Searching for the celestial city, Bill Sewell

A Passion for Travel
ed Tina Shaw
Tandem Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1 877178 31 4

We seem to live in an age of pointless record-breaking. People vie with each other to gulp down the most Weetbix in the shortest time or to ride big dippers ad (and beyond) nauseam. On a larger scale, they make many cash-consuming attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon, or they traverse Antarctica in the most uncomfortable manner possible.

But ballooning around the globe and trudging across the Antarctic, futile as they seem, at least represent the human urge to make voyages of exploration – something that is being increasingly frustrated as we run out of places to explore. With even the polar wastes now becoming over-exposed, we’re left with only the black ocean depths to venture into. We desperately need a new planet to explore: even barren, freezing Mars would do.

This means that most successful and experienced travel writers have long since given up using the genre simply to describe the strange, the exotic, the faraway. Computer and video technology can take us there any time we like. Instead, travel writers use the strange, the exotic, the faraway – and even the mundane and the boring – as a mirror to reflect their own culture, sensibility, insecurities. Contemporary travel writing tends to be unashamedly self-centred: it tells us more about the travel writers themselves than the actual location – whether it is grumpy old Paul Theroux or the lyrically receptive Pico Iyer. It is no longer good enough to give the reader a travelogue, a blow-by-blow account of an overseas trip: what might be called the “slide-evening approach”.

That is why Tina Shaw’s collection is something of a disappointment. The 12 essays it contains range from the Arctic (Joy Cowley) to the Antarctic (Chris Orsman) – with Europe, the United States, Latin America, Africa, Australia, Oceania (but not the Arab World, India, Southeast Asia or Japan) visited in between – but the majority of them are indeed travelogues. We learn little about most of the writers themselves, and even less about their engagement as New Zealanders with the places they visit. That is where the book might have been really valuable; and I suspect that is what the editor had in mind when she was planning it. For in her brief introduction, Shaw touches on the reasons why travel is “practically an obsession” for New Zealanders. It is, variously, a “coming-of-age rite, the great OE”; “a longing for difference”; a “challenge”; the desire to see “how we measure up to the rest of the world”; a means of “honing our sense of national identity”; and, of course, a search for roots.

Most of the writing, however, focuses on the essential “difference” of the destinations, their exoticness, which is of course not without interest. We learn from Joy Cowley that the Eskimo [sic] make a not unpalatable ice cream of reindeer tallow, seal oil, sugar and berries; Graham Lay reveals that there is an unexpectedly magnificent wine cellar at the Relais de la Maroto high in the interior of the main island of Tahiti; and Tessa Duder informs us that thermal bathing amongst fallen Roman columns at Pammukale in Turkey was (for you can no longer do it) “like swimming in an intoxicating brew of alchemy and history”.

But four of the contributors do manage to get beyond this rather basic level of travel writing. C K Stead is in Croatia, both to launch a book and to research a new novel about New Zealand’s historical links with Croatia. “Every writer,” he concedes, “is a shameless scavenger”, who makes the most of travel opportunities, and he is no exception. However, Stead puts opportunism aside when he sees the destruction caused by war in the former Yugoslavia, something for which the television images had not prepared him.

Michaelanne Forster uses her description of a disastrous attempt at a second honeymoon in Mexico to document the incipient breakdown of her marriage. “The trip you plan is not always the trip you get,” she comments ruefully. Taking centre stage (almost) in this heavily ironic piece is the severe bout of “Montezuma’s Revenge” that both she and her husband suffer: the drastic purging of their respective bowels neatly symbolising the purging of what is left of their relationship.

For Chris Orsman, the Antarctic has had a life-long pull, to the extent that his most ambitious poetic works to date – South (1996) and Black South (1997) – focus almost entirely on the Southern continent and the journeys of Robert Falcon Scott. These writings qualified him to visit Antarctica in early 1998, together with Bill Manhire and the artist Nigel Brown. Like many writers before him, Orsman uses the Antarctic as a lens for his imagination, through which he is able to sense the sublime. It features “[sharpen] the inner eye”, creating “[a sharpness] matched by the constant sense of an edge to things – the spine of mountain ranges, the facets of the glacier itself, the piercing wind.” Orsman’s descriptive writing and poems express that awe-struck sense of wonder that is still an important ingredient of the traveller’s experience.

But it is only Peter Wells who really opens up to the reader. As a 22-year-old, travel presented the opportunity to explore his sexuality. His destination – Sydney – is the closest to home in the book and perhaps, because of the low level of culture shock to be expected, the least promising. But for Wells, stifled during much of his early life by New Zealand’s sexual repressiveness, Sydney opened up a world of possibilities. It was “the place you went to sin”, and the place where he could finally become himself. The account of this liberation leads him to muse on what he calls “the greatest gift of travel – a vertiginous sense of freedom”, which is partly illusory and perhaps only fully realised in transit: “Just beyond the wing tip, ahead, seems to lie the celestial city, the perfect city, the place where all is right. Maybe one day I’ll arrive there.”

Of course, he won’t. But like the best travel writers, he’ll keep searching, and in the process come to know himself – as well as his point of departure – a little better.

Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

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