By The Seat Of My Pants: Humorous Tales Of Travel And Misadventure, edited by Don George
There were a few mild surprises, at least in this particular book. One mild surprise was that I was already familiar with some of the stories, like Doug Lansky’s story about being locked in the toilet, which I have read now at least three times, and Pico Iyer’s problems on his Ethiopian trip, which I had read of earlier. Still other writings were from authors I was familiar with, even if the particular stories were not ones I remembered, like Tim Cahill and Simon Winchester and Jan Morris. Yet not all of the surprises in this particular book were good. A great many of the essays in this collection appeared to be apologies for why the author did not write about the topic demanded–for example, Danny Wallace’s opening essay about the sights of Prague that he did not see, or the blackout in Ushuaia that prevented Michelle Richmond and her husband from seeing the Northern lights as she had intended. Indeed, quite a lot of these stories had a high level of cliche in that they made the author look bad, or at least made the trip look bad, possibly as a way of reducing envy on the part of the reader.
This book begins with an introduction and then contains almost 250 pages of travel essays written by a variety of authors. Many of the essays at least purport to be humorous, although I must admit I did not laugh a great deal while I was reading this book. How much of that depends on the poor humor writing skills of the authors and how much depends on my own sense of humor (or lack thereof) is a matter of debate, I suppose, but while it is obvious that the author was looking for a great many writers who went a great many places, there are a lot of similarities about the stories that help to make them oppressively samey. There is a lot of taking advantage of credulous people, whether the traveler is being taken advantage of by others or is taking advantage of others, as in the case of the tourist who doesn’t know that real cowboys don’t wear polka dots. A lot of them also rely on the gap between the expectations of the traveler and that of the people in an area, and most of them fall flat from where they could have been, despite some promising setups like the Afghan Tourist Office.
One of the more distressing aspects of this book was the way that many of the female authors ended up commenting a great deal about nudity in their works. Apparently women authors thought it was fun and exciting to admit to partial or full nudity, whether that involved trying to make love with one’s partner only to have people walk into the wrong room and catch them in flagrante, or whether it involved taking a sauna with locals in Oaxaca after all of one’s money had been stolen. It’s not as if the guys did much better, with their own failure to recognize the different standard of living and cultural standards of the places they visited. Some of the writers choose to be ugly Westerners, and some of them choose to mock the people whose country they visited, but for the most part these essays appear calculated to excuse the writers of failures to complete the tasks assigned to them on a given trip or to try to make the reader feel less envious about not having traveled to a particular country because of the hassles they faced, and it is a ruse that wears thin after a while.