Storytelling is one of the pleasures of travel. Whether written in a journal, placed on social media, or shared verbally in a group when you return from a trip — and often long after — a personal travel tale, told well, brings pleasure to you and others.
I’ve been traveling internationally since the 1960s, to over a hundred countries, and through the years I’ve used the stories of those travels in a variety of ways. I wrote informative travel articles and guidebooks for many years, where the goal was to report about the good stuff: the best restaurants, the prettiest gardens, the hotel room with a great view. That’s information most readers want, of course, as they plan trips.
But when I started writing personal articles and books, I longed to write about the realities I couldn’t tell before, and the names of my two latest books state just that: Travel Tales I Couldn’t Put in The Guidebooks, is one. And my recent memoir, Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. (The “tales” and “truths” — aka the tough memories — make better reading than the “delights,” I think.)
Nightmares resonate more than sweet dreams, and so it is with travel. We enjoy good times as we experience them, but when we return to tell our tales to friends and family, it’s often the difficult, dark parts of our journey we recount: stories of resistance and unease, rather than ones about snagging the best room at a luxury hotel or meeting the chef at the six-course dinner.
I long ago realized that the best experiences do not usually make the best stories. They might have been highlights of your travels, but they often do not hold up well in the telling. Your pleasures do not always translate to listeners. In some cases your enthusiasm may even come across as bragging.
On the other hand, it’s hard for a listener to disengage when there’s conflict or suspense, not usually the best and most successful parts of a trip, but often the best stories: ones where you conquer a fear, manage to squeak through a bad or awkward situation, or where a lesson is learned from trial and error.
Some bad experiences are boring, so you need to sort that out: missed flights, sitting next to a smelly jerk, a stifling hotel room with no air-conditioning, a backache after a bumpy road to a lodge. Telling those tales come across more like venting.
What is worth retelling is the difficult, dangerous, unusual situation, where readers or listeners can think, ‘Wow, she made it!’ And even ‘Whew, that didn’t happen to us!’.
My son Randall, an expert writer and editor, became aware of the power of a tale early: “In college, I interned at the Wall Street Journal and wrote a front page story on the shortage of women in Alaska for a magazine …. Oprah did a whole episode on it, Cosmo accepted the story, and I could see as a 20-year old, the power of storytelling to get the whole world talking about something. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Some travel travails I’ve written and talked about: getting sick on my honeymoon in Acapulco; unknowingly eating deer penis in Hong Kong and eating in pitch darkness in Zurich; being embarrassed at a cremation in Bali; walking alone through the death camp at Auschwitz, packing no shoes on a luxury cruise, missing the mail boat and being separated from my husband on a ferry in Norway.
Then there was the time a Moroccan butcher ran after me with a bloody knife because I made a face at a calf’s head covered in flies in the sun. There was the horse ride from hell over Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies; and on the other side of Canada, the scary kayak ride in New Brunswick as the highest tides in the world rose in the Bay of Fundy.
I’ve told stories of a ship tilting in the Atlantic on our way from Europe to Bermuda, and our time in the pirate zone. The smoke on the plane as we landed. Muggings in Sweden and Barcelona, a smash and grab in a car, when my jewelry was nabbed.
Writing personal tales led me even further, to talking about them on my travel podcast, again named Places I Remember, where besides offering information, guests share their tales, and end each episode with a favorite. And I do encourage them to tell the darker, more personal ones, which make the most impact.
Yes, there are many more good experiences than bad. But as for as storytelling and delighting your audience, wouldn’t you be more curious about the twists and turns when my nanny’s mum lost her prosthetic eyeball, and it caused us to cancel a trip, rather than listen to me extoll about the upgrade we got at the ski lodge?
So share your travel mishaps and mistakes, scares and losses, with details and drama. And take notes. If there are enough tales to tell, there may be a book or podcast in your future too.