I have a special treat for visitors to the roadside this week. My own wonderful Sarah Sweeney – who happens to be a top editor at a major travel publishing company – has contributed her own musings on travelling, writing, reading and editing (my favourite things). Enjoy!
A visit to Vietnam, by way of Mallorca, Ireland and Chicago: par for the course in a week of my line of work. Unfortunately, these visits do not involve literally dodging motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, admiring the Mirós in Palma or eating my way around the Windy City – instead, I am travelling in my imagination from my desk. And I’m not a bored accountant – no, I’m a travel guide editor. A great job for someone who loves seeing the world, although it’s also useful that I simply enjoy the topic of travel, as, contrary to the assumptions of most, I only journey on work’s time through the pages of whatever I’m commissioning or editing.
Not that this is entirely a bad thing. I’m a big believer that great travel writing lifts off the page or the screen and transports the reader like a low-tech TARDIS. Furthermore, I reckon that the physical travel guide is worth its weight in the bag for more reasons than simply detailing transport routes, where to find the cheapest bed in the cheapest hostel or the latest list of ‘must-sees’. From the moment of purchase with intent to travel, the book you choose as a companion helps take you there mentally – and later, as a dog-eared memento, takes you back.
Recently, thumbing through my guide to Eastern Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of messy annotations identifying and evaluating the places that blogmistress Emily and I had chosen to visit – the extent to which we were engaging with the book laid bare. This multi-country guide was the first that I ever bought, for the first trip on which I would be actively involved in planning routes and accommodation. The exotic place names – Moldova, Belarus, Albania (none of these, I’m afraid, were actually on our itinerary) – the sense of locating how all these countries (which then, just at the moment when the EU expanded, felt very unknown to me) fitted together, and venturing into a region behind the Iron Curtain for much of our parents’ lives, and the first part of ours. . . Leafing through the pages, it was like peering into another world. On the road, the thought of losing the book was even worse than losing the diary I was rigorously keeping (this did actually happen). My passport doesn’t bear more than one stamp from that trip thanks to the Schengen Agreement (a brief foray over the Croatian border into Bosnia providing that solitary mark), but my book bears enough contemporary scribbles to take me straight back to the beer hall we targeted because it served steaks, smoke-filled jazz clubs and hostels both fairytale and prison-like.
When my next opportunity for a multi-country trip came up the following year, I threw myself into the pleasures of absorbing information on Southeast Asia, a fairly unknown entity to me at that time. Hypochondriac that I am, I spent most of the time reading the ‘Health and Safety’ section wide-eyed, worrying about rabies and making a detailed shopping list of all the medicines and mosquito repellent items I could possibly need. (I spent £75 in Boots and my washbag took up one third of my entire backpack.) Three months into my trip, I found myself alone on the other side of the world – literally, on the east coast of Australia – as my travel companions’ plans diverged from mine. Free to do whatever my dwindling finances would allow, the book provided inspiration at crucial junctures as I took sole control over my plans. Twice in Australia I shipped boxes home, packed with the kilos that were weighing me down but no longer needed on the road. My prized guides wended their long way home and remain intact instant memory-joggers, long after the traveller bags and bracelets I bought have been consigned to the bottom of a drawer.
Eighteen months after this trip, I started at the publishing house where I still work. Stepping behind the wizard’s curtain, seeing the mechanics behind producing a book, it is impossible to be quite so reverential. And yet, when inspiration strikes, when the plane takes off or when I am charting waters unknown, the busman’s holiday syndrome disappears and I am still itching to read about all the places I can go, things I can do, food I must eat. Or indeed, even as I sit at my desk, where I can easily become distracted from the nuts and bolts elements of my job to being transported to a wooden gulet sailing from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a night market in Taipei selling weird and wonderful dishes, or toy train ascending hills into India’s northeast Himalayan region. In a practical sense, I have a travel wish list as long as my arm; in my mind, I travel all over the world every day. The wealth of travel inspiration out there online opens this up even further, and so often, I am right there on that cobbled street, up that mountain or on that sandy beach, taking it all in and planning my next move.
Sometimes it seems that with globalisation, the world is getting smaller – and sometimes, with the cost of travel, it feels like it’s actually getting bigger. But when you can be taken on a journey through words – whether instructive guides, inspirational tales or your own memory-jogging scribbles about adventures that you’ve had – anything and anywhere seems possible.