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Travel Writing Easier when Travel is Hard

The Irony of Travel Writing: Easier When Travel is Difficult OAXACA, Mexico- When the going is rough, the content springs from my fingers like a lake bursting through a crumbling dam; when the travel is wonderful and easy, I find less to grip on to and retell. I feel as if I am presenting an [...]

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The Irony of Travel Writing: Easier When Travel is Difficult

OAXACA, Mexico- When the going is rough, the content springs from my fingers like a lake bursting through a crumbling dam; when the travel is wonderful and easy, I find less to grip on to and retell. I feel as if I am presenting an imbalanced view of world travel, as I have found that it is far easier to write about that which sticks in your craw, than report on what compelled you to smile.

The irony is that for every negative experience in travel there are ten positives.

I suppose this is why we keep traveling.

Shepard family travels

Shepard family travels

Kids, balloons, in Oaxaca

I walked through the zocolo in Oaxaca yesterday evening to find it full of children batting dozens of long tubes blown up like balloons into the air. The kids ran and hooted, repeatedly hitting the floating tubes of trapped air in to see who could keep them in the sky the longest. They would kick them, throw them, hit each other over the head with them. Sometimes a boy would kick one of these oblong balloons into the sky just to laugh when it fell upon another’s head — or better yet, an anal old passerby. I watched as these kids were running, laughing, playing. The day was coming to a close, and the scene was awash in golden light. A large ornate stone church rose up and presided over all, turning pink, yellow, and red in the ever dancing light. I smiled. My daughter ran into the melee of kids and tried to get herself included, but she was a little too small for basketball and was steam rolled.

A Mexican kid and a balloon

A Mexican kid and a balloon

I smiled and watched. I thought about all of the little things that make up my days of travel that make me smile. I then realized then that I seldom ever write about these little events. Perhaps I find it difficult to spin a public angle on my happiness — Why should anyone give a shit if Wade smiles about some kids playing with balloons? — but I find myself being made to smile through dozens of little interactions and observations each day.


If my attempt is to show the real side of travel, then I need to show the little moments of happiness along with the big moments of all out glee, annoyance, anger, and despair. For it is these little smiling moments that make up a traveler’s life.

Traveling, for all the hardships, discipline, and discomfort, is an incredibly joyous way to live.. I know of no other lifestyle within which the prime directive is searching out things to smile about. I recommend this way of life for a reason.

Mexican kids playing

Mexican kids playing

The people of Mexico

I’ve found the people in the south of Mexico more than willing to have conversation and smile back at me. When they get the chance they stop me and ask questions, often times they seem educated, intelligent, cosmopolitan when compared against their Central American neighbors. I enjoy speaking with the people in the streets here: the conversations build me up rather than suck me dry.

I smile as my little daughter tries to make friends. She smiles too, and has few reservations about communicating with people. A little boy gave her one of those tube balloons when he was finished with it, and Petra delighted in dragging it around in the streets behind her. She befriended another little girl and shared the balloon, then she pummeled her with it. Sometimes Petra’s enthusiasm for making friends is way beyond that of the recipient. On this occasion, my daughter speared a two year old girl in the gut with the balloon and drove her to the ground. Petra laughed. The little girl got up and tried to retreat behind the legs of her mother. Petra gave chase and they ran in circles around the narrow barricade: the girl ran for dear life, Petra ran for a new friend.

The mother laughed, I laughed too.

Petra Shepard

Petra in Oaxaca with big balloon

Easier to document the bad in travel

I went on two cheap tours while in Zipolite on the Oaxaca coast. One was awful, and I wrote all about it; one was truly enjoyable, and I fell silent in terms of publishing a record of it. Why? Because the tour where some amiable local guys took me out on a boat to look at some wild crocodiles, turtles, and then to a little zoo left no ill residues stuck in my craw. It was an enjoyable day, nothing to record here, everything was as it should have been.

It just seems blase for me not to write about walking around smiling at my world with my little daughter giggling and laughing, playing with monkeys, and yelling for turtles to come closer to her.

“Tuga, ven! Tuga, ven!”

I almost fell down laughing when Petra screamed bloody murder and panicked after a spider monkey at the zoo seized her arm with its tentacle like tail. I beamed with pride as her curiosity usurped her fear as she returned for round two with the monkey.

Though it also seems corny for me to go on an on telling you how happy traveling makes me — a real dick move, perhaps — though I am sure that if I did this well readership would grow exponentially. The positive in life can be stimulating as well — though this could place me perilously close to travel writing cliche:

“Oh, the sunset was so sunsetty.”

“The bustling market was so bustley.”

But to be honest, I need to include more smiles. As I know that for each scowl in travel there are ten smiles; for each negative incident, a week full of positive experiences. I want to tell you about the great meal that I ate, the comfortable bus ride, the cheap room, the cozy bed, but I find it easier to record the grit between my toes, the snot in my belly, the thorn in my side.

Why is this?

I’ve found that I often take the beautiful, the easy, the “this is how it is suppose to be,” in travel for being the landscape. That which jumps out of it is the intriguing, the awesome, the disgusting, the shocking — and this always makes for easier writing. The glorious background of travel is like white rice, and there just isn’t much to say about white rice: it is normal, usual, what you experience each day. For me, I smile all day long, I laugh consistently, I wake up happy, the white rice of my life is very high on the happiness scale.

Hannah and Petra Shepard

Petra Shepard with her grandmother in Oaxaca, Mexico

Perhaps all of these travel tips, “how to” travel information, and encouragement that I try to give readers to step out on the road is just me atoning for a guilty conscious of sorts: for the man who doesn’t share his gold mine is a scrooge. I have been hiding this little secret for far too long: the dreamy vision of the romance of travel is real — if you know where to look for it. For me, it is not found in the resorts, the fancy dining halls, or on tours to see the magnificent in the world, but in the subtle happenings at street level: the romance of travel is measured by the sum of all the little smiles that come to your face throughout the day.


Filed under: Blogging, Mexico, North America, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3687 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

12 comments… add one

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  • reina January 17, 2011, 3:09 pm

    Nice- but the phrase anal old passerby is a hair’s breadth from sounding like an annoying old cliché.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 17, 2011, 10:19 pm

      What cliche is that?

      It is not my impression that the phrase “anal old passerby” has been overused to the point of dilution. But, then again, I do not claim to be up to date with modern travel literature so I could be wrong.

      Thank for the warning.

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  • Debrah Goss January 17, 2011, 8:34 pm

    A wonderful point of view beautifully written. Hi to Barbara!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 17, 2011, 10:24 pm

      Thank Deb, I let her know. I had to interrupt her singing a long drawn out solo of “Do you know how to pony?” for Petra to tell her. Unsure if it was worth it haha.

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  • David Jacobs January 18, 2011, 2:12 am

    It’s a well known issue for anyone who’s ever kept a diary. 🙂
    And there is a real art in expressing simple happiness gracefully.

    Look forward to reading more of this. 🙂

    Thanks, Wade

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 18, 2011, 2:33 am

      Man, but it is just too easy being a grumpy old fart haha. Thanks, Dave, as always.

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  • reina January 18, 2011, 4:08 am

    Re my comment: No, you’re a pleasure to read and I’ve only noticed you using that exact expression once before, and nooene else. What I meant was that you seem to automatically associate anal with o l d- and I just noticed – you use old again in the comment above- grumpy o l d fart. I’m sure many anal / grumpy people aren’t necessarily old!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 18, 2011, 1:36 pm

      Thanks Reina,

      Did not mean to offend with that adjective. Though some of the old people walking by DID seem a little anal.

      I suppose the written word is meant to just quickly convey small generalized packets of information to imply a story and not the heart of reality itself — if it were otherwise I would need to write volumes for each entry here or say nothing at all. I need to rely on type casts, associations, and generalizations to share a scene within a publishable quantity of words, and phrases such as “anal old” do imply mental images based on association. There are other phrases in many languages to attest to this, such as the Yiddish alter kocker.

      This is not to mean that all old people are anal, just the alter kockers I wrote about.

      I use words in the usual sense — they are just meant to be fingers pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

      I appreciate your criticism though, and will be more aware of the fact that the use of such terms could possibly offend some readers. Thanks.

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  • Bob L January 18, 2011, 8:13 am

    I think it’s time for us OLD PEOPLE to start petitioning outside your web site. You are obviously descriminating against us.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 18, 2011, 1:27 pm

      Ahh, my point is proven haha. Anal and old are related. Just joking.

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  • Aine May 2, 2012, 5:57 am

    Does anybody know the name of those tube balloon things? My daughter was also playing with them in Oaxaca at new year and I wish I could get some!

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    • Wade Shepard May 2, 2012, 8:34 am

      No idea . . . globos largas???

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