I. Ways of Seeing

The raw material for a travel book is not so much the journey as the traveler’s impressions during it. Whether based on a sustained period in one place or on a continuous trip through a region, they provide the basis for what in book form will necessarily carry some weight. But how can a limited time in an alien place provide valid impressions? To what extent are travelers deceived by their passing through? Or are we equally deceived by the familiar? Does perhaps the stranger’s eye pick up things that residents do not?

Grey Gowrie: I spent some time in Tehran in 1978, just before the Shah fell, and made a complete misjudgment of what was likely to happen and reported my misjudgment to the foreign office. Has anyone else had that experience of getting things wrong?

Philip Marsden: I was in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1990, a year before the war broke out. I talked to people in Sarajevo, in Bosnian villages, in Mostar and on the Croatian coast—the consensus was that their wonderful union was here to stay. As evidence people would say, “My neighbor is a Croat, I’m a Serb and my other neighbor is my good friend, this Muslim. Look, we all live in perfect harmony.” It was true, they did. Had that gone into print, I would have made a big mistake. You think that by talking to people you are going to get the truth. But the actual truth, the complexities, are much greater than the answers to just a couple of questions. You might get all the responses to your questions, but you don’t find out that actually over the centuries this one’s grandfather killed that one’s grandfather. These things remain hidden from travel writers who pass through.

Paul Theroux: