Highlight Reel: The Best American Travel Writing 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in their full upright and locked position, cause this is gonna be one wiiiiilllld ride.

Before we begin, let’s all give a big “thank you” to Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame for providing us with such a varied itinerary. I mean, you’ve got your Cuba, Egypt, Peru, and New Orleans; your pirate coves and cockfights and secret Vietnamese recipes; your musings and histories and speculations. Seriously, what more could you want?!

In the interest of time, I’ve selected the most riveting, fascinating essays from The Best American Travel Writing 2013 for us to tour, essays that will make you drop whatever you’re doing, grab the nearest computer, and book a flight to England, or Egypt, or Tanzania. So what are we waiting for?

egypt15. “Blot Out” by Colleen Kinder
Unless you’ve been hiding under the sofa cushions for the past couple of years, you’ll know that Egypt’s been going through some…stuff. Kinder is very much aware of said “stuff,” but chooses to hone in on one particular aspect of Egyptian society to the literal exclusion of all else: namely, the physical and psychological isolation of women. Her journey through the streets of Cairo in niqab, her white skin and American ways shrouded by fabric and cultural mores, reads like a gripping adventure tale. Does she get found out? Does she slip through unobserved? Find out for yourself!

ny4. “The Paid Piper” by Grant Stoddard
Did you know that you can “monetize [your] expertise, creativity, access, skills, or local knowledge by turning them into tours and activities”? And get paid for it? I know! Apparently, you can do this through a site called Gidsy.com. Stoddard tried it, advertising his mad NYC skillz and eventually organized a food-scaveging tour. (Yes, you read that correctly). Free wine, nearly-stale biscuits, and five pages later, you’ll want to mooch your way through the Big Apple, too.

tanzania3. “Babu on the Bad Road” by Jesse Dukes
A magical drink that can chase away any ailment, from diabetes to HIV? Um, the world would like to sign up, please. And yet, as such things go, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Sorry. Dukes, though, manages to let us down gently, taking us on a tour of Tanzania in his attempt to get the right permit to get the permit to get the special permit to get a guide to be allowed to meet with and interview Ambilikile Mwasapila, or “Babu,” the man with the drink. This is a tale of faith and fact, hope and health, and Dukes never lets us down.

england2. “The Pippiest Place on Earth” by Sam Anderson
A Dickens themepark. Yes, it does exist. No, it’s not exactly wonderful, but then again, it’s not that awful, either. It’s…well…interesting. Thankfully, Anderson did us a favor and traveled to England to check it out and write about it- you know, “literary tourism,” and all that. Dickens World does, indeed, raise a host of philosophico-literary questions, like “why does one engage in literary tourism?”, “what is the significance of standing on a spot of earth that you read about in a novel,” and “does the commercialization of literature cheapen it?” Then again, you can just go and have fun checking out Mrs. Havisham’s house.

sea-monster1. “A Farewell to Yarns” by Ian Frazier
Frazier’s is not so much a travel essay as an essay about travel writing and how the internet has reshaped it. Remember the time when you could explore a little-known corner of Siberia or Madagascar and spin a crazy-awesome yarn about it, and no one could check up on your story? You could lie like a bearskin rug. Those were the days, huh? Frazier reminds us that “lies made the wild scary and alluring.” Now, with the glaring light of Google maps chasing off the shadows, everything’s become commonplace, fact-checkable, prosaic. Frazier’s advice? Open yourself up to possibilities and impossibilities; look inward for the wonder with which to view the outside world. Enjoy it.

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