirschhoch was scouting a guidebook for Frommer’s at a Sandals Resort in Negril, Jamaica. One afternoon, she left her hotel room, walked down the beach and was never heard from again. Despite a reward of 1 million Jamaican dollars and a suspect, investigations languished and she was never found. In 2002, she was declared dead.

Robert Byron

In 1941, just four years after writing the second greatest travel book of all time

Read the rest here.

Ten Books for the Road

Most of us can’t travel all the time, and sometimes we find ourselves at home, yearning to explore. It’s the feeling of standing before the edge of possibility. It’s the feeling that our life has turned some corner we can’t grasp yet, and that we are going in a slightly different direction.

Fortunately, there are books we can turn to that capture those feelings of motion, disorientation and discovery. Here are works of fiction—both novels and short stories—to take you across the world.

God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories, by Tom Bissell

These spare yet vibrant stories almost perfectly capture the disorientation and recklessness of life overseas, as well as how it can change us. “Travel scraped him away to reveal not some dulled surface but bright new layers of personality,” Bissell says of one character.

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles

Bowles’ classic book may have been one of the first to capture the aimlessness of modern life, as his three protagonists travel through North Africa with no particular destination in mind. The book is a beautiful, haunting echo of travel today, with all its melancholy gifts.

Read the rest here.

Finding the World At Home

Not long after we moved back to Minneapolis, I started to notice how much the city had changed since I last lived here in the 1990’s. And so, I started to take some photos and jot things down, the culmination of which you can see on this slideshow over at World Hum.  Sometimes we don’t even notice this kind of change since it happens so gradually, but to me it seemed seismic. Recently, there was a story in our local paper saying that the most immigrants to Minnesota now come from Africa, and last winter I noticed we can get our snow removal instructions in English, Spanish, Somali, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese or Oromo.  This weekend is Twin Cities World Refugee Day and on any given day, in the space of an hour, I can go shopping for fishballs, camel meat, Nollywood videos, plastic toy Kalashnikovs, international phone cards, pocky and then stop in for nyama choma and wash it down with a cool durian smoothie.  The world really is here now.

Charles Dickens: First Great Travel Writer?

Back when the world wasn’t so known, travel writing wasn’t so much about being entertaining, or about letting the writer’s persona run wild. The point was to describe the world rather than to dance upon its stage. The purpose was to transport people to another part of the world in an edifiying, Victorian kind of way. It was something to make readers who couldn’t see the world become more worldly. It was more education than entertainment or art.

That’s certainly the type of writing I expected when I opened this new compilation of Charles Dickens’ travel writing, which dates from the mid-1800s. But to my surprise, I found something else—something that makes me think Charles Dickens may have been the first great modern travel writer.

Read the rest here.